Context on Austin Community College

Austin Community College (ACC) is a large multi-campus institution with 11 campuses and a service area encompassing six Texas counties and 7,000 square miles.  Despite this expanse, ACC is one college with a centralized curriculum. Like many community colleges around the country, ACC has developed guided pathways for its degree and transfer programs, whereby students are offered recommended coursework along with other advising supports to ensure they make timely progress towards their goals. The guided pathways framework provides faculty an opportunity to take advantage of the recommended curricular maps for creating a more coherent learning experience in general education.
At ACC, all guided pathways begin with a student success course required of all incoming students. With Teagle support, ACC has developed the “Great Questions Seminar” to meet the student success course requirement and to provide incoming students with a common intellectual experience anchored in transformative texts. Students then have the option to complete the “Great Questions Journey” to satisfy distribution requirements in the transferrable general education core. All “Great Questions” courses use transformative texts to stimulate discussion and encourage students to make cross-disciplinary connections as they move through general education.

The Great Questions Seminar

Many community colleges seek to instill non-cognitive skills (e.g., growth mindset, time management, study skills) in first-time-in-college students by mandating “student success” courses that are lecture style, text-based, and taught by academic advisors or other college personnel. The Great Questions Seminar (GQS) pioneered at Austin Community College offers a different approach to foster the skills to be a successful college student. It is a 16-week seminar taught by faculty from a variety of disciplines guiding incoming students as they engage with a set of common texts—including works such as Homer’s Odyssey, Euclid’s Elements and poetry from around the world—while learning the practical skills to be successful in college and familiarizing themselves with the resources available on campus, from the library to the counseling center. The texts for the seminar were chosen by faculty to prompt students to examine their own ideas in conversation with peers and to strengthen enduring habits of critical analysis and thinking that they will continue to use in subsequent coursework and in the world of work. 
GQS is designed for students at all levels of academic preparation. Conspicuously lacking from GQS sections are lectures, professor PowerPoint presentations, and textbooks. Students learn along with faculty guides who are typically not subject matter experts on the assigned texts and who model how to approach works that might initially seem daunting with openness, curiosity, and as an “engaged amateur.” All sections of GQS are taught from a standardized syllabus, providing all students with a common intellectual experience rooted in seminal works in the arts and sciences that serves as a foundation upon which they can build their diverse majors. 

Piloting the Great Questions Seminar

Assessment data during the 2015-2017 pilot phase of GQS indicated that providing students with early academic engagement with the works of some of the world’s greatest writers and thinkers—as well as the opportunity to grapple with fundamental questions that confront us as human beings—prepared students for academic success in all areas of study. Participation helped first-time-in-college students adopt a growth mindset toward their learning, set goals and follow through on them, read and understand difficult texts, and communicate clearly. Quantitative pilot data showed semester-to-semester persistence rates of students who took the GQS as being 92%, with 73% of students who persisted earning a GPA of 3.0 or above.
Further data showed that students who participated in GQS better understood the connections between arts and sciences disciplines and the purpose of a college education. For example, one student stated:

The Great Questions Seminar has shown me that my theatre class isn’t just about theatre, nor is English just about English. Each subject is connected to one another. This knowledge has made the classes I don’t like more interesting, and the ones I do like more exciting.

Another student expressed:

School feels like an adventure instead of a race because of the Great Questions.

And yet another student said:

I never thought that working out math problems would assist me in working out major life decisions, but I was wrong.

When students are able to find meaning in learning, persistence ensues. See more videos of students reflecting on their experience with GQS here.

Scaling Up after a Successful Pilot

In Fall 2017, under the leadership of project director Ted Hadzi-Antich, GQS was approved and incorporated into liberal arts degree plans as fulfilling the student success requirement. Students enrolled in a liberal arts “guided pathway” may now enroll in GQS as part of the recommended curriculum for satisfying their student success requirement while orienting them to the purpose and interlocking connections of their liberal arts/general education coursework.
As previously noted, all sections of GQS are taught from a standardized syllabus. In ACC’s experience, this consistency has proved advantageous as it provides students with a common intellectual experience for community-building while also making the process of onboarding, preparing, and supporting instructors, particularly adjuncts, systematic and manageable. This process is especially salient in community college settings that are often forced to rely heavily on adjunct instructors due to resource constraints.
With Teagle support, ACC has been engaging in an ambitious and college-wide faculty recruitment and training effort, increasing the number of sections each year to fit demand. Instructors are permitted to teach GQS only after completing the training to maintain the integrity of the course and to ensure that instructors are prepared to teach students at all levels of academic preparation. As a resource for faculty and students alike, the syllabus includes a comprehensive list of study questions that faculty can use to help guide class discussions, regardless of their familiarity with the texts. During the pandemic, ACC pivoted to conduct additional faculty training seminars (conducted virtually) and to develop an online teaching and curriculum development institute.
As of 2021, 85 ACC faculty members from 13 different departments, spanning government to nursing, have been recruited and trained to teach GQS. In AY019-20, a total of 32 sections enrolling over 670 students were taught, with the goal of offering enough sections to enroll an estimated 1,500 incoming students by 2022/23. Fall-to-Spring persistence for FTICs who successfully completed GQS in fall 2019 was 92%, whereas 72% of students who were not enrolled in any success course at ACC in fall 2019 persisted to spring 2020.  
Further, the students enjoy the Great Questions Seminar, with over 75% of all survey respondents indicating that GQS was one of the best courses they took online in the Fall 2020 semester (in the top 10%). Fall 2020 data also suggest that diverse student respondents overwhelmingly found the course material to be relevant to them and the course to be inclusive. Over 80% of respondents agree or strongly agree that they want to continue learning more about the writings, art, and other works that they were introduced to in GQS, so the course is likely to have a lasting impact on students’ academic interests. Hear student reflections on GQS.

Launching the Great Questions Journey

The success of the Great Questions Seminar prompted Austin Community College faculty to extend teaching with transformative texts throughout their general education offerings. Students can now enroll in sections of general education courses that emphasize discussion-based teaching with core texts as part of completing the “Great Questions Journey.” General education courses in the Great Questions Journey include Humanities: 1302: Renaissance to the Present; Humanities 1305: Introduction to Mexican American Studies; Government 2305: American Government; Government 2306: Texas State and Local Government; Drama 1310: Theater Appreciation; Sociology 1301: Introduction to Sociology; Mathematics 1332: Contemporary Mathematics; Speech 1311: Introduction to Speech Communication; and Speech 1315: Public Speaking. The “Great Questions Journey” through general education brings greater coherence and interconnectivity to students’ experience of general education while enabling them to stay on track for timely completion.

Looking Ahead

Faculty members at Austin Community College have successfully reimagined the student success course as a seminar anchored in a common set of core texts taught by an interdisciplinary team of faculty that is now offered at all eleven campuses of ACC. They have skillfully developed a course that provides guidance on study skills, college resources, and time management through a reading and analysis of primary texts instead of through chapters on these topics from a textbook. The success of the introductory seminar has gone well beyond the original purpose of the grant and has inspired a broader effort to bring greater coherence and cohesiveness to general education.
The project has been so successful that project director Ted Hadzi-Antich, Jr., Associate Professor of Political Science at Austin Community College, has launched a non-profit organization, The Great Questions Foundation, to promote liberal education and core-text and discussion-based learning at community colleges. The Great Questions Foundation is working with faculty colleagues from 11 separate community colleges on a project to develop a web-based resource for faculty interested in engaging with discussion-based pedagogy focused on transformative texts.

Released October 31, 2021