Department of Educational Administration


Date of this Version



Published in Community College Review, 2018

doi 10.1177/0091552118760191


Copyright © 2018 Deryl K. Hatch, Naomi Mardock-Uman, Crystal E. Garcia, and Mary Johnson. Published by SAGE Publications. Used by permission.


Objective: Beyond understanding whether first-year student success interventions in community colleges are effective—for which there is mixed evidence in the literature—this study’s purpose was to uncover how they work to realize observed outcomes, including at times unanticipated undesirable outcomes.

Method: This qualitative multiple case study used cultural historical activity theory (CHAT) to unpack interactions and tensions among programmatic-level features and individual-level experiences and actions. We conducted classroom observation, document analysis, and interviews with instructors and students in four student success courses across diverse contexts.

Results: Regardless of particular designs and course emphases, we found in all cases a blurring of activity elements, wherein learning tools and learning goals were often coterminous, or instructors effectively took on the role of learning tools themselves, in the form of object lessons and mediators, for instance. Courses had a distinctive character as rehearsal for college that simultaneously created a welcoming peer environment but an uncertain learning and assessment environment.

Contributions: Because of their nature as metacourses—college courses about college-going—success courses’ means and ends ultimately may be functionally inseparable, thus helping to explain their continual evolution and contested roles. Whereas such courses are typically justified as means to teach college skills, we found this utilitarian rationale to be insufficient to describe the experiential dimensions of social learning that participants reported. Instead, we found these courses reveal how college-going is an emergent social literacy, one that a single course is insufficient to fully realize.