A record-breaking 200-plus faculty and staff members from across campus came together Oct. 19 in the Student Commons Building for the 14th annual Undergraduate Experiences Symposium. Keeping with this year’s theme – “Teaching and Learning in the 21st Century” – the group’s shared focus was on helping faculty connect with today’s students and on finding creative ways to help those students thrive.
“The work that faculty does is not peripheral to student success but is at the center of student success,” said Margaret Wood, PhD, director of the Center for Faculty Development. “We’ll think together about the very tough challenges that we face teaching in the 21st century.”
Provost Roderick Nairn pointed out that attendees had a lot to celebrate this year:
- Freshman enrollment reached an all-time high for the sixth year in a row.
- A record 900 students signed up for First-Year Experiences courses this fall.
- USA Today ranked CU Denver No. 8 out of 100 colleges or universities with the biggest increases in applicants (a 126-percent upsurge in the past five years.)
“This symposium has contributed enormously to the direction the campus has taken,” Nairn said of the event, sponsored by the Office of Undergraduate Experiences. “We really have followed up on the ideas that have come out of here.” And while everyone deserves a “pat on the back,” the provost said, “there’s no time for complacency.”
Solving the drop-out puzzle
Passion and concern rose above complacency, as attendees addressed the day’s challenge: Considering causes for first-year drop-out rates (on average, 33 percent) and what evidence-based teaching techniques could boost learning, retention and graduation rates.
“When you are in high school, everybody knows who you are,” said Business School lecturer Jon Wilkerson, speaking for his table after a brainstorming session on why first-year students might not return as sophomores. In college, students are thrown into an environment where nobody knows their names, and they feel like nobody cares, he said.
Making friends does emerge as a top concern in studies on first-year transitioning, said Andrew Koch, PhD, keynote speaker and president of the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education. And academics do not rise back to the top unless students find a network of peers, he said. His advice: Implement classroom practices where students are interacting with each other around academics.
Curse of a failed gateway course
Students often struggle with gateway courses, such as composition and math requirements, said Clair Sims, an undergraduate academic advisor in the Business School. “I feel like they just view them as courses they have to get through to get to their actual courses, so they might not put the kind of emphasis needed on doing well.”
Sims’ suspicion is a true phenomenon in many fields, not just business, Koch said. And his own research shows that achieving D’s or lower in even just one required first-year class can have a profound effect.
Looking at nearly 28,000 students from 32 institutions in an introductory history course, his study found that students who dropped out of school after their first year, even if they were in otherwise good academic standing, were twice as likely to have had a D, F, W (withdrawal) or I (incomplete) in that course.
“We have many students who are the first ones in their families to go to college, so they don’t have a lot of background or someone to help them at home, said Vivian Shyu, PhD, assistant professor of psychology. “They feel like they can’t reach out for help.”
Koch’s research also found that DFWI rates in the introductory history course disproportionately plagued under-represented students, including first-generation students. Embedding required exercises or labs in courses that offer students first-year resources and transition skills has worked well for students at the Gardner Institute’s client universities, he said.
An important time to lead
With all U.S. institutions needing to teach to the changing demographics in a country that will be a minority-majority nation by 2041 (U.S. Census Bureau), the work at CU Denver can make a difference beyond its campus, Koch said.
“You are that now. You are experiencing what the rest of the United States will be experiencing in the years ahead,” he said, encouraging the university to continue examining potentially biased policies and implementing evidence-based, active-learning techniques. “It puts you at the vanguard.”
Volunteer faculty members led breakout sessions, where most of the day’s work happened:
Teaching Metacognition, Growth Mindset, and Belonging, Joan Bihun, Psychology
Inclusive Pedagogy and Equity in the Classroom, Marjorie Levine-Clark, History
Community-Based Learning, Antwan Jefferson, School of Education and Human Development
Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities, Lindsey Hamilton, Psychology
Peer-Based Learning, Mike Ferrara, Department of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences
Digital & Hybrid Learning, Wendy Bolyard, School of Public Affairs
Practical Strategies for Improving Learning and Engagement, Donna Sobel, School of Education and Human Development