2020 Annual Reflections: Looking Back to Fuel the Work Ahead

Achieving the Dream’s annual reflection process is intended to help colleges in our network look at their work with different eyes as well as to help Achieving the Dream to look at ourselves through the eyes of the practitioners on our network campuses. Looking at the aggregate work of our colleges, through their own reflections, paints a rich and colorful picture of themes around institutional transformation. It also identifies opportunities for peer learning and identifies new supports our colleges need to move their work to new levels. Here are our reflections on the reflections.


“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forward,” wrote Kierkegaard.

Engaging in and building a habit of reflection is important to understand life backwards and to live forward. Our ATD colleges kept their habit of reflection alive in 2020, and I know making that time was not easy. I am pleased to share aggregate insights from your reflections, hoping that the themes and patterns in your work help you “live forward” as you advance the design of your student success work.

Despite the many challenges of 2020, or perhaps because of them, our Network colleges remain exceptionally committed to student success and focused on the needs of students and their communities. Nearly 75 percent of Network colleges completed the annual reflection, allowing us to identify trends, areas for peer learning, and opportunities for us to support you as you tackle new and increasingly complex challenges. We are grateful that so many of you made the time to share your reflections with us.

Building Resiliency, Flexibility and Adaptability

The extraordinary events of 2020 revealed significant strengths and identified some areas for additional capacity building across the ATD network. We saw many inspiring examples of colleges building on their deep commitment to their students and communities, leveraging their fundamentals to innovate in response to the uncertainty and volatility created by the pandemic and systemic racism.

From one reflection:

“The resilience of faculty, staff and students and the ability to adjust to changing circumstances in the context of COVID-19 has been a real strength. During this time, faculty and staff had many hats to wear, students had to be flexible and we had to collaborate as a community like never before. Faculty were directing students to mental health services at much higher rates and were doing as much as could be done to ensure learning continued as smoothly as possible. Additionally, students were reaching out to faculty more, forming stronger connections and building a digital community. We are a family! We would not have been able to be as successful without these relationships.”

How prophetic were James Fallows’ comments at DREAM2020, the last in-person convening for most of us, when he said, “Community Colleges are the American institutions of the moment!”?

Many colleges were able to continue to make progress against their student success goals despite multiple challenges. Interestingly, our Leader Colleges or Leader Colleges of Distinction, were more likely to maintain and even accelerate their student success work in the face of these challenges using the COVID-19 crisis to further scale student success work that was already in progress (e.g., implementing multiple measures for placement testing and even moving to self-guided placement.)

As one Leader College noted:

“Most of our priority goals were unaffected by the COVID-19 pandemic because they were in place well before our emergency transition to remote teaching, learning, and student support.”

Many of you also noted the unique opportunity to learn from the challenges of 2020 and the importance of being part of ATD’s community of practice.

“The rapid shift to remote learning brought about by the pandemic caused great disruption in pedagogy, accessibility to technology and e-learning resources, and the comfort level and confidence of faculty and students alike. We welcome the opportunity to connect with other ATD institutions on what we all have learned, what pedagogies have yielded the most success, and how the disruption is shaping the future of teaching and learning.”

One of our goals this year is to facilitate additional community learning, providing opportunities for information sharing, practice development and collective innovation. ATD provided a range of resources and tools to support colleges through the dual pandemics.

Starting in March, ATD offered a series of webinars, Town Halls, and Virtual Consultations to help college teams address immediate and longer-term challenges in remote instruction and advising.

Webinars and resources focused on teaching and learning included:

  • “Online Teaching and Learning Through Disruption:  Strategies for Rapidly Moving Online”
  • “Adopting Adaptive Learning College Perspectives”
  • Data-Informed Decision-Making Guide details the information that colleges should collect from their learning management systems and use to identify strategies for ongoing improvement in student engagement and learning.  Watch a recording of the webinar here.
  • “Lighting up your LMS” plenary at this year’s Data and Analytics Summit shares student input about the challenges they face and their recommendations for improvements to increase the user-friendliness and value of technology-based learning.

Webinars and resources focused on holistic student supports included:

  • “Equity in Design for HSS: Supporting Students Enrolled Part-Time during COVID-19”
  • “Helping Students Navigate Financial Aid Amid COVID-19”
  • “College Success for Single Mothers”
  • Data Informed Decision-Making Guide also provides a framework for analyzing what we learned from providing remote supports to make structural, policy and practice changes for more holistic student supports.

We also introduced several tools for colleges to use to collect, analyze, reflect and act on the lessons learned from the transition to virtual instruction and supports. These included:

  • COVID-19 Reflection, a tool designed to help colleges reflect on what they have learned that could be applied at scale, redesigned, or left behind.
  • Adaptive Capacity Assessment that provides colleges with information to identify current strengths and prioritize opportunities to build additional capacity for adaptability, agility, and resiliency.

Centering Equity

Equity continues to be at the forefront of student success work across the ATD Network. The events of this year have been an urgent call to action for all of us, especially around racial equity. We see a slow movement in the Network, within the reflections compared to last year, from talking about equity to actively working on equity. This is a positive step. But it is not enough.

Most of you reported disaggregating data to identify equity gaps. This is a crucial first step but for our Network, that has long championed equity, this approach must include ALL ATD colleges.  Some of you have established sense-making processes where faculty and staff “close to the practice” interrogate the data to understand the structural, policy and practice barriers that prevent all students from succeeding, and you have begun to redesign your institutions to ensure equitable outcomes for all. Incorporating the student voice is a critical component of the sense-making work as noted in this reflection from one of our colleges.

“It is important to keep student voice at the center of our student success and equity work. That means better understanding the student experience at the college and engaging their input on the design of practices and policies that will affect them…”

You noted the critical role that a sense of belonging plays in ensuring all students access support and resources in and out of the classroom. A few of you reported a more urgent and intentional focus on diversifying faculty and staff.

“We recognize that diverse, culturally responsive faculty and pedagogy are key components of students’ classroom success. We also believe that students are better educated and better prepared for leadership and professional roles when they interact with diverse faculty and perspectives.”

Most of you told us you are looking to professional development to help build a culture of equity and improve outcomes. Professional development is often the first tool used to improve campus-wide understanding of equity definitions and jump-start more comprehensive work. One challenge that many of you cited is developing professional development curriculum that is inclusive, challenging, and transformative.

In response, ATD has been building additional capacity to support Network colleges. Internally, we are revising our Equity Statement to better focus the work we need to do, engaging in professional development to build additional equity-mindedness competencies, and engaging in frequent discussions to further develop common purpose and collaboration for this work. We also are developing a comprehensive equity curriculum for all coaches with additional resource support for designated equity coaches who can support colleges in deeper equity work. This spring, we will combine the annual ATD Equity Institute with our Teaching and Learning Institute, and we recently announced the first cohort of 10 colleges selected to participate in the Racial Equity Leadership Academy, a partnership with the USC Race and Equity Center that launches at DREAM in a few weeks.

Several of you mentioned a desire to learn more about how your peer Network institutions are engaging in this work. To support you in shared learning, we also are inventorying the breadth and depth of professional development occurring in the Network so we can identify examples that leverage change and help facilitate increased understanding of best practice.

Strengthening Teaching and Learning

Moving instruction into multiple modes (fully remote and hybrid) had ramifications for both faculty and students.  Some institutions were well positioned for this transition because of the scope of virtual learning supports already in place and/or strong teaching and learning centers that led professional development for faculty prior and during the dual pandemics.

At other institutions, however, faculty needed to learn new ways to connect with students virtually without training and the face-to-face interactions in the classroom.

“Faculty with experience in interactive instructional techniques and online learning were able to easily adjust; however, some instructors who had never taught online had a mere one week to prepare and pivot.”

These challenges were exacerbated for technical programs and programs with significant lab components, requiring major scheduling changes and strategies to overcome new student access bottlenecks.

Many of you reported positive outcomes of the transition, including stronger working relationships between faculty and instructional designers and increased faculty engagement in learning to use technology tools.

“The transition to a fully virtual environment forced us to re-prioritize technology access as a fundamental element of our student success work.”

Even colleges that made the transition relatively smoothly, though, noted that, “like most of higher ed right now, we have more work to do to improve student engagement in online courses.”

ATD is supporting colleges to make improvements in student engagement and other areas of teaching and learning. Late this fall we released our groundbreaking teaching and learning toolkit. You can download it through this link.

In addition, it became increasingly clear that many students were disadvantaged by not having laptops, good quality Internet access, and/or quiet spaces to work.  Many of you noted the intersections between technology issues and your equity work, describing how the most vulnerable students were affected disproportionately by technology challenges.

Strategies that were already in place for these students such as tutoring or extra support were more difficult to execute online.

“This was especially the case for students in learning support sections of co-requisite English and Math. For many of these students, the technology challenges and lack of in-person interaction with faculty and tutoring staff created insurmountable barriers, despite institutional efforts to distribute laptops and wi-fi hotspots as well as virtual tutoring. The life challenges for these students must be considered as well. Having children at home, worry about other family members, worry about employment, all played a role in overwhelming students, making time management and prioritizing study extraordinarily challenging.”

Strengthening Student Supports

Student affairs staff moved quickly and effectively, transitioning advising, orientation and other support services to remote/virtual models. Many of you reported that you expanded the supports you provide, either directly or in partnership with others, to address increased needs in areas like mental health, food, housing and financial assistance. Others suggested that a move to universal remote services is a future imperative.

Those of you who had been redesigning the student experience to provide holistic support to all students, utilizing technology to improve reach and effectiveness, and integrating advising more robustly with the first-year experience were able to leverage this work to respond to the pandemic. You trained advisors to deliver services virtually and streamlined processes and procedures, eliminating bottlenecks and structural barriers.

“Providing academic advisement and other support services remotely has worked out better than anticipated…we need to integrate these processes and what we learned into the ongoing service provision for the future.”

Many of you told us that campus closures revealed additional systemic inequities, and at many colleges, a surge in students’ basic needs. Working students lost their jobs and your “focus shifted to activities that would sustain the basic needs of our students (campus food pantry access, grocery gift cards, CARES Act student aid, etc.).” You also did remarkable work reaching out and touching students on a regular basis training all staff, from student affairs professionals to maintenance and grounds teams to offer students high touch supports. Course and semester withdrawals were down almost everywhere as the result of strong faculty and staff coaching support.

Increasing Gateway Course Completion

CCRC’s research demonstrates the importance of completing early momentum milestones, including college level math and English in the first year, especially for Black and Hispanic students. Approximately two-thirds of you indicated that you are continuing to focus on redesigning developmental education placement process and gateway course instruction, facilitating entry and completion of key gateway courses. Many of you described your goals for completion of these early momentum milestones and shared data to evidence the progress you are making.

Developmental education continues to be a significant and persistent equity barrier, especially for Black and Hispanic students. The campus closures accelerated work around new placement policies for some, moving this work forward despite the challenges of the pandemics. We are encouraged by the findings of a recent study that documents the impact of developmental education reform in Florida. The study demonstrates that students post-reform are more likely to enroll and pass introductory college-level courses in the first year, a key momentum metric that predicts longer term retention and completion. The study also shows that Black and Hispanic students saw even greater gains in passing rates than white students as the result of the asset-based instructional redesign.

Moving Forward

Having successfully altered priorities and shifted resources to respond to the immediate crises, you now are beginning to focus on the reality that we are in uncharted territory. You are reexamining your goals in the context of very significant enrollment, equity, and economic mobility challenges. Many of you have expressed the need for support in this work. We are committed to the ongoing development of frameworks, methodologies, tools, and new blends of coaching supports to help you address these challenges. We are ready to help you with deeper support in teaching and learning, new strategies for providing holistic student supports in virtual environments, innovation in strategic enrollment management, and deeper work in equity to address the systemic racism that exists in our institutions and communities.

We have organized DREAM 2021 around five themes that align with some of the insights from your reflections:

  • Embracing a bold new access agenda
  • Centering racial equity in all aspects of our redesign work
  • Leveraging our localness
  • Building a culture of teaching and learning excellence
  • Listening in new ways with big data

You inspired us this year with your resiliency, your creativity, and your commitment to our students and our communities.

I look forward to seeing you at DREAM2021!

Focusing forward,

Dr. Karen A. Stout
President and CEO

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