First-Year STEM Retention Strategies at the University of La Verne

The University of La Verne, a private Hispanic-Serving Institution located in eastern Los Angeles County, promotes a positive and rewarding life for its students through four core values: ethical reasoning, diversity and inclusivity, lifelong learning, and civic and community engagement. Within the Natural Science Division in the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS), one of the primary and shared pedagogical methods to promote lifelong learning has been to emphasize experiential techniques and problem solving and to provide our students with the skills needed to be successful in graduate studies and industry. For example, all students in the biology department conduct a capstone research project, which provides the opportunity for one-on-one work with a faculty mentor/advisor to address a contemporary research question. In addition, our courses utilize high-impact practices (HIPs) that teach scientific inquiry and writing skills and use inquiry-based laboratory learning modules developed to provide opportunities to design, conduct, analyze, and present outcomes of experiments.

From 2006 to 2012, just prior to our participation in the Keck/PKAL project, the biology department grew from 28 to 103 incoming majors. The rapid rise in incoming students brought retention and preparedness in the first and second year to the forefront. Faculty teaching upper-division courses felt that as class size increased, under preparedness, both in content and skills, became a larger issue; student feedback on course evaluations supported faculty impressions. One of our main challenges was that the biology department didn't have a unified set of learning outcomes for students or a way to assess their learning. This meant that the content in the first-year series did not align with upper-division coursework. Moreover, while the department was a collective of passionate faculty, we lacked a shared vision, and several members were hesitant to change.

The Keck/PKAL project provided an opportunity to structure the kind of institutional change we realized was necessary for the department. The project provided a model and goals that were supported by our new campus leaders—a new president and a new CAS dean—as well as the structure needed to help faculty leaders institutionalize departmental change. The team for the Keck/PKAL project was Jonathan Reed, current provost and former CAS dean, and biology faculty members Kat Weaver, director of the La Verne Experience; Christine Broussard, Natural Science Division chair; and Jerome Garcia, chair of biology.

Establish Vision

La Verne has been recognized as an exemplar in Latina/o STEM education. Given the national dialogue around the increased need for diverse STEM graduates, we were well positioned to contribute to fulfilling this need and to share our strategies to help other institutions. The desire to improve STEM education at La Verne came from the mission of the institution to serve the community, including better serving our own students. Even with our accomplishments, we felt more could be done to further their success.

To increase student success, faculty gravitated toward science process skills and writing as two primary areas of development that could be scaffolded into the curriculum. In addition, the faculty consensus was that students needed to learn how to ask questions, formulate hypotheses, carry out experimentation, analyze data, and present research in lower-stakes environments beginning in the first year. Our goal for the project was to effectively scaffold these skills to improve retention and help prepare our students for the capstone and beyond. To accomplish these goals, we needed to leverage university-level administrative and curricular changes and generate department-level discussions about learning outcomes and the curriculum in the first-year biology series.

Examine Landscape and Conduct Capacity Analysis

In 2011, at the beginning of the Keck/PKAL project, the biology department identified growth and retention as our major challenges. Data showed that retention was just over 40 percent after one year and 25–40 percent after two years (figure 1). We had made previous attempts to address these issues based on information from senior exit surveys, one-on-one student interviews with the department chair, and other conversations with students. In 2008, we changed the beginning three-course/twelve-unit series (Principles of Biology, Plant Biology, and Animal Biology) to a two-course/ten-unit series (Plant Biology and Animal Biology) because of student complaints that the three semester-long series was too time consuming and not transfer friendly. However, these changes were implemented without a model or structure, and student complaints actually increased while retention rates declined. This made the department wary of further changes.

Figure 1. Retention rate for incoming biology students from
2006–2012 broken down by year (data includes the incoming class)

Retention of Biology Majors by Year

At the same time, La Verne was in the midst of leadership change. The College of Arts and Sciences hired a new dean, Jonathan Reed, who was willing to bring experts to campus, help faculty apply for grants, and send faculty to conferences (AAC&U, PKAL, and others) to learn more about science pedagogy. In addition, a new president, Devorah Lieberman, arrived in 2011 and was able to work with the CAS dean to scaffold HIPs into a shared La Verne Experience—including the start of a first-year learning community (FLEX) and a shared learning experience (One Book, One University). All departments in the university were requested to offer a FLEX general education course, tied with another general education and a writing course, which strengthened the learning community and provided students an opportunity to reflect on their learning.

Identify and Analyze Challenges and Opportunities

Initial attempts in 2008 to improve retention after the first year did more harm than good; therefore, it was important to the process to gain community buy-in. A major change to the first-year curriculum and departmental learning outcomes could not be decided by a few faculty. We felt that it was extremely important to get everyone's input into the process, to make changes that would lead to improvements in retention, and to nurture the collaborative work environment that we all value.

Going through the Keck/PKAL process required that we gather data and critically analyze our past decision-making strategies. As a group, we tended to rely heavily on student feedback, whereas this process required us to look at the data and at national trends in pedagogy before making decisions. We also realized that we needed an outside facilitator to lead the change discussion. Many of the faculty felt that our retention numbers were well within the national norm and that first-generation students need more time to complete their degree because they are underprepared. In addition, because many of the faculty calling for change were junior faculty, it was important to have an outside expert providing context to our campus issues and potential pathways to change.

Determine Readiness

Overall, the biology department was filled with passionate faculty who wanted the best for students. All faculty wanted to be actively involved in the development of departmental learning outcomes and participated in their mapping across the first-year and upper-division coursework. In order to implement change into the first-year series, we needed to examine faculty workload and schedule times to meet with course groups to outline and refine themes and develop new laboratories and assignments for students. As our student numbers were increasing at all levels, the shifting of loads meant that some upper division courses needed to be covered by adjuncts. Two faculty volunteered to take an overload the first year so they could teach in the first-year series and not have to give up their other courses. However, overloads are not a sustainable solution, and the department chair was able to negotiate for a new faculty line.

Another factor for readiness was the increased communication required to create a seamless transition for students. Faculty felt extremely overloaded by the university initiatives and departmental changes when the process began. We also struggled with getting appropriate data from institutional research. We had to learn what questions to ask, and their staff had limited resources with which to process each of our requests. As an institution, we are moving toward evaluating baccalaureate goals within the e-portfolio, which may alleviate (allowing more data to be assessed within departments) or exacerbate (generating more requests to collate data on student success) data access issues. To compensate, we collected data ourselves by comparing rosters between courses to see if students stayed in the major, until we were able to get the official data. In addition, we selected signature assignments that we will evaluate annually to look at student progress on our departmental learning outcomes.

Choose/Implement Strategies

We chose a strategy, implemented, evaluated more data, and then moved forward; in this way, our own process was cyclical and required multiple strategies (figure 2). Our overall goals were to capitalize on institution-level changes and the La Verne Experience platform to increase retention to 70 percent after one year and at least 60 percent after two years. Because we wanted to have community buy-in throughout the change process, our strategies and implementation came in pieces. We did not expect to have complete consensus, but we moved forward with the process and worked to gain input and guidance.

Figure 2. Strategies adopted by the biology department within the Keck/PKAL project

Figure 2. Strategies adopted by the biology department within the Keck/PKAL project

Our first strategy was to utilize administrative support and university-wide changes to facilitate change at the department level. The biology department, with the support of the CAS dean, had sent four faculty to the PKAL leadership institute from 2010 to 2011. Those faculty began to mentor newer faculty, going together to meetings and participating in the FLEX initiative. FLEX courses were required to be covered by full-time faculty, and university-wide planning sessions were held to support the connection of content between FLEX courses.

Our second strategy was to gain faculty buy-in for change. We held a two-day departmental retreat led by PKAL facilitator Susan Elrod, who asked us to look at data together, read publications related to science vision and pedagogy, and decide on a departmental vision. In addition, she helped us to develop our introductory-level learning outcomes, which would later be the foundation of a new general biology series. We also examined our departmental retention and graduation data and then split the faculty into working groups to examine departmental coursework and research other general biology series outside of La Verne. Faculty teaching Plant Biology (part of the FLEX first edition) and Animal Biology assessed whether first-year learning outcomes were met within existing coursework. Other faculty examined the General Biology I and II series curricula from several other campuses, including community colleges and four-year private and public institutions. Faculty also examined the graduate prerequisites from several health programs and graduate institutions as well as new MCAT guidelines to compare student needs.

Our final strategy was to implement curricular changes in the first-year series, FLEX second edition. In fall 2013, the department, with encouragement from the dean, decided to change the series from Plant and Animal Biology to General Biology 1 and 2. In addition to identifying our learning outcomes and creating a new structure for their implementation, several additional changes were made to the curriculum in an effort to implement HIPs at this early and formative stage, including the participation in the One Book, One University program, reading primary research, writing and peer critiquing, and presenting an original research grant.

Measure Results

Institutional research and the department faculty examined retention of biology students after one semester and one year for both the 2012 and 2013 FLEX courses. For the 2012 FLEX first edition, we retained a total of 60 percent of the incoming biology majors after one year. For the fall 2013 FLEX second edition, we retained 62 percent of biology majors after one year. Retention data for subsequent years will give us more information about our success at increasing student preparedness.

In addition to looking at retention, in the spring General Biology II course we administered the Classroom Undergraduate Research Experience (CURE) survey, a pretest–posttest survey developed by faculty from Grinnell College, Hope College, Harvey Mudd College, and Wellesley College and funded by Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The CURE survey allowed us to examine student attitudes toward science and their learning gains in the second semester course. In preliminary data, students demonstrated three post-course trends: (1) gains in skills of science process such as ability to analyze data, to read and understand primary literature, and to learn laboratory techniques; (2) gains in understanding the scientific process (such as scientific habits of mind, ethical conduct, and the understanding that scientific assertions require evidence); and (3) clarification of career path, including greater interest in pursuing master's or doctoral degrees. Interestingly, data revealed that University of La Verne student gains surpassed national averages, in many areas, of the gains of students who had participated in a summer undergraduate research experience (assessed by the SURE), and all students who took the CURE survey at the same time (spring 2014, n=8,700).

Disseminate Results and Plan Next Steps

We have presented results from our project at the AAC&U Transforming STEM Higher Education Conference and the AAC&U Annual Meeting as well as at on-campus venues. Based on the many lessons we learned from the framework project, we have revised the four-year biology program curriculum, to be implemented in fall 2015, and we are working on a manuscript for CBE Life Sciences for summer 2015 that will summarize all of our inquiry curriculum work.

In conclusion, the Keck/PKAL model itself was a critical piece for us. As stated, past decisions were sometimes made with little to no cumulative data. Many faculty have emphasized high-impact practices and worked hard to help our students succeed. However, much of our work had been done in parallel with each other, without a real united or solid communication between department members. The process of looking at data and seeing opportunities for growth was important for us.

In many ways, we had a bit of a "perfect storm," with many events converging to propel us toward major curriculum reform. Without the external events (new administrators, new professional development opportunities, FLEX academic initiatives, external interventions such as the Keck/PKAL guide for systemic institutional change and Susan Elrod's guidance), we would have made progress much more slowly. The question of readiness was the most complex for us. Some of us were ready to embrace the changes and took advantage of the opportunities presented. Others were not ready but got swept up in the university-wide momentum. However, once we got past the initial difficult evaluation, we easily worked together to develop learning outcomes for the first-year series. Overall, we feel like the change process is continuous but that the first time through it gave us the tools and language we needed to understand each other and what it would take to move forward.

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