Three professors at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona redesigned an upper division engineering course, raising the pass rate from 66% to 89%, reports the Press-Enterprise.
Cal Poly Pomona Professor Paul Nissenson noticed that for seven years straight, 34% of the more than 3,000 students who enrolled in his fluid mechanics class—a course required for engineering students—received a D, failed, or withdrew.
So he enlisted the help of two professors in the psychology and sociology department, Juliana Fuqua and Faye Wachs, to learn whether the course’s traditional lecture format was hampering student learning.
Between 2015 and 2017, Fuqua and Wachs measured student understanding and confidence as Nissenson experimented with teaching methods. In one section of the course (the control) Nissenson continued teaching in a traditional lecture style. In the other section, he experimented with a variety of previously untested strategies to identify those that were most effective.
Fuqua and Wachs’ measurements indicated that student confidence and understanding improved with the use of active learning activities, regular assessments, more class discussion, and more practice problems. In response to their findings, Nissenson created short video tutorials for students to watch before class and assigned online homework that provides students with instant feedback.
With this adjusted format, the percentage of students who received a D, failed, or withdrew fell 23 points—from 34% to 11%.
Because failing a college course or withdrawing without a grade may indicate that a student is at risk of dropping out, improving pass rates in individual courses can improve the college’s overall retention rates, writes EAB Practice Manager David Attis. But contrary to popular belief, improving pass rates doesn’t mean easing up on academic rigor.
According to EAB research, student success in a rigorous course, such as fluid mechanics, can be improved through course redesign. “Many of our member institutions have found that it’s often the design of a course itself, rather than the difficulty or complexity of the material that contributes most to students’ ability to succeed,” explains Attis.
The three Cal Poly Pomona professors’ course redesign initiative earned them a California State University Faculty Innovation Award that includes a $10,000 grant, which will be allocated to “support ongoing efforts in innovation for student success” in their respective academic departments (Staff, Press-Enterprise, 9/30/18).
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