Students’ Perceptions of the First-Year Experience in Developmental Education

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Julianna M. Barnes brings over two decades of educational experience working with diverse populations in higher education, including over a decade of experience as an administrator in student services for the California Community Colleges. Most recently, she was appointed as Vice President of Student Services at Cuyamaca College in El Cajon. Julianna earned an Ed.D. in Educational Leadership from San Diego State University and also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from the University of California, San Diego and a Master of Arts in Education/Counseling from San Diego State University.

William E. Piland is professor emeritus, community college leadership, at San Diego State University. He is a former community college faculty member and administrator. Dr. Piland currently is a Data Facilitator for the Achieving the Dream initiative, working with community colleges in Hawaii and Washington. He is also the chairman of the board for the Institute for Evidence Based Change.

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Julianna M. Barnes, Vice President, Student Services, Cuyamaca College, El Cajon
William E. Piland, Professor Emeritus, Community College Leadership, SDSU

A majority of first-time students in California Community Colleges are directed to developmental education, yet a large proportion of them are not retained in their first year, making their goals of completion virtually impossible.  First-Year Experience programs that employ effective practices (Center for Student Success, 2007; Boylan, 2002) have the potential to improve student success in developmental education.  This article explores factors from the students’ perspectives that may contribute to the early success of students enrolled in developmental education.  Although focused on a First-Year Experience Program, there are implications for institution-wide practices that have the potential to improve student success for all first-year students.


This article draws from a larger mixed-methods study that analyzed student success in a First-Year Experience Program at an urban community college.  The First-Year Experience Program employed effective practices in developmental education which included: a) mandatory assessment, placement, and orientation; b) full-time enrollment in the fall, which included the developmental math and English courses into which the student assessed, along with a Personal Growth course; and c) full-time enrollment in the spring, which included the next level of math and English, and a Personal Growth course.  The theoretical framework for the study drew upon the student retention theories of Astin (1984), Tinto (1975; 1993), and Rendon (1994).

Among the key findings of this study was a statistically significant rate of persistence from the fall to spring among First-Year Experience students as compared to non-participants.  This high rate of persistence was especially true among Latino students.  To better understand the factors that may have contributed to first-year success from the students’ perspectives, focus group interviews were conducted. Four major themes evolved from the focus groups and are the focus of this article. The four themes include: 1) Support and Validation, 2) Individual Growth and Responsibility, 3) Transitions and Learning to Navigate College, and 4) Issues and Improvements.

Support and Validation
A major sentiment shared by focus group participants was that of feeling supported and validated by their counselors, peers, faculty, and tutors.  Many students also referenced the program structure expressing how they liked that “classes were linked with each other” with most all respondents referencing their positive experiences in taking the Personal Growth courses with one another.  Use of a cohort model appeared to play an instrumental role in facilitating the support and validation that students experienced in the program.

Counselor support was most frequently mentioned in the focus groups.  In speaking specifically about their counselors, several students commented on the importance of having the counselor teach the Personal Growth class.   “If I had a different teacher that wasn’t the counselor, I probably would have dropped that class,” stated one student.  In fact, student comments regarding their counselors were most frequently made in the context of the Personal Growth courses, highlighting the importance that the courses had in facilitating interactions between the students and their counselor. 

Students also articulated the importance of receiving counselor assistance with course selection.  Possibly due to being the first in their families to attend college or due to not learning about community colleges in high school, a proactive approach by the counselor may have made a difference in the early success of students who participated in the First-Year Experience program.  Beyond course selection, a high value was placed on having a counselor to turn to throughout the first year of college.  “You have a professor and he is your counselor, so you always have someone to go to no matter what,” shared one student.

When prompted to describe what was most helpful in terms of their working relationships with their teachers, students described several positive scenarios.  Threaded throughout the discussion was the concept of access to the teachers which may have facilitated student learning in the classroom.  “Because of that relationship that we had with the instructors, and it made it like a fun learning environment for us,” shared one student.

Peer support was another sub-theme that evolved from the focus groups.  The Personal Growth classes and cohort model appeared to be instrumental in facilitating peer-to-peer interactions.  As one student simply put it, “We just bonded, especially in the Personal Growth classes . . . [that] we had first semester and second semester.”  Interactions developed into personal friendships for some, with one student who stated, “Not only did it create a bond in FYE, but even when we are not in FYE, outside of class, we still call each other and hang out.”

When asked whether or not they participated in tutoring, several students acknowledged use of tutorial services, but most did not elaborate on their experiences in it.  Those that did, however, seemed to have valued their experiences with tutors, and felt comfortable in the tutoring centers. 
Likewise, most students did not articulate their experience with the college’s formalized Supplemental Instruction (SI) program.  However, in instances where SI experiences were shared, they were positive.  In fact, when prompted to share ways in which the program could improve, one student asserted “[It would be better] If we could have SI tutors in the most classes we can.”

Transitions and Learning to Navigate College
Another theme that evolved from the focus group participants was Transitions and Learning to Navigate College.  Several students described the program as “a really good transition from high school to college” citing that “at the beginning it was just hard” but the First-Year Experience program “helped us with our schedules” and created “security and comfort.”

Upon transitioning into the college, students cited a variety of ways in which they learned to navigate college while in the First-Year Experience program.  This entailed learning about college resources, student support services, and understanding college culture overall.  Several students found the educational plan to be helpful.   One student in particular immediately identified the educational plan as one of the highlights of the program stating that she “didn't even know that existed” and further, that the educational plan enabled her to “follow the courses and know exactly what [she had] to do in order to transfer.”

In addition to sharing about how the program helped them to transition from high school to the community college, several students spoke about ways in which the program helped them to prepare for transitions that were to come.  Namely, they spoke of transferring to four-year universities and ultimately entering into careers, and ways in which the program equipped them for these future transitions.   One mentioned that she did not even know that “there are other universities that existed outside of [her community]” since she was the first in her family to attend college.  Another student proudly shared, “I went to an open house at a local university and a lot of the students there were asking questions I already knew the answers to because of FYE.”  In addition to the transfer process, some students made mention of their experiences with career exploration while in the program.  Several students also were excited about having presenters come to their Personal Growth class to share their career successes, with one summarizing it this way, “And the way they explain how they got there and all that, it was just really, really helpful.”

Individual Growth and Responsibility
A third theme that evolved from the focus groups was Individual Growth and Responsibility. While early on, students described how counselors “held their hands” several students articulated how the program helped them to be responsible and how it progressively helped them to “grow not only academically but also grow as a person.”  One student described the progression like this, “After the first semester slowly they have pretty much started letting go of your hand to let you experience everything on your own.” And another student eloquently put it this way, “It is like taking off the training wheels.”

Several students provided examples that demonstrated this growth and responsibility.  Learning and applying life skills, such as time management and goal setting, were valued by several students.   Some students described ways in which they learned about managing their time in their Personal Growth courses, with a focus on balancing work and school.

This growth and responsibility also was evident among students who had already completed their first year in the program.   Several of these students described how they had applied what they had learned in the First-Year Experience program to their second year of college.  One student summed it up by saying, “I'm like on my second year. I like really took all that advice with me . . . I'm glad I'm applying it to what I need to apply it to.”  Most all of the second-year students in the focus group acknowledged the value of taking classes with one another as they did in their first year, indicating that in their second year they “try to take classes on purpose together.” 

Several of the students spoke about how they had recommended the program to friends and family members, and in telling their stories, demonstrated a level of responsibility for those who will follow them in college.   One student explained that she got her sister into the program, and “was explaining everything to her,” indicating that “this program brings you a lot of benefits that other students unfortunately are not able to have.”

Issues and Improvements
Issues and Improvements was a final theme that evolved from the focus group interviews.  Discussions in this area, however, occurred with less frequency than those within the other three themes.   As one student expressed, and others agreed, “I just don't think it needs to be improved, just little things.  Other than that I just think it was a great program.”   Thoughts that were shared related to this theme were focused in two areas: matters involving their peers and ways in which the program could improve.  In general, some students expressed an issue in becoming too close to peers, with the possibility of it being distracting.  Comments related to program improvements also were shared, with a few expressing a desire to have courses offered on different days and times and a need to have more field trips to four-year colleges.

The findings from this study have implications for the urban community college being studied and for other community colleges where the importance of first-year success among a diverse population of developmental learners is recognized.  Systematic organizational practices and policies that facilitate the success of developmental learners in the first year of college should be established.  This includes mandating assessment and placement into developmental coursework in the first year of college.  Additionally, community college practitioners should design and implement First-Year Experience programs and services that promote social and academic integration, brought forth by validating experiences in and out of the classroom.  The role of the counselor appears to be paramount in facilitating this integration that can bring power to student performance.  Indeed, an intentional approach to the first-year experience may be the missing link to student completion.

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Center for Student Success. (2007, February). Basic skills as a foundation for student success in  California community colleges. San Francisco: Research and Planning Group of the   California Community Colleges.

Rendon, L.I. (1994). Validating culturally diverse students: Toward a new model of learning and  student development. Innovative Higher Education, 19(1), 33-51.

Tinto, V. (1975).  Dropout from higher education: A theoretical synthesis of recent research.   Review of Educational Research, 45, 89-125.

Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition (2nd ed.).  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.