Student Success Conference Promotes Innovative Teaching Strategies

Everyone knows this student: the one slouched in the back of the classroom with the hoody pulled over the brow. A ballcap’s brim pokes out from the fabric, shading the eyes for good measure. Age-old wisdom holds that this is the student who is ill prepared, disengaged, inattentive, and bored. The front of the classroom … that’s where hands are raised. That’s where excellence sits and learning transpires.

For generations, this supposed truism has informed a fundamental teaching practice: the logical way to encourage participation, engagement, and success is to move every student to the front. The rationale is simple: closing the gap in the classroom is the first step toward closing the gap in student performance.

What’s the problem? The assumption that struggling students sit at the rear might be based more on conjecture than on fact. Some recent research suggests that there is little correlation between where students sit and their final grade. Perhaps where students sit in the classroom reveals more about how they learn than what they learn. Thus, one of the most tried strategies for improving student success might well be ineffectual.

On February 7, 2019, the UNC System Office hosted the second annual Student Success Conference. The convening was designed to promote more effective approaches to helping students make the most out of their college experience.  More than 200 attendees, representing all 17 institutions in the UNC System, convened at the William and Ida Friday Center for Continuing Education in Chapel Hill, NC.

The conference programming was diverse. Sessions and poster kiosks covered everything from advising to veteran support groups. But many focused specifically on how to get students more engaged. These approaches went well beyond asking reluctant students to shuffle to the front of the classroom. Instead, they acknowledged that contemporary learning environments require more tactful strategies.

Over the course of a day, the attendees explored new ways to address a broad spectrum of students, from vastly different backgrounds and with different learning styles.

Creating New Models for Higher Education

The opening plenary session emphasized the importance of radically rethinking how universities educate.

Dr. Bridget Burns, executive director of the University Innovation Alliance, opened the proceedings with a term: isomorphism – the tendency of an organization to imitate another organization’s structure because of the belief that the structure of the latter organization is beneficial.

This, she explained, captures much of what doesn’t work in higher education today. When we began designing our universities in the United States, educators based their model on the British system, where higher education was valuable precisely because it was a scarce resource, available only to the privileged class.

This scarcity model continues to shape the higher education landscape. Many professors and administrators still tend to interpret low grades and high failure rates in courses as indicators of academic rigor. Instead of rethinking course design and finding new approaches to teaching so that more students succeed, too often educators accept the presumption that the scarcity of student success is what makes a college degree valuable.

So, even though public universities are open and available to everyone, they are still primarily serving advantaged students. Nationally, low-income students make up the majority of the K-12 population, but only 8.3 percent of university graduates represent this same population. 

“There is hope, and the hope is in this room,” Burns said to a packed audience of UNC System faculty, staff, and students, all eager to lead the UNC System’s efforts to reach its Strategic Plan goals of increasing graduation rates, especially among first generation and underrepresented student populations.

Outside the Box: Rethinking the Classroom

In his opening remarks, UNC System Senior Vice President for Strategy and Policy Andrew Kelly made it clear that data support Burns’ optimism: “Thanks to all of you, the Strategic Plan’s emphasis on student success is already paying off. We’ve raised our five-year graduation rates by 5.5 percentage points since 2013 to surpass 70 percent, fully 8 percentage points ahead of the national average. We’re enrolling and graduating more transfer students from the community colleges. And we’re helping low-income students and those from Tier 1 and Tier 2 counties succeed.”

Following the plenary, UNC System faculty and administrators took the helm to share the innovations taking place at the local level, which have contributed to these System-level achievements. The expectation is that attendees will disseminate and adapt these best practices across the System.

Burns’ comments stressed the urgency of thinking outside the box, and many of the conference presenters offered strategies for doing just that … literally. A common theme over the course of the day focused on reimagining how and where course content gets covered. After all, learning doesn’t necessarily happen within four walls of a classroom.

One presentation discussed ways to encourage more faculty buy-in for competency-based education (CBE) models. Rather than basing course completion primarily according to the amount of time spent in the classroom, online CBE courses use content proficiencies to serve as student learning milestones. This approach gives students more flexibility to determine the pace of their studies.

Other sessions focused on how to create high engagement learning opportunities, both in traditional classrooms, using new learning technologies, and in the field, using community engagement activities.

Some presenters offered mechanisms for supporting faculty, especially those working to expand their repertoire of digital teaching strategies. After all, cutting edge technologies will have little impact in the classroom if faculty are too overwhelmed to try them.

These sessions got to the heart of the Student Success Conference: students are never the only learners in a classroom. For the UNC System to deliver on its efforts to improve student success, faculty must continuously feed their own intellectual curiosity, experimenting with new and potentially better ways to present content.

A board showcasing GearUp NC’s virtual campus tour app.

Alien Territories: Making Large (and Small) Classrooms Feel Inclusive

Students arrive in the college classroom with 18 or more years of conditioning. For better or worse, nearly two decades of past experience can have a profound impact on one’s ability to succeed in the future.

Students of color and women, for example, regularly confront expectations about their capacity to perform, especially in STEM fields. At an early age, many of these students get accustomed to teachers calling on others first. By the time they get to college, odds are good they’ve simply stopped trying to engage in classroom discussion altogether. For them, learning is a solitary pursuit.

Nationally, only 15 percent of minority students who begin their college careers with STEM aspirations end up graduating. The conference’s featured session specifically issued the challenge to the faculty in attendance: do the hard work to teach to those students.

UNC-Chapel Hill’s Dr. Kelly Hogan, associate dean of instructional innovation, and Dr. Viji Sathy, teaching associate professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, explained how structured active learning classroom work can encourage underrepresented students to see the classroom as their learning community. Doing so will help everyone in the class, but these efforts will particularly help underrepresented students feel comfortable and confident enough to participate.

When classrooms become more inclusive, every student has an equal shot at success. Accomplishing this is both more imperative and more challenging in gateway STEM courses, where individual sections can frequently see enrollments in the hundreds. This learning environment can seem especially intimidating to minority or first generation students prone to feeling out of place or like they don’t belong in the classroom.

“Intro courses are the invitation to our field,” said Sathy, underscoring how bringing more diversity into STEM majors begins with the monumental task of making these massive sections feel intimate and supportive.   

In their presentation, Hogan and Sathy explicitly addressed the importance of using a variety of teaching strategies.  But this same sentiment tacitly informed nearly every presentation at the conference. There are more challenges in today’s complex, multi-mediated learning environments, but there are more opportunities as well. The task before the UNC System is to innovate. Vary the delivery of materials. Try new methods for evaluation. Doing so will allow students from different backgrounds and with unique learning styles more opportunities to demonstrate their mastery of course content.

The Student Success Conference features presentations on course design, advising, new technologies, and different ways to intervene from a financial perspective … all of the things that can help our students stay on track toward graduation.

Everything That Works: A Multilateral Approach to Student Success

“The Student Success Conference features presentations on course design, advising, new technologies, and different ways to intervene from a financial perspective … all of the things that can help our students stay on track toward graduation,” said UNC System Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Kimberly van Noort.

The wide range of topics covered at the conference made one thing clear: improving student success doesn’t begin and end with the teacher/student dynamic. The UNC System is also finding new ways to help students find and finance the courses they need. It is exploring new strategies for intervening when students run into challenges that might seem insurmountable. It is helping students build and locate their own peer-support communities.

All told, the Student Success Conference demonstrated the hard work being done across the System. Faculty, advisors, and administrators are doing much more than just asking students to walk to the front of the classroom on the first day of class; they are helping students stay on the path that will eventually lead them across the platform on graduation day.