As Ball State University pulled its retention rate up from 67.5 to 76.9 percent over the past decade, “I began to wonder what the ceiling was,” says Paul Ranieri.
The acting English department chair and former director of “Freshman Connections,” Ball State’s hallmark learning community program in which first-semester students take courses with others from their dormitories, says that Ball State had developed “all the auxiliary support that you would expect.”
But Ranieri wondered about a fundamental piece of the puzzle that seemed to be missing: "How do faculty engage first-year students in the classroom?"
With a $100,000 Lumina Foundation grant in hand, Ranieri spearheaded a series of summer workshops over three years starting in 2003. Instructors of core curriculum and early major courses applied to participate by identifying specific teaching challenges they wanted to tackle.
And Ranieri, who’s now analyzing the data, says that while the general trend toward higher retention rates and overall grade point averages among students who were in the classes taught by participating faculty is not entirely consistent, the data are "consistent enough through all these different faculty members to raise some questions.”
Among the 12 faculty participants -- who in fall 2005 taught a total of 1,219 Ball State students -- were an introductory sociology professor who wanted to know why students had difficulty understanding test questions and a health sciences faculty member who wanted to spark an interest among (the mostly white) students about health issues facing minority populations. Meanwhile, an interior design professor teaching the introductory course to the major inquired about how to encourage novices schooled by HGTV to take a more critical approach to design, Ranieri says.
David W. Concepción, an associate professor of philosophy, came to the first workshop series in 2003 wondering why “students in courses for some number of years said, ‘I get nothing out of the reading’” (specifically the primary philosophy texts). Discovering through student focus groups that what they meant was that they couldn’t ascertain the main points, Concepción realized that he needed to explain the dialogical nature of philosophy texts to students in his 40-person introductory philosophy course.
Whereas high school texts tend to be linear and students read them with the objective of highlighting facts paragraph by paragraph that they could be tested on, “Primary philosophical texts are dialogical. Which is to say an author will present an idea, present a criticism of that idea, rebut the criticism to support the idea, maybe consider a rejoinder to the rebuttal of the criticism, and then show why the rejoinder doesn’t work and then get on to the second point,” Concepción says.
“If you are reading philosophy and you’re assuming it’s linear and you’re looking for facts, you’re going to be horribly, horribly frustrated.”
Out of the workshop, Concepción designed an initial pedagogical plan, which he ran by fellow workshop participants, fellow philosophy faculty, junior and senior philosophy majors, and freshmen philosophy students for feedback. He developed a “how-to” document for reading philosophy texts (included in a December 2004 article he published in Teaching Philosophy, "Reading Philosophy with Background Knowledge and Metacognition," which won the American Association of Philosophy Teachers’ Mark Lenssen Prize for scholarship on the instruction of philosophy).
Based on the constructivist theory of learning suggesting that students make sense of new information by joining it with information they already have, his guidelines suggest that students begin with a quick pre-read, in which they underline words they don’t know but don’t stop reading until they reach the end. They then would follow up with a more careful read in which they look up definitions, write notes summarizing an author’s argument into their own words on a separate piece of paper, and make notations in the margins such that if they were to return to the reading one week later they could figure out in 15 seconds what the text says (a process Concepción calls “flagging).
Concepción also designed a series of assignments in which his introductory students are trained in the method of reading philosophy texts. They are asked to summarize and evaluate a paragraph-long argument before and after learning the guidelines (and then write a report about their different approaches to the exercise before and after getting the "how-to" document on reading philosophy), turn in a photocopy of an article with their notations, and summarize that same article in writing. They participate in a class discussion in which they present the top five most important things about reading philosophy and face short-answer questions on the midterm about reading strategies (after that, Concepción says, students are expected to apply the knowledge they’ve learned on their own, without further direct evaluation).
The extra reading instruction has proven most beneficial for the weakest students, Concepción says -- suggesting that the high-performing students generally already have the advanced reading skills that lower performers do not.
“What happened in terms of grade distribution in my classes is that the bottom of the curve pushed up. So the number of Fs went down to zero one semester, the Ds went down and the Cs stayed about the same in the sense that some of the former C performers got themselves in the B range and the Fs and the Ds got themselves in the C range. There was no difference in the A range, and not much difference in the B range.”
Meanwhile, in his weekly, 90-person lecture class on World Mythology, William Magrath, a full professor of classics, also saw significant drops in the number of Fs after developing targeted group work to attack a pressing problem: About a quarter of freshmen had been failing.
“I had been keeping very close records on student performance over the semester for the previous five or six years and noticed that there was a pattern wherein a lot of the freshmen were having real difficulty with the course. But it wasn’t so much that they weren’t performing on the instruments that they were given but rather that they weren’t taking the quizzes or weren’t taking the tests or weren’t getting the assignments in," Magrath says.
Discovering that he could predict final grades based on student performance in just the first four weeks of class with remarkable accuracy, he divided the freshmen into groups based on their projected grades: the A/Bs, B/Cs and Ds/Fs (No – he didn’t call them by those names, but instead gave the groups more innocuous titles like “The Panthers.”)
Meeting with each set of students once every three weeks for one hour before class, he gave the A/Bs a series of supplemental assignments designed to challenge them. For instance, he would give them a myth on a particular theme and ask them to find three other myths connected to that theme for a group discussion. Meanwhile, the Ds/Fs took a more structured, step-by-step approach, completing readings together and discussing basic questions like, “How do you approach a story, what do you look for when you face a story, how would you apply this theory to a story?”
Meanwhile, Magrath says, the B/C students didn’t complete supplemental reading, but were instead expected to post questions about the readings or lectures that he would answer on the electronic class bulletin board – with the idea that they would remain engaged and involved in class.
In the end, Magrath found the smallest difference for B/C students. But the overall average of students climbed from 1.9 in 1999-2002, before the group work was put in place, to 2.4 in 2003-5. Of all the Fs he gave, the percentage given to freshmen (as opposed to upperclassmen in the class, who did not participate in the group work) fell from 63 to 11 percent.
When, in 2006, Magrath stopped conducting the group work in order to see what the effect might be, performance returned to earlier levels.
“The dynamic of this class is a large lecture class with the lights dimmed at night on Thursdays once a week. The kids feel anonymous almost right away. That anonymity gets broken by virtue of being with me,” Magrath says. He adds that while he has also replicated the group work format in the spring semester, the results weren't as dramatic -- suggesting, he says, that freshman fall is the critical time to get students on track.
“If what [first-semester freshmen] are experiencing in the classroom isn’t accommodating for them, they don’t know what to do. They genuinely don’t know what to do,” he says.
As for steps forward, Ranieri, the leader of the initiative, says that the Lumina grant – which included funds for faculty stipends of $2,400 the first year and $2,000 in subsequent years (faculty who participated in the first two years continued to participate in workshops and receive funding through the end of the three-year cycle) -- has been exhausted. However, he hopes to expand a report he’s writing -- which tracks retention and GPA data for students who enrolled in the "Lumina" courses as freshmen throughout their college careers -- for publication.
So far, Ranieri says, the various professors involved have given 13 national or international presentations and produced four peer-reviewed publications.
“One of the biggest problems you have in higher education," he says, "is allowing faculty members to be rewarded for this kind of work.”