Peer Review

Advancing Underserved Student Success

While the question that guided this project is simple, the answers to that question will be a game changer for all of us. What can we do to support success for all? Students who come to us well prepared for college do well but students who are less prepared are much less likely to succeed. Throughout my career, I have thought about these differences. What does it mean to be well educated and how can we engage students in ways that build upon their strengths, their experiences, and their own goals?

This project was designed to explore the impact of two key educational strategies, transparency and problem-centered learning, on the success of students who are unfamiliar with the culture and context of a college or university or who arrive unsure about their place in that world. The seven institutions that participated in this project were selected on the basis of their recent experiences with redesigning the general education curriculum and their commitment to supporting the success of underrepresented students. What sets this project apart from many others is that it drew the experiences of a cross-disciplinary group of faculty.

An especially challenging part of this project was the task of creating problem-based exercises that built upon the knowledge and experience that the students brought to the class and that could be incorporated into an essentially content-driven class. The goal here was for the content to be a means to deeper learning. This task was easier for some faculty than for others due to the nature of their own disciplines and their own prior experiences with engaging students in problem solving. Some faculty handed the students a set of problems to choose from. Others started with an exploratory exercise designed to trigger reflection and the generation of questions. One instructor asked each student to analyze his or her own carbon footprint. Interesting questions arose from that discussion.

Did the use of transparency and problem-centered learning increase student engagement and confidence in the experimental course when compared to the control class? While everyone agreed that it is too early to make judgments on the basis of a single pair of classes, several faculty members pointed to signs that more students were participating in discussion and were listening to each other more and bringing in stories and examples from their own experiences.

There are lessons here about how to address troubling questions. The faculty participants in this project behaved like members of an interdisciplinary research team. They built upon each other’s observations and raised questions about what was happening and why. The project meetings provided a window into the realities of undertaking work of this kind and the value of collaboration as a vehicle for providing peer consultation and the capacity for collective action and responsibility. The outcomes of this project, if connected in a meaningful way to the larger campus efforts to prepare their graduates for a complex world, could contribute a greater depth and sense of purpose to those efforts as well as generate a growing body of shared experience to guide the process.

Any good research project generates more questions. Seeing this work from the perspective of the senior leadership roles I have played, I would ask: (1) What does this project tell us about the ways that experiences in college can shape motivation and confidence? (2) How do social interactions among students in these classes enhance or blur the effects of intentional interventions like these? (3) How can a campus community learn from these experiences and apply the lessons learned to other parts of the curriculum? (4) What other efforts, curricular and co-curricular, can complement these course designs and enhance the educational experiences of all students while improving graduation rates?

What would you ask?


Judith A. Ramaley, president emerita, Portland State University

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