October 24, 2017

VSU Partners with John N. Gardner Institute to Strengthen Student Performance

VALDOSTA — Valdosta State University is partnering with the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education (JNGI) to improve student achievement in academic courses with historically high rates of Ds, Fs, withdrawals, and incompletes (DFWI).

The collaboration, known as Gateways to Completion (G2C), is a three-year process created and facilitated by JNGI that helps colleges and universities collect extensive data on specific gateway courses — high-enrollment, foundation level classes that carry a high risk of DFWIs — and then implement strategies and innovations in the classroom that advance student learning.

VSU, along with nine other University System of Georgia (USG) institutions, began the G2C process in Spring 2016. The USG is the only university system in the nation approaching this work from a system perspective.

VSU is focusing on five gateway courses in the subjects of history, English, biology, chemistry, and mathematics. Because student performance in gateway courses is a direct predictor of retention, the overarching goal of G2C is to ensure student success from the start of college all the way through to graduation.

“I don’t think the struggle in gateway courses is anything new,” said Dr. Theresa Grove, associate professor of biology and one of the nine VSU faculty members who form the G2C course committees for each of the five courses. “Switching from high school to college is difficult. College is a whole new level of understanding.

“Part of G2C is addressing all the diverse styles of learners that come to VSU — because we have students of all levels of preparedness. By trying out different activities and assessments and styles of learning, we hope that we’ll be able to reach more students and help students learn how to be successful in college.”

Now in the second year of the three-year G2C process, VSU faculty are beginning to initiate course changes based on the data collected and analyzed during the first year.

Many faculty members have introduced exam wrappers, which allow students to review their graded exams, reflect on why they missed certain questions, and identify their areas of strength and weakness to guide further study.

After integrating exam wrappers into his HIST 2112 course this semester, Dr. Barney “Jay” Rickman, professor of history, said that the number of Ds and Fs between the first and second exam decreased and the number of As and Bs increased.

“My hope is that, as I tweak the course further, I’ll see more improvement,” he said.

Other G2C faculty members are requiring students to compile study journals that detail what they plan to complete for the course each week. At the end of the week, the students review what they actually accomplished and adjust their schedules accordingly — an effort to strengthen their time management skills.

Instead of offering a single review before the final exam, some professors are holding reviews throughout the semester to give students the opportunity to become more familiar with the content.

Mathematics students have the opportunity to rework previous homework problems online as a way to review for the final exam and improve homework scores.

Professors are also administering in-class quizzes that are not graded but allow students to apply the concepts discussed in the lecture.

In the chemistry course, professors have shown blockbuster movies like “The Martian” and then asked students to identify and discuss the chemistry-related concepts.

Some faculty members are encouraging students to engage in volunteer activities related to the course, thereby simulating a mini internship. They are also encouraging involvement in undergraduate research projects as a way for students to better comprehend and apply the material they learn.

“What we’re trying to discover is if these changes do anything to increase the ability for students to be successful in the course,” said Dr. Shani Wilfred, professor of criminal justice and VSU’s G2C liaison to JNGI. She leads the G2C course committees with the help of Dr. Lee Grimes, associate professor of psychology.

“You’ll find in some classes that, no matter what you try, you won’t see a change. In other classes, the smallest modification will cause a significant change. It’s about constantly evaluating the students that you have and the resources that are being used.”

Initial data indicates student learning in the five G2C courses has improved. More extensive and conclusive reports will be compiled as the process continues.

“VSU faculty have embarked on an ambitious project, and their work so far has been impressive,” said Dr. Sharon Gravett, associate provost. “Our liaison with JNGI is Dr. John Gardner himself, a prominent national leader in student retention, and he has highly praised the thoughtful and dedicated work of our faculty.”

Throughout the G2C process, JNGI is providing support from student success experts, analytics tools, teaching technologies, and pedagogical training through webinars, conferences, and a Teaching and Learning Academy.

“JNGI provides the resources that we need to be successful,” Wilfred said. “They have years of wisdom in terms of trying different things. They’re constantly learning and looking for new opportunities to assist institutions.”

“JNGI has enabled faculty from multiple departments on campus to come together, and that collaboration is extremely helpful and important because we can learn from each other,” Grove said.

VSU’s goal is to continue evaluating gateway courses and working to improve them even after the G2C process ends. By the end of the third year, the university is expected to have created its own internal processes to make the effort a continual endeavor.

Gardner, the founder and president of JNGI, is certain that the G2C process will produce positive results for VSU.

“This optimistic view is based on both the levels of energy and commitment already devoted by this group of faculty innovators and by results at other colleges and universities around the country that have been involved in the national pilot for G2C,” he said. “Early indicators are very encouraging in demonstrating that G2C process-redesigned courses are yielding increased retention rates and reduced DFWI grade rates.”

Please contact Dr. Shani Wilfred at (229) 249-4835 or spgray@valdosta.edu to learn more.

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