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The (Ongoing) Plan for Student Success
Winston-Salem State University (WSSU) is a historically black constituent institution of the University of North Carolina with an enrollment of approximately 5,200. The majority of our students come from groups traditionally underserved by higher education, which includes underrepresented minorities (76 percent) and those eligible for need-based institutional financial aid (70 percent). Over the past six years, WSSU has been engaged in an intense period of reflection, redesign, and critique. With our previous strategic plan, Achieving Academic Distinction: The Plan for Student Success 2010–2015 (The Plan), we accomplished an ambitious overhaul of several critical institutional areas, most notably our general education (GE) program and our student advising and academic support division. WSSU students now experience a more coherent curriculum—one that exposes them to diverse disciplines while simultaneously cultivating specific twenty-first-century skills—infused with purposeful educational guidance and assistance. This reimagined student learning experience has resulted in increased rates of student retention, persistence, and graduation at WSSU.
As part of The Plan, we also developed a robust program for faculty development and scholarship. This has led to the introduction of more active learning techniques and high-impact practices in some of our courses. Yet, we recognize that there is additional work to be done. A defined priority of our strategic plan was improving student learning through the use of novel pedagogical approaches that engage our students at developmentally appropriate levels. Student mastery of specific learning outcomes is to be verified through frequent and authentic assessment. However, as on other campuses, more work needs to be done in cultivating a comprehensive learning culture that embraces the idea that new learning approaches can be exceedingly beneficial for students, especially those similar to the ones we serve.
WSSU’s Prior Work with AAC&U
Since the work of AAC&U is highly respected on our campus, we have been able to advance several major institutional priorities by leveraging our involvement in their projects and initiatives. For example, six of our seven GE student learning outcomes (SLOs) overlap with the LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes—critical thinking, critical reading, written communication, oral communication, quantitative literacy, and information literacy. Corresponding VALUE rubrics were adopted by our faculty with minimal revision. Because of our efforts and GE reform success, we were asked to author a case study for dissemination by AAC&U and we were chosen to participate in the Transparency and Problem-Centered Learning project. We are also involved in the PKAL PCFF2 (Preparing Critical Faculty for the Future 2) project. PCFF2 goals—cultivating STEM teaching and learning innovations, enhancing student success, and bolstering the leadership capabilities of African American STEM faculty—are all in line with our strategic priority to advance our STEM programs. Therefore, we were pleased to participate in the AAC&U Transparency project and we began the work to more fully understand how high-impact, problem-centered, and transparent teaching practices are beneficial for underserved minority students.
The WSSU Team and Their Motivations
We received notification of our inclusion in the project in September 2014 and a campus team was formed shortly thereafter, consisting of faculty from three departments: biological sciences (Louise Allen, Manju Bhat, and Jeff Overholt); chemistry (Carthene Bazemore-Walker, team leader); and English (Leonard Muaka). The science faculty had previously worked together on pedagogicaFl projects and welcomed the inclusion of a new member who could bring a needed contrast in perspective. Each of us would begin teaching two sections of our redesigned courses.
All of us volunteered because we desired to advance ourselves professionally in accordance with our university strategic plan. We understand that faculty have an individual responsibility to become better, more effective instructors and a collective obligation to advance the art and craft of teaching. The experimental design of the project was a particular draw for us because it would tie our professional growth to student performance and student perceptions of our efforts. The project also had elements that could foster intra- and inter-institutional collaboration and provide multiple opportunities for self-reflection.
Furthermore, the project promised pedagogical training and support for us as we attempted this initial experiment. We desired to gain competency in the specific pedagogical approaches and assessment skills that were the focus of the project. We thought that the knowledge acquired in these areas would benefit us, our students, and our institution. Ideally, we wanted to improve our abilities to deliver content in a way that is relevant and applicable to our students’ lives, design and assess meaningful and authentic coursework, and demystify the educational process so that our students become better learners in our courses and after our courses. These potential outcomes fit nicely within the context and goals of The Plan.
Making Course Assignments More Transparent and Problem-Centered
We struggled with the idea of redesigning our courses. The challenge for us was that none of us had attempted problem-centered teaching before, and we learned that our assignments needed to be both problem-centered and transparent at the first project meeting in late October 2014. We were also concerned because the webinar training in assignment design was not scheduled to be given until November. With the fall semester in full swing, little time was available to us to plan for this major component of the project and implement it when classes began in January 2015.
Despite these timing issues, all of us were able to create new assignments. We agreed that problem-centered learning (PCL) would be a component of both sections of our courses, while transparency would be featured in experimental sections only. Two written assignments had to be produced: one to be given at the start of the semester and the other at the end. We attempted to incorporate multiple transparent approaches (see below) into our experimental (more transparent) sections in order to differentiate it from the control (less transparent) sections. At the time, we felt several approaches were needed to make the transition from less transparent teaching to more transparent teaching. In retrospect, one approach done well and repeatedly would have probably sufficed. We may have unnecessarily made the already challenging task more laborious.
In general, the team attempted to stay true to the goal of transparency by providing clarity with respect to the learning goals of our assignments (the why) and the structure of our assignments (the how). One strategy was to provide students with the detailed criteria for success well in advance of an assignment’s due date. This took the form of reviewing annotated copies of the problem-solving rubric or grading rubric during class. Another approach was to give the experimental group more detailed assignment prompts that included additional verbal and written instructions, examples, and guiding questions. However, this approach seemed to add to student confusion instead of clarity. One faculty member decided to also incorporate peer grading of draft versions of student work. The students used grading and rubric criteria previously reviewed by the instructor. Finally, student understanding of concepts and their ability to apply their learning were measured by several faculty using peer instruction with personal response systems. Because our assignments were new, we did not have samples of prior successful student work to use as examples for our current students. We all thought our students could have benefited from this particular transparent teaching practice.
With PCL, students apply conceptual understanding to a meaningful problem—one that is often taken from their learned experiences. We took the position that “learned experiences” could refer to everyday experiences or discipline-specific knowledge. In this way, each of us had the freedom to evaluate the problem-solving skill of our students uncoupled from course content. Consequently, there were a range of prompts: figure out how to “come back” after failing a first exam in a class; pick appropriate attire for an important job interview; detoxify your body after acute exposure to a heavy metal; solve an environmental or ecological issue. The students were also creative. For example, one biology student chose to refocus her love of fish into a search for a remedy to the overfarming of wild seafood.
Problem-Centered Assignments, Collaborative Work, and Student Response
PCL usually involves collaborative work as well, and two team members were able to incorporate peer instruction into their courses in a substantial way. This was a change in course structure and format for both of them. In one course, the instructor took an approach similar to process-oriented guided inquiry learning (POGIL). Through POGIL, students develop specific skills and content knowledge. So, they work in permanent groups throughout the semester to solve challenging, discipline-specific questions, using appropriate subskills in the problem-solving process. In the other course, PCL was fully explored. The instructor gave eight problem-based homework assignments so that students would have the opportunity to practice each subskill in increments. About the same number of in-class assignments were given in an effort to allow students to “work out the kinks” of the problem-solving process in a collaborative manner. In both courses, class discussions and peer interactions were different than in previous iterations of each course because students were actually working together! Some faculty also noted that there was quite a bit of student push back in both courses because they were challenged to ‘think and do’ in ways vastly different than their previous education experiences had required. Additionally, students were also very resistant to the idea of working with others. However, over time group members bonded and learned to work more efficiently and effectively.
Students in both sections of all courses appeared to be equally engaged and achieved at a similar level. This is due to the team’s decision to treat both the control and experimental sections similarly with respect to PCL. This observation also seems to suggest that transparent teaching practices were not helpful for experimental sections, since these practices were withheld from control sections. Interestingly, both sections of the two courses that involved group work were deemed less transparent while both sections of the two courses that did not involve group work were found to be more transparent (based on student responses to the transparency survey). We think this is due to the nature of the survey, which was not designed to tease apart the distinct contributions of PCL and transparency. Furthermore, both PCL and POGIL require more student independence. This can be a tremendous paradigm shift for students and they may find it difficult to accept, acclimate to, and learn within this model. We suggest that this added complexity confounded student perceptions of just how transparent the collaborative courses were. Either that or the two courses that encompassed group work were just not transparent! More iterations of the project, with each experimental parameter tested in isolation, are needed to fully flesh out this issue.
Our Project’s Greatest Challenge
Our single greatest challenge of participating in this project was time, both in terms of the timing of the project and the time investment required to complete the project. By September 2014, team members were already handling full teaching schedules as well as managing administrative projects and other professional responsibilities. Yet, this project had multiple components. In order to do the project justice, the team initially felt that it needed the time to (1) potentially “backward design” courses to reflect a primary learning outcome of problem-solving instead of scientific literacy for the science courses or written communication for the composition course; (2) create written assignments for the primarily lecture-based science courses or revise course assignments for the composition course to be more problem-centered; (3) learn and become fluent with the use of transparent teaching practices so that they could be implemented well; (4) create assignments that reflect principles of transparency (for experimental sections of our courses); and (5) document our thinking and student reactions during the entire process via e-portfolios (Wiggins and McTighe 1998).
Although initially overwhelmed by the task, we quickly realized that we would not be able to tackle the loftier goal of backward designing courses to cultivate the skill of problem solving within our different disciplines. So, we then proceeded to incorporate the requisite project components in a thoughtful and deliberate manner. We allowed enough freedom in our campus approach to the project so that each faculty member could tailor their students’ experiences. Our team functioned as an authentic learning community. This was essential because it allowed us to exchange ideas, clarify our thinking, share student reactions, and provide professional support and collegiality. We plan to conduct two more iterations of the project at WSSU.
Wiggins, Grant, and Jay McTighe. 1998. Understanding by Design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Carthene R. Bazemore-Walker, chief research officer, director of science initiatives, and associate professor of chemistry, Winston-Salem State University