Northwest Technical College launches student learning community

In the fall of 2012, Northwest Technical College launched a College Success Learning Community pilot program, intended to combine academic support and traditional student support services as a mechanism for improving student success.

Northwest Technical CollegeWith one year and two test groups under its belt, the college has received funding to expand the pilot program for two more years and intends to pursue it as a full-time offering on campus. Grants from the George W. Neilson Foundation, the Joe and Janice Lueken Family Foundation and the Northwest Technical College Foundation are allowing the pilot program to grow into a three-year project to improve student preparation and college completion rates and to enhance workforce opportunities for those students.

Developing the pilot
As an open-enrollment college, every incoming student at NTC takes an assessment exam called Accuplacer, which determines competency in reading, writing and mathematics. The test helps NTC make decisions regarding placement in skills-development classes in those three areas.

With the exception of its dental assisting and nursing programs, NTC does not require students who need these college readiness courses to take them during their first semester on campus.

NTC faculty and staff began developing the learning community in order to study the outcomes for students who started college on a part-time basis and took the readiness courses early in their careers.

Patty Kastella, who served as NTC’s college success mentor, said the program’s initial cohort had 35 students; most of those students had children and were working at least 12 hours a week in addition to tackling college, and some were working full time.

“We had an awareness that a program like this could be important to students,” she said. “This was not only about how to get data on our students, but also how to help the college better serve those students.”

Improving availability of existing services
In addition to providing a framework for delivering academic support to student who needed it, NTC saw the pilot program as an opportunity to expand its ability to deliver traditional student-support services to these students. That opportunity became an idea to launch a full-service learning community.

Kastella co-facilitated this weekly learning community with Linda Erickson, chair of NTC’s general education division, and that community developed into the heart of the pilot program.

“We already were providing services in our student services area to all of our students, but we thought this would be an opportunity to increase access to and awareness of things like our College Success Workshops,” said Lisa Bruns, director of the NTC Foundation.

The college developed a curriculum combining the necessary academic content with services available in the student services areas, specifically tailored for students who might benefit from additional support.

“This was our unique approach, to combine student services and academics,” Erickson said. “We used team-teaching cohorts, and the students rely on one another. They’re attached to one another, and as a result they are connected to the college.”

For students, the learning community offered an enticing opportunity to start college with a built-in support network.

“I thought the program sounded like a great idea,” said Shanna Stenness, a forestry student who is also pursuing a business degree. “It had been many years since I had been in school, and this allowed me to ease in without the stress and gave me a chance to find out if I could succeed.”

Initial signs of success
While the college can not yet use data from the program to predict the results for future participants in the program, results for the participants in the pilot program have been overwhelmingly positive. Data from the pilot indicates that participants had higher pass rates in the readiness courses than students who were not in the learning community, and a higher percentage enrolled at NTC to purse a specific field of study.

“We learned a lot about the daily frustrations and hassles that can be roadblocks to students, like child care and transportation,” Erickson said. “We were able to address those personal issues in the learning community.”

Jess Ness, an administrative assisting student who started in the program during the fall of 2012, said the program’s requirement that all three skills-development courses be taken at the same time was beneficial to her. She also feels that the program has made her a more active participant in campus life.

“I probably wouldn’t be so active in school or know as many faculty,” said Ness, who is involved in the college’s Native American Student Organization. “Right now, if somebody asks me to help with something, I’ll probably do it.”

In addition, the students have have found such value in the program that they are now taking it upon themselves to recruit their friends and acquaintances to take advantage of the opportunity.

“I have probably already told three or four people that they should go,” Stenness said. “I brought some people in second semester, and there’s another one coming in during the fall. I have been mentoring them through this first course.

“The learning community gave me a home and the confidence to use everything at the college that was available to me,” she said. “This really is the best way you can go back to college without feeling so much pressure.”

About Accuplacer
Used by more than 2.5 million students each year at more than 1,300 institutions, Accuplacer is a computer-adaptive diagnostic, placement and online intervention system that is used to assess student academic skills in reading, writing and mathematics. Teachers and counselors can use the results of these assessments to determine students’ strengths and weaknesses, and to provide early academic intervention.

• Lisa Bruns, NTC Foundation, (218) 333-6678
• Linda Erickson, general education chair, NTC, (218) 333-6640


About Northwest Technical College
Northwest Technical College, located in northern Minnesota’s lake district, is an open, inviting technological learning organization. For more than 40 years, the college has valued life-long learning and the worth and dignity of all people. Its open-enrollment policy, affordable tuition and high-quality education have attracted a diverse group of learners; today, the College serves more than 1,600 learners. The college offers more than 40 degree programs in areas such as business, health, human and protective services and environmental and industrial technology career programs. Classes are offered on the Bemidji campus, online, or as a combination of both. NTC is a member of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system. For more, visit