Successful undergraduates are on a journey of becoming active learners and critical thinkers. My role is to start that process by making sure my teaching is student-centered, encourages growth, and is backed up by demonstrations of effectiveness.
I teach at UCONN’s Downtown Hartford Regional Campus. A majority (54%) of UCONN-Hartford students self-identify as members of one or more recognized minority groups. In my work with the UCONN-FIRST initiative (Fostering Ideal Regionals to Storrs Transitions), I have seen datasets demonstrating that Regional Campus students perform as well as their Storrs counterparts in upper-level Storrs-based classes. However, the same datasets also show that retention rates at Regional campuses are lower. Regional Campus students are more likely to self-identify as members of minority groups than their Storrs counterparts, they are more likely to be first generation students, they are more likely to hold full-time jobs, and they are more likely to be commuter students. Understanding and mitigating the challenges associated with these factors involves acknowledging that there is a “hidden curriculum” in all our courses that assumes students know strategies for navigating the university and are comfortable advocating for their own needs. Making that hidden curriculum more transparent is one way of improving student outcomes. students, as a teacher, a mentor, and a listening ear.
The B Center
The B Center was inaugurated in the Fall of 2019 as a resource for addressing high DFW rates in Majors Biology courses (specifically BIOL 1107 and BIOL 1108) at UCONN Hartford. The model was to recruit successful students in these courses as peer tutors with the intent of helping struggling students and reducing competitiveness among all students. At first, the B Center had no permanent space, but over winter break AY 2019-2020, space in the faculty offices on the 3rd floor of the Hartford Times Building was renovated and the B center moved into a dedicated location in January 2020. In March 2020, the University went into full COVID-19 lockdown; during this time, the B Center offered virtual tutoring services. When UCONN returned to in-person instruction, the B Center discontinued virtual tutoring and returned to in-person tutoring.
Addressing a mismatch between design and practice
While science is exploratory and collaborative, introductory science courses are often structured in more traditional ways, primarily because students need a solid vocabulary and foundational tools in order to engage as peers in more advanced study. This mismatch between course structure and disciplinary practice causes introductory courses to have two curricula, one explicit and built around course objectives, the other implicit and designed to facilitate the transition from traditional student to exploratory and collaborative peer. There isn’t a simple course design solution for accomplishing this transition, and strategies that seem to be successful one semester sometimes do not work in another (especially during the changing conditions of the pandemic). Exploring design changes that help students make this transition is a guiding principle of my work as a faculty member.
Lowering the stakes, making room for mistakes
The students in our introductory courses experience significant exam anxiety and apprehension. Exam stress was an issue well before the pandemic, fueled in part by a course design in which grades are strongly determined by a small number of high-value assignments, leaving no room for mistakes. This design was typical of the way I had taught my courses, it is how the courses I took as an undergraduate were structured, and it is also typical of the designs of other STEM courses my students take concurrently with their biology courses. But high-stakes course architecture penalizes students who perform poorly under stress, fuels a self-defeating cycle of exam stress and poor performance, and promotes binge studying over immersive engagement. I have de-centered high-stakes assignments in my courses by instituting weekly assignments of relatively low value and by reducing the scale of exams. All of my assignments are graded quickly, with formative feedback. Finally, I also reduced anxiety and allowed more room for students to thoughtfully complete assignments by instituting “no questions asked” deadline extensions over the course of the semester when life just intervenes.
Opportunities for growth
Mistakes, and the process of correcting them, provide opportunities for growth. I have used several approaches to foster growth:
- “Wrappers” for key assignments that allow second chances.
- “Tokens” that students can “spend” by completing a short self-study examining why they had difficulty with the assignment and what strategies they will use moving forward.
- “Design for Mastery” coming Fall 2023!