Teaching

Developing metrics and models that are vital to student learning and retention (essay)

Is English 101 really just English 101? What about that first lab? Is a B or C in either of those lower-division courses a bellwether of a student’s likelihood to graduate? Until recently, we didn’t think so, but more and more, the data are telling us yes. In fact, insights from our advanced analytics have helped us identify a new segment of at-risk students hiding in plain sight.

It wasn’t until recently that the University of Arizona discovered this problem. As we combed through volumes of academic data and metrics with our partner, Civitas Learning, it became evident that students who seemed poised to graduate were actually leaving at higher rates than we could have foreseen. Why were good students -- students with solid grades in their lower-division foundational courses -- leaving after their first, second or even third year? And what could we do to help them stay and graduate from UA?

There’s a reason it’s hard to identify which students fall into this group; they simply don’t exhibit the traditional warning signs as defined by the retention experts. These students persist into the higher years but never graduate despite the fact that they’re strong students. They persist past their first two years and over 40 percent have GPAs above 3.0 -- so how does one diagnose them as at risk when all metrics indicate that they’re succeeding? Now we’re taking a deeper look at the data from the entire curriculum to find clues about what these students really need and even redefine our notion of what “at risk” really means.

Lower-division foundational courses are a natural starting point for us. These are the courses where basic mastery -- of a skill like writing or the scientific process -- begins, and mastery of these basics increases in necessity over the years. Writing, for instance, becomes more, not less, important over students’ academic careers. A 2015 National Survey of Student Engagement at UA indicated that the number of pages of writing assigned in the academic year to freshmen is 55, compared to 76 pages for seniors. As a freshman or sophomore, falling behind even by a few fractions can hurt you later on.

To wit, when a freshman gets a C in English 101, it doesn’t seem like a big deal -- why would it? She’s not at risk; she still has a 3.0, after all. But this student has unintentionally stepped into an institutional blind spot, because she’s a strong student by all measures. Our data analysis now shows that this student may persist until she hits a wall, usually during her major and upper-division courses, which is oftentimes difficult to overcome.

Let’s fast forward two years, then, when that same freshman is a junior enrolled in demanding upper-level classes. Her problem, a lack of writing command, has compounded into a series of C’s or D’s on research papers. A seemingly strong student is now at risk to persist, and her academic life becomes much less clear. We all thought she was on track to graduate, but now what? From that point, she may change her major, transfer to another institution or even exit college altogether. In the past, we would never have considered wraparound support services for students who earned a C in an intro writing course or a B in an intro lab course, but today we understand that we have to be ready and have to think about a deeper level of academic support across the entire life cycle of an undergrad.

Nationally, institutions like ours have developed many approaches to addressing the classic challenges of student success, developing an infrastructure of broad institutional interventions like centralized tutoring, highly specialized support staff, supplemental classes and more. Likewise, professors and advisers have become more attuned to responding to the one-on-one needs of students who may find themselves in trouble. There’s no doubt that this high/low approach has made an impact and our students have measurably benefited from it. But to assist students caught in the middle, those that by all measurement are already “succeeding,” we have to develop a more comprehensive institutional approach that works at the intersections of curricular innovation and wider student support.

Today, we at UA are adding a new layer to the institutional and one-to-one approaches already in place. In our courses, we are pushing to ensure that mastery matters more than a final grade by developing metrics and models that are vital to student learning. This, we believe, will lead to increases in graduation rates. We are working hand in hand with college faculty members, administrators and curriculum committees, arming those partners with the data necessary to develop revisions and supplementary support for the courses identified as critical to graduation rather than term-over-term persistence. We are modeling new classroom practices through the expansion of student-centered active classrooms and adaptive learning to better meet the diverse needs of our students.

When mastery is what matters most, the customary objections to at-risk student intervention matter less. Grade inflation by the instructor and performance for grade by the student become irrelevant. A foundational course surrounded by the support that a student often finds in lower-division courses is not an additional burden to the student, but an essential experience. Although the approach is added pressure on the faculty and staff, it has to be leavened with the resources that help both the instructor and the students succeed.

This is a true universitywide partnership to help a population of students who have found themselves unintentionally stuck in the middle. We must be data informed, not data driven, in supporting our students, because when our data are mapped with a human touch, we can help students unlock their potential in ways even they couldn’t have imagined.

Angela Baldasare is assistant provost for institutional research. Melissa Vito is senior vice president for student affairs and enrollment management and senior vice provost for academic initiatives and student success. Vincent J. Del Casino Jr. is provost of digital learning and student engagement and associate vice president of student affairs and enrollment management at the University of Arizona.

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Advice to academics for creating and selling online courses (essay)

Kirsten Drickey provides some concrete advice for leveraging your teaching experience and subject matter expertise by teaching online courses beyond the academy.

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Bennington College's experiment with short-term, pop-up courses

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Bennington College’s pop-up courses allow professors and students to tackle world events as they happen.

The aftermath of the 2016 national election on student affairs (essay)

The past 18 months leading to the election of Donald Trump last night have been incredibly challenging for us as a nation and certainly for all of us who work in higher education.

The angry and hostile dialogue has left many in our communities feeling unsafe, devalued and marginalized. For many of our students and staff members, the results of the election will magnify those feelings of outrage, despair, hopelessness and genuine fear for their future. It is important to note that after the rhetoric expressed during the election, our Muslim, Jewish, African-American, Latinx, undocumented and LGBTQ students and staff, as well as students and staff members who are sexual assault survivors, will likely have strong emotional reactions to this election outcome.

How do we move forward? First, we need to acknowledge what just happened. About 47 to 48 percent of voters, more than 59 million Americans, sent a clear message that they wanted something different and wanted someone who spoke to their concerns. We live in a fractured and divided country with two very different visions about our future path.

This division and the politics of hate that have surrounded this election make the work we do in student affairs even more important today than it was before the election.

This will not be easy, and it never is. Those of us who work in student affairs will need to take some time to absorb the results of this election, tend to the self-care necessary, support those who are hurting or angry and afraid, and then quickly get back to the work we do: providing support to our students who themselves will be struggling with a range of emotions following the election.

This election does not stop the work we must do to address racial injustice on our campuses and in our communities. It makes it more important.

This election does not stop the crucial work we are doing to increase degree progress and completion for first-generation students, low-income students and students of color. It makes it more important.

This election does not stop the need to support the hundreds of thousands of undocumented students who are on our campuses. It makes it more important.

This election does not stop the work we are doing to engage students in difficult conversations around race, gender identity, religion and sexual orientation. It makes it more important.

This election, and its results, creates an urgency for a new generation of leaders -- leaders who are on our campuses. The work we do to encourage active discourse, protest and activism is core to our democracy and to our need to engage a new generation committed to ideals of inclusion and social justice. This is more important than ever.

The next few months will be critical for our country and our colleges and universities. It is unknown how President-elect Trump will view the higher education sector. NASPA will continue to monitor, teach and provide opportunities for dialogue about these issues within the next few months.

I remain optimistic about the work we are doing in higher education and the role each student affairs professional plays in the lives of our students. Our work has never been more important.

Kevin Kruger is president of NASPA, Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

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Teaching English and literature to students in the high-tech era

Teaching Today

Eric Farwell provides four ideas to help interest today’s students, who seem to want to read only increasingly shorter pieces, in English and literature courses.

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Two college professors train students to critique institutions in far more responsible ways than Trump does (essay)

Of all the outlandish and absurd claims Donald Trump has made in the months since he announced his candidacy for president, the most recent -- that the news media and global elite are conspiring to rig the election against him -- is one that we take most umbrage with. Who are we? Two English professors at a community college who have spent the last year studying and teaching the difference between conspiracy theories and institutional critique.

As avid readers of Thomas Pynchon and viewers of The Wire, we’ve developed a pedagogy that asks students to analyze how institutions might or might not be illegitimate or criminal. And to us, Donald Trump’s claim seems weak. Where’s his corkboard? Where are his out-of-focus black-and-white photos? Where is his string connecting the evidence?

Yet, he’s right to focus our gaze on institutions. There are legitimate critiques to be made about the many forces, institutional and otherwise, operating against all of us. Having institutional knowledge and the ability to understand what competitive forces exist is required of any educated person. Polls have shown that Donald Trump’s largest support block are those with just a high school education. Those are, in fact, our students who have just enrolled in our English 101 composition classes.

It is dangerous to confuse comparatively uneducated with not smart. One doesn’t need a college degree to suspect and know that often, as Hillary Clinton has said, “the deck is stacked.” And many educated as well as uneducated people are likely to propose sweeping generalizations like Donald Trump -- such as “it’s all rigged” -- as evidence for their opinions.

But when we teach the difference between conspiracy theory and institutional critique to our students -- when they practice institutional analysis with corkboard, photos and string, and when they write essays that must have credible sources -- they are more likely to understand that social justice and consequential critiques are possible only if we study the details.

In our classes, most students grasp how a former House majority leader is profiting by doing things like trying to help drug companies avoid paying federal taxes. They also get how he may only be a piece of a larger problem, both in the way tax avoidance is lobbied for in this country and how an entire industry of consultants’ sole purpose is to help companies become more efficient at avoiding paying taxes.

They grasp the injustice when they uncover that there have been little to no consequences for financial institutions after the 2008 economic meltdown. They understand how police departments often reveal information about wrongdoing only in the wake of protests or public outcry. They understand that the complexity is vast, but in order to be authors of consequence, they need to have coherent evidence of the contrary. Stating that the system is “rigged” is a lie that becomes the truth by the power of acquiescence.

In their own investigations, our students have outworked Trump in articulating and supporting claims of institutional criminality. They have identified and investigated organizations and conspiracies that range from the local, like a Queens, N.Y., Wing Stop or Popeyes franchise, to the global, like corrupt government contracting in India and Italy. It’s unpredictable which institutions students will choose to investigate: the New York Police Department, for-profit universities, the Iranian leadership. But, if there is some suspicion of injustice, our community college students are on the case.

They have, on their own initiative, cold-called whistle-blowers at animal rescue agencies, walked into police stations and asked for the names and ranks of the precinct’s officers, and interviewed anonymous informants. In short, they have done the work of heroic investigators, the kind you would hope an engaged citizen in a democracy would undertake.

With those projects, students are engaging in the kind of work we witness in binges of popular television crime shows like Breaking Bad or True Detective, where investigators tack photos, maps, names, evidence to corkboards, office walls -- whatever they can find -- to allow viewers to vicariously sense that, yes, the rapidly connecting world that feels beyond our comprehension is being pieced together one bit at a time.

We ask, why leave these problems to television fantasy? Why not ask students to make sense of senselessness as an exercise of critical citizenship? Why not expect the same of our public figures?

In other words, if Donald Trump were a first-year community college student, all signs indicate he’d be a lazy one. We’d send him back to do more research. He has made a claim, but his critique would be classified as an empty conspiracy. If he presented this claim that it’s all “rigged,” we’d say, Mr. Trump, show us your corkboard, your photos, your documents, your works-cited page. Show us some work. You will not pass unless you do.

Jed Shahar and Benjamin Lawrance Miller are assistant professors at Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York.

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How to convince students to attend office hours (essay)

Teaching Today

Megan Condis explores why so few students take advantage of office hours and gives some tips on how to get more of them to do so.

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Teaching controversial topics in the age of microaggressions, trigger warnings and tweeting (essay)

Teaching Today

How can professors best introduce provocative material in the classroom in an age of trigger warnings, microaggressions and tweeting? Michael Bugeja tackles the issue.

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How to encourage students to tackle national and international challenges (essay)

Students in Society

Imagine a world in which clean energy is cheaper than coal, safe drinking water is accessible and affordable to everyone on the planet, and no child goes to bed hungry. Imagine a world where we have vaccines for AIDS, TB and malaria, and effective treatments for cancer and Alzheimer’s. Imagine a society where everyone has anytime, anywhere access to the highest-quality learning opportunities. Imagine a future in which astronauts venture out into the solar system, not just to visit but to stay.

These and other similarly ambitious goals are within reach -- particularly if we inspire and empower the next generation of scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs and civic leaders to imagine and embrace them. Today’s change makers have access to knowledge and resources that would have been unimaginable 20 to 30 years ago, such as access to virtually unlimited computing resources and the ability to use online platforms to crowdsource funding and expertise from around the world. How can our educational institutions offer the learning opportunities that will inspire these change makers?

A few months ago, the National Science Foundation issued a call for research and development proposals to do just that. The White House is also encouraging colleges and universities to help students understand and engage with important problems. For example, in 2015, over 120 engineering schools made a commitment to President Obama to increase to 20,000 the number of undergraduate students that participate in the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenge Scholars Program. This program allows students to organize their research, service learning, international experiences and entrepreneurial activities in pursuit of one of the grand challenges identified by the National Academy of Engineering, such as securing cyberspace or advancing personalized learning.

One of the scholars that President Obama met with was Michaela Rikard, a biomedical engineering student at North Carolina State University. She’s interested in developing new medical therapies that are personalized, affordable and readily available worldwide. She’s already conducted research to use nanotechnology to detect and treat cancer, and has worked with the military to help soldiers suffering from amputation complications.

This interest in Grand Challenges is not limited to the STEM disciplines. The American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare has identified 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work to address major societal challenges such as ending homelessness and family violence.

Given the growing interest among colleges and universities in addressing real-world problems, the time is right to identify the elements of an all-hands-on-deck effort to motivate, prepare and empower young people to tackle the grand challenges of the 21st century, at home and abroad. For example:

  • Colleges and universities could provide students with more opportunities for course work and experiential learning that is focused on problems, drawing on the insights from multiple disciplines. This fall, Stanford University is offering a Hacking for Diplomacy course that allows students to work on global problems such as the Syrian refugee crisis, countering violent extremism and fighting illegal fishing. Many other universities are interested in replicating this course and a similar course called Hacking for Defense. Government agencies can support these efforts by providing funding and identifying important problems.
  • Colleges and universities could target some of their federal work-study funds to allow students to work on real-world problems that they and their institutions care about. Students could be challenged to write their own job description and find a company or nonprofit organization that would be interested in hosting them.
  • Researchers and practitioners could collaborate on the design and dissemination of online courses and open educational resources that are problem focused and help students develop and hone some of the skills they will need to be effective change makers in the public or private sectors. For example, the World Bank has created a set of online short courses that help learners understand a particular problem (for example, understanding the impact of climate change in developing countries) or a problem-solving methodology (using public-private partnerships to finance infrastructure or involving citizens in the formulation of public policy).
  • Foundations and philanthropists could provide scholarships so that these opportunities are available to low-income students and underrepresented minorities.

The Office of Science and Technology Policy would like to hear from you about what your institution is doing to inspire and empower the next generation of change makers. What new actions is it taking to encourage college and university students to solve important real-world problems? What other actions should the public and private sectors take to prepare future change makers? Please share your views at tech_innovation@ostp.eop.gov.

Tom Kalil is deputy director for technology and innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

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Competency-based education's business model offers promise, report finds

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Competency-based education can save money for colleges and students, a new report finds, but the efficiency gains won't come easily or without worries about the impact on academic quality.

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