by Mark McGowan
Carolinda Douglass, chair of the Task Force on Student Success, truly cannot imagine a better place to work than a university campus.
“When I was younger, I was looking for a job that would have intellectual stimulation, ongoing learning, autonomy and the ability to help people,” she says. “I can’t think of the position that allows you do that more than being a university professor.”
Douglass, 46, holds a bachelor’s degree in human development, three master’s degrees (gerontology, policy analysis and public administration) and a Ph.D. in policy analysis from the Pardee RAND Graduate School. All of her degrees are interdisciplinary, enabling her to develop a broad perspective on higher education.
With a strong interest in gerontology, she began her professional life in nursing homes and senior high rises and continued her teaching and research in these areas, focused on finding ways to deliver the best possible person-centered care.
Now an NIU professor and director of the Office of Assessment Services, she finds a similar challenge: working to find ways to facilitate student-centered learning. Many young students are in a critical time of personal development, she says.
“Are we helping them with their own personal growth and development? Are we making them good citizens of the world?” Douglass asks. “Obviously, parents and families play a huge role for all those young adults, but it doesn’t stop at 18 or 19, and that’s a role we play a part in too.”
Her task force, fittingly, is on a quest to make sure students achieve their goals.
“We began with what student success meant,” she says. “A big part of what constitutes students’ success is that students have to stay in college to be successful. Student retention became our overarching theme.”
Retention-related topics now on the table include the migration of students from one college, school or department to another and the issue of “impacted majors” it creates.
Majors such as communications and sociology receive great numbers of students who come “late” to the program because they have switched their course of study, Douglass says. Although NIU’s retention of freshmen into their sophomore years is good, she says, the rate falls from the sophomore to junior years.
In some cases, those migrating students have realized that they will not succeed in their chosen majors. Then, further discouragement is possible. Those students sometimes need three more years of school because they can’t get the classes they need. They also might endure a difficult transition.
Other discussions therefore include academic advising: Would early advising help students find more appropriate majors that reduce migration? Does campus climate play a role in retention? NIU’s upcoming Noel-Levitz survey of the campus experience could shed some light on the questions.
They’re also looking at questions of diversity, levels of engagement between faculty and students and even how to foster school spirit in spite of students and professors who flee DeKalb on weekends. Another factor to weigh is whether NIU is meeting all of the needs of its students, she says.
“We have a tremendous amount of learning going on around retention,” Douglass says. “A lot of our assumptions have been challenged. People thought that they knew why people leave their majors and where they go, but we’ve been asked to draw conclusions from the data.”
The group has enjoyed several speakers, including students, Vice Provost Earl “Gip” Seaver, Assistant Vice Provost Brent Gage and Dan Turner, acting director of NIU’s Academic Advising Center, who explained the centralized advising offered there.
Task Force site visits now are planned to the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater to visit its academic advising center and to the University of Connecticut, where they will explore the Student Success Center. The group also will attend an institute on general education sponsored by the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Webinars on academic advising are scheduled in February and March.
Douglass also is leading discussions on the Voluntary System of Accountability, an approach of data transparency developed by National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges and American Association of State Colleges and Universities in response to issues raised by the Spellings Commission.
VSA communicates information on the undergraduate student experience through a common Web reporting template, the College Portrait. The voluntary initiative for four-year public colleges and universities helps to demonstrate accountability and stewardship to the public, measure educational outcomes to identify effective educational practices and to assemble information that is accessible, understandable and comparable.
The task force’s list of concrete goals, strategies and champions will come soon, says Douglass, who’s confident her group is on the right road: All of the members are deeply engaged in the process and eager for their “turn” to make a culture shift at NIU.
“All of these activities really are needed to promote student learning at NIU. To me, that’s the most important thing,” she says. “I’m extremely committed to the ideas of student-centered learning. We have to create an environment that is as conducive as possible to optimum student learning.”
“Carolinda has been involved in assessing learning outcomes for many years, which makes it particularly appropriate for her to lead efforts related to the VAS. Plus, she’s an excellent planner and has great skill in working with groups so she was a natural to recommend as chair for the task force on student success,” says Virginia Cassidy, vice provost for academic development and planning. “I’ve always been impressed with her ability to see the big picture, and that's an important perspective to have in strategic planning.”
In 2005, with encouragement from Cassidy, Douglass applied to lead the Office of Assessment Services. “I understand more about the campus experience all across the campus now. Honestly, that has been the most wonderful part of the job. It’s almost like starting in a new place,” she says.
Douglass now spends part of her time visiting classes, including art history, business, math and meteorology, to observe the teaching styles of the professors and the learning styles and academic outcomes of the students.
Some of her visits include observing the excellent assessment of student work in the Experiential Learning Center in the College of Business, Senior Day presentations in the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology and performances in the College of Visual and Performing Arts.
Of course, time is not easy to find with the responsibilities of the task force on her shoulders. She also continues to teach one class a semester in the School of Nursing and Health Studies; this spring it’s the “Introduction to the U.S. Health Care System” course in the master’s of public health program.
And when asked why she continues to teach on top of her main job, she has a ready answer.
“One, I have a passion for it. I love to teach. Two, I’m an associate professor, and that is my profession,” she says. “And, three, it gives me credibility. I’m addressing some of the same issues other faculty working to assess student learning are addressing. I want to walk the talk.”