October 15th, 2019
Learning commons model supporting success
Higher-profile support services, welcoming atmosphere, collaborative philosophy drive improved student success for Garrett College students
The average person might be hard-pressed to explain the difference between a library and a learning commons, but Jenny Meslener doesn't have that problem.
"Traditional libraries concentrate on storage and physical resources, whereas the learning commons model emphasizes space utilization and impactful services," said Meslener, director of the Garrett College Learning Commons. "The space is now a cutting-edge, energized learning environment, demonstrating GC's investment and commitment in student learning success."
The learning commons initiative – jointly spearheaded by Meslener and Advising and Academic Success Center (AASC) Director Ashley Ruby – had several overarching goals. Among the most important: improving student success rates while creating a more welcoming environment that encouraged students to access available services.
"The learning commons initiative challenged us to look at academic support and library services from the student point of view," said Ruby, who teamed with Meslener on a learning commons project that started in 2017 to address a key tenet of GC's 2017-20 Strategic Plan. "By exploring the true student experience, Jenny and I were able to identify and execute forward-thinking modifications to services, spaces and technology."
Advising and Academic Success Center Director Ashley Ruby, left, and Learning Commons Director Jenny Meslener present results of Garrett College's learning commons transformation to a team from Gallaudet University in September.
Academic support services, which had previously been somewhat secluded, were moved to the central library area. The cadre of professional and peer tutors was expanded, designated computers for tutoring initiatives were identified, a white board was procured, and collaborative workspaces were created. In addition, the support staff was cross-trained to expand access to advising and test proctoring while strengthening circulation desk coverage.
"We wanted an open and inviting space that emphasized quality customer service," said Meslener. "The goal was to be student-centered and success-focused."
The data – comparing Fall 2016 with Fall 2018 – certainly supports the value of the initiative as:
- Students accessing tutoring increased nearly 24 percent.
- Time spent in tutoring increased more than 92 percent.
- Hours of available face-to-face tutoring increased 70 percent.
- Students accessing advising services increased over 200 percent.
- Frequency of student advising visits increased over 300 percent.
While the learning commons model increased high-touch activities with students, it also increased high-tech capabilities. The College added LibGuides (used to curate knowledge and share information), EZ Proxy (which facilities seamless access to online College resources), new online reference services and periodicals, increased scanning and color printing availability to students, and reduced GC's dated hard-copy book inventory by over 15,000 books.
All of these efforts yielded impressive improvements in student outcomes from Fall 2016 to Fall 2018, including:
- An increase of 12 percent among residential students and 5 percent among commuter students in number of students with grade-point averages (GPAs) above 3.0.
- A decrease of 11 percent among residential students in GPAs below 1.0.
- A nearly 10 percent decrease among residential students and a 2 percent decrease among commuter students in mid-term deficiencies.
- A nearly 4 percent increase in "good academic standing" for all students.
Dr. Richard Midcap, Garrett College's president, said one of the most impressive aspects of the implementation of a learning commons model was the extraordinarily modest costs involved.
"I basically asked Jenny and Ashley to implement this transformative initiative with little or no financial resources – and they did it," said Midcap. "The total transition – signage, charging stations, artwork frames, and some other minor cosmetic changes – was accomplished for less than $4,200. That's a credit to the creativity of Jenny and Ashley, and the commitment of our facilities and information technology staffs, which supported virtually all of these changes with in-house talent."
The success of GC's learning commons model has created statewide interest. Meslener and Ruby have presented at two statewide conferences, and Gallaudet University sent a team to GC earlier this fall to gain insight on how to transform a library into a learning commons.
"Jenny, Ashley and their staffs have created a model that has already been proven by the data to be effective at improving student success with minimal financial investment and maximum creativity and ingenuity," said Dr. Qing Yuan, GC's chief academic officer. "Our students are the ultimate beneficiaries."