Student Success and Completion at Forefront of CSM’s Academic Innovations

CSM’s Guided Pathways, Accelerated Course Options, Faculty Advising, and Much More Support Student Learning and Completion

Academic innovations at the College of Southern Maryland (CSM) are making an impact in a big way by guiding students toward success and in meeting their goals.

“At the College of Southern Maryland, our passion is transforming lives, and our focus is on our students,” said CSM President Dr. Maureen Murphy. “For 60 years, we have been a pillar in the community, helping students to succeed, and Southern Maryland succeed, socially and economically.”

Student success is the first pillar of CSM’s three strategic priorities for meeting the college’s mission and serving its students. Integral to student success is how the college can improve student progress and ultimately their course, degree or certificate completion, according to Murphy.

CSM is working to serve all levels of students with initiatives that include academic planning, first-year seminar, revised developmental English and math, and revised curriculum to help students more seamlessly navigate their programs of study and transfer requirements.

“Our students want to succeed,” Murphy added. “They work hard but don’t always have the tools they need. Many come to us not knowing where they want to go, or how to get there. So, we’ve developed the simple guided approach of Guided Pathways to help them figure it all out.”

In addition, CSM is increasing advising opportunities to help students stay on track, according to Murphy. “And, we’ve introduced a seven-week, mini-term hybrid schedule that will greatly benefit our adult learners to finish faster,” she said.

Several of these initiatives are well underway and proving their worth.

Guided Pathways

To help focus students as they begin their coursework at CSM, the college’s 92 programs have been placed within six program clusters. Called ‘Guided Pathways,’ this approach helps simplify the process for students to identify the credit or non-credit program that’s right for them by grouping similar programs.

The six pathways include: art and humanities; business and information systems; education and public service; health; science, technology, engineering and math; and, trades, transportation and energy.

Guided Pathways are coupled with a front-end career assessment—or Career Coach—to help students understand where their skills and interests are strongest.

“Guided Pathways is working at other colleges but only if we provide students with intense advising and coaching services to get them started and keep them on their academic journey,” Murphy said.

First Year Seminar – “A Game Changer”

Introduced during the Fall 2017 semester, First Year Seminar (FYS) has already proven successful in making a difference to help students stay on course. An interactive course described by its creators to students as “one of the most important and engaging courses you will take,” FYS is designed to foster skills in time management, studying, communication, career exploration, self-awareness, critical thinking and appreciation of collaboration and diversity.

Murphy reports that retention, persistence and successful completion rates for students who participate in FYS are dramatically higher than those who don’t.

“Fall-to-fall retention for students who have taken FYS is about 8 percent higher than for those who haven’t taken this course,” Murphy said. “For African American students, the percentage is almost 14 percent higher. We are trying to find a way to require this course for all first-time college students; it’s a game-changer.”

Through FYS, students are given the tools to navigate college, from when they begin at CSM, to when they complete their studies at CSM and move onto a transfer institution.

Seven-Week Evening Terms

A student success initiative that launches with the Fall 2019 schedule involves a mini-term hybrid course option that builds on students’ abilities to retain greater information within shorter structured time periods.

Capitalizing on research that shows there are greater benefits in learning outcomes for students, especially for those who are working adults, CSM is shifting most courses meeting after 5 p.m. to seven-week mini-term classes. Evening classes draw the largest number of working adult students and the condensed format will maximize students’ time in coursework, allowing students to complete a degree program within 18 months, according to CSM Vice President of Academic Affairs Dr. Eileen Abel.

“Research shows that students who accumulate more time learning a subject within a shorter period of time learn better,” Abel said. “They are able to retain more of the information. We also know from national data that this kind of acceleration allows students to focus on one or two courses at a time, allowing the student to balance other responsibilities, while still being able to complete credit hours toward the educational goal.”

Most of the courses will be offered in a hybrid format which combines the traditional face-to-face class contact once a week with the remainder of the week’s coursework completed online.

“Shorter terms have been proven to improve success rates, especially for working adults,” Murphy confirmed. “It reduces the numbers of variables students are juggling and is much more forgiving should ‘life happen.’”

Occasionally, an evening course meeting after 5 p.m. will be exempt from the mini-term approach, based on academic needs and evidence for the exception, Abel said. “We encourage students to work with their advisors and their professors to ensure their success in the classes,” Abel said. In addition, CSM will offer a self-paced “success in the hybrid environment” course for students, which will be available later this spring.

Offering robust course options in mini-terms is a best practice of the college’s Guided Pathways design. Additionally this accelerated model mirrors similarly successful accelerated formats that are offered at CSM’s partnering transfer institutions, such as UMUC, Southern New Hampshire University, Odessa College, Morgan State and others.

Becoming familiar with this format while attending CSM can help to ease the transition for CSM’s students transferring to pursue a bachelor’s degree. “Most institutions that cater to working adults use similar compressed formats with great success,” Murphy said.

Faculty Advising

Many of these initiatives underway depend on strong advising to support students. Faculty advisors are among those who can be coaches for students. Piloting a faculty advising initiative at CSM are 18 faculty members who were trained during the Fall 2018 semester to advise students. Another 34 faculty members are completing training during the Spring 2019 semester.

“Our faculty members have really stepped forward to provide this advising support for our students. Depending on degree programs, the faculty advisors are working with four to six students each,” said CSM Special Projects Chair Andrea Ronaldi. “Research shows that faculty advisors can help students learn more about their programs as a whole and strengthen student connections to CSM.”

Richard J. Light of Harvard University has reported that “good advising may be the single most underestimated characteristic of a successful college experience” which can have a “profound impact on (students) as learners, citizens, and human beings.”

The collaboration between faculty advisors and advising, career, and transfer services staff has been “a vital part of this initiative and a good example of teamwork,” Ronaldi said. “Not only was the advising team part of the planning, they attended the training with the faculty members, and were the first points of contact with the students to introduce them to their new faculty advisors.”

Ronaldi added, “Each CSM faculty member brings their particular expertise about their courses and curriculums, making them valuable allies in helping students during their college experience.”

Accelerated Developmental Education

Initiatives addressing how to accelerate the time students may be involved in developmental coursework has also met with great success through piloted courses in English and math.

Abel said that math and English faculty have piloted college-level courses that provide extra support for students testing below college ready. “The success rates have been very good,” she said.

“Some of our students come to us unprepared for college work in English, math, or both,” Murphy said. “It’s demoralizing for students to learn that they won’t be able to earn college-level credit until their second semester, or even later.” As a result, beginning in Fall 2019 nearly all new students will be placed into college-level classes or college-level classes with extra support.

Moving the Needle in Student Success

“CSM remains on the cutting edge of moving the needle in student success through the dedication of many staff and faculty members who are working in concert to see that positive changes occur in student outcomes,” Murphy said.

“These initiatives are opportunities for CSM to meet the challenges of today’s higher education student and continue to serve our students in a positive way,” Murphy added.

For information on these initiatives and more on how CSM supports student success, visit

1 Comment on Student Success and Completion at Forefront of CSM’s Academic Innovations

  1. Great things are happening at CSM to help students meet their academic challenges and fulfill their academic dreams. I have to spread the word about these initiatives in the community such as first-year seminar, seven-week evening terms, success in hybrid courses, piloted level English and Math courses and more. SMCPS students benefit greatly from CSM.

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