Increasing course completion rates through faculty development in student engagement pedagogy


Increasing course completion rates through faculty development in student engagement pedagogy

July 29, 2022

Rising Higher Education Leaders Fellowship logo

Michele Atkins

Professor of Education and Assistant Provost for Accreditation and Research, Union University

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of EAB.

Academic quality and student achievement are fundamental components of accredited higher education institutions. Institutions must publish data on the achievement of its students each year. Typically, achievement is assessed by measures such as job placement rates, licensure pass rates, graduation rates, and freshmen-to-sophomore retention rates.

One student success factor that significantly impacts retention and graduation is course completion. According to EAB's Course Completion Playbook, students who fail or withdraw from a class may experience lower rates of retention; longer time to degree completion (and higher cost of degree); loss of financial aid; and loss of scholarship, depending on impact on GPA.

Union University a private, four-year liberal arts-based university offering associate, bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees. Founded in 1823, Union is the oldest institution affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. The admission criteria are selective for traditional undergraduate programs of study, and programs are academically rigorous. The Center for Academic Success offers support services for students, and the retention team works to identify students in need of services.

Data analysis

A disturbing pattern was recognized that has not been addressed in a focused manner at the institution. Each semester, the information technology team runs a DFW report for various offices. At the time the report was distributed, I had just reviewed the institution’s IPEDS surveys noting areas of student achievement. Although freshman-to-sophomore retention is adequate at 87%, the institution’s transfer-out rate is too high (23%). Students do not typically transfer after the junior year; they tend to transfer between the sophomore and junior years.

Perhaps high DFW rates contribute to the high transfer-out rate. Retention and student success are important to all institutions, and attracting and retaining students is especially important to small, private institutions. For reference, Union University’s fall 2021 enrollment was 2,930, with 1,993 undergraduates and 937 graduate students. The student-to-faculty ratio was 9:1.

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For the purposes of this capstone project, only traditional undergraduate programs were included. Further, only 100- and 200-level courses were included for analysis. Upon analyses of fall 2020, spring 2021, fall 2021, and spring 2022 semesters, four disciplines consistently exhibited the highest DFW rates each semester: biology (ranging from 16-35%), chemistry (15-34%), English (10-18%), and mathematics (22-29%).

Capstone project

Working with the Center for Faculty Development at Union, this capstone project is seeking to answer the question: How does focused faculty development on student engagement pedagogy affect course completion rates of traditional undergraduate students at Union University?

This capstone project has four distinct implementation steps to answer the capstone question.

  1. First, a Course Design Institute was held in January 2022 with all newly hired faculty. The Institute is a three-day workshop in which faculty designed a course they were scheduled to teach in spring 2022 using a modified version of Dee Fink’s (2013) course design model.
  2. Second, 14 volunteers from the faculty participated in a Faculty Dialogue Group during the spring 2022 semester. The group read the book, Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty (Barkley & Major, 2020), incorporated the techniques they learned from the authors, and came together for discussion once a week for two months.
  3. Third, data discussions took place with academic deans and department chairs during spring 2022 and will continue into fall 2022. The purpose of the discussions is to bring awareness about the rates of Ds, Fs, and Ws to department chairs and deans. A copy of individual reports by college/school was distributed to deans and by departments to chairs.
  4. Finally, selected mid-career faculty will be invited to participate in the Student Engagement Initiative during the 2022-2023 academic year. The faculty members will be selected by stratified sample from high and low DFW disciplines to create balance and an active learning environment. Those in the Initiative will meet periodically during the year to discuss ways in which they have successfully engaged students in the learning process. They will be provided useful resources about engagement pedagogy and learn from one another in a collaborative environment.

Although the project is not yet complete, preliminary results show positive outcomes. Of the 17 participants in the Course Design Institute, only five faculty members appeared on the DFW list for spring 2022 with a collective 8% DFW rate. Of the 14 Faculty Dialogue Group participants, only three faculty members appeared on the DFW list for spring 2022. One faculty member was from the math department with a high DFW rate at 32%. The other two faculty members had a collective DFW rate of 9%.

The EAB Rising Higher Education Leadership Fellowship experience has been beneficial to me in many ways. The opportunity to meet colleagues from across the United States and Canada, and to discuss issues facing our institutions and higher education in general, added to my understanding of higher education leadership. My capstone buddy, Dr. Tracey Baham, was a perfect match, as we speak “the same language.” She is a new lifelong friend and colleague. The experts and researchers at EAB were incredibly helpful and enriched this experience greatly.

See the fellows' blogs from the capstone projects

Michele Atkins and others participated in EAB’s Rising Higher Education Leaders Fellowship in spring 2022

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