Keeping Students on Course: An Impact Study of a Student Success Course at Guilford Technical Community College

89 Pages Posted: 25 Apr 2012

Date Written: April 2012


Improving the success of academically underprepared students who are in need of developmental (or remedial) education is a key challenge facing community colleges today. Many of these students enter college with little awareness of these institutions’ expectations or a clear model for how to make effective decisions about their academic careers. To help students address these challenges, a number of colleges across the country have looked to success courses (also called study skills, student development, or new student orientation courses). This report analyzes a success course for developmental education students at Guilford Technical Community College in Greensboro, North Carolina, and its impact on students’ psychosocial skills and behaviors and academic achievement.

After joining Achieving the Dream: Community Colleges Count in 2004, a national organization designed to mentor colleges through an institutionwide, student success-oriented improvement process, Guilford chose to offer a revised version of its student success course to developmental education students, aimed at improving psychosocial awareness and academic achievement. Modeled on Skip Downing’s On Course philosophy and curriculum, it placed an intensive focus on changing students’ behaviors and attitudes, including increasing their awareness of their and others’ emotions, understanding their own learning styles, improving time management skills, and recognizing their responsibility for their own learning. Guilford hoped that these changes in students’ personal habits and behaviors might help them take better control of their academic lives, which would ultimately result in gains in achievement.

This study employed random assignment methodology to examine the impact of Guilford’s success course. The key findings presented in this report are:

-Guilford’s implementation of its student success course stayed true to the On Course philosophy, with a strong emphasis on improving students’ psychosocial skills and habits.

-Challenges emerged during the study in maintaining instructors’ enthusiasm for teaching the course.

-The course had a positive impact on students’ self-management, interdependence, self-awareness, interest in lifelong learning, emotional intelligence, and engagement in college among students with low levels of these attributes.

-But the gains in efficacy did not lead to meaningful effects on students’ academic achievement during the program semester or in postprogram semesters. Despite the absence of an overall effect, the program did have positive effects on the first cohort of students enrolled in the study, with students demonstrating improved grades, retention in college, and credits earned.

The results of this study reveal that improvements in students’ attitudes and behaviors may not necessarily translate easily into better academic outcomes, though the strength of program implementation may play an important role in these effects. Additionally, the program’s limited effects suggest that community colleges should look to more comprehensive ways of improving developmental education students’ academic achievement, including reforms in developmental education instruction.

Keywords: Postsecondary education, community colleges, developmental education, education reform

JEL Classification: I

Suggested Citation

Cullinan, Dan and Zachry Rutschow, Elizabeth and Welbeck, Rashida, Keeping Students on Course: An Impact Study of a Student Success Course at Guilford Technical Community College (April 2012). Available at SSRN: or

Dan Cullinan (Contact Author)

MDRC ( email )

200 Vesey Street
New York, NY 10281
United States

Elizabeth Zachry Rutschow


200 Vesey Street
New York, NY 10281
United States

Rashida Welbeck

MDRC ( email )

200 Vesey Street
New York, NY 10281
United States

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