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How to Improve Student Success Rates in Gateway Courses

increase student success in foundational coursesGateway courses are the gauntlet of higher education.

Students enter foundational classes with diverse and often insufficient levels of knowledge. Getting them to do the work and engage in class can be an uphill battle, and many don’t have the study habits or skills they need to succeed.

At the same time, courses aren’t designed to simultaneously help large groups of students with varying learning profiles. Often, they cover such a high volume of content that students suffer from cognitive overload, giving them more reason to disengage.

When students succeed in these foundational classes, they build the confidence critical to helping propel them along the path to a degree. Yet for those who struggle or even worse, do not pass these courses, the discouragement that follows can knock them off track – or drive them to drop out.

Faculty do all they can, but most don’t have the time, tools or insights into student knowledge they need to address these challenges. The result is no surprise: too many students fail, delaying or derailing their chance to complete a degree.

For institutions, too, the negative impact of lower pass rates and drop-outs runs deep. Besides weakening student and faculty motivation, lower success rates in these early, often high-enrollment courses undercut critical success metrics such as student retention and completion rates.

Educators have implemented measures aimed at addressing this problem, with a heavy focus on providing remedial resources either layered on top of regular coursework or supplemental to the class. Yet these measures are not yielding the degree of impact institutions want to see, begging the question: what more can and should be done?

Overcoming the pass-rates problem requires a complete and sustainable solution, one built to address the challenges both students and educators face in these pivotal gateway courses.

The Imperative for Educators 

The complexity and diversity of these challenges necessitates a holistic approach to developing a solution rather than the current method of implementing disconnected, hit-or-miss point solutions.  The analysis of the root causes yields a clearer picture of what needs to be true for educators to address the problem holistically – and as a result significantly improve student success:

  • Provide better tools and insights for faculty
    Faculty need a way to efficiently and effectively deliver learning experiences to students, derive greater value out of their own time and help students get the personalized support they need to succeed. They also need insights and tools that enable them to quickly identify students at risk of failing and provide targeted assistance in time to make a difference.
  • Offer visibility and guidance for students
    Students should be able to see their own areas of strength and weakness, and work proactively and efficiently within the time provided to fill in the gaps, with learning experiences tailored to their unique learning profiles. They also need the structure and guidance to build proper study skills and habits – and to learn how to learn on their own.
  • Present opportunities to build confidence
    At the same time, students need to develop a belief in their ability to learn. This can be supported with just-in-time intervention where and when they need it, opportunities to build a pattern of achievement by experiencing incremental success, and continuous awareness of their learning progress and knowledge growth.
  • Make learning feel relevant
    Students need learning experiences that help them see the value of completing work and coming to class prepared, particularly in early, foundational courses. The ability to see the impact of the work they’re doing on their overall learning, both in and outside of the classroom, plays a key role in this. Providing students agency over their learning is important as well.
  • Enable continuous optimization of course design
    Course developers, be it faculty themselves or instructional designers, need the ability to design courses that deliver learning experiences that align with how students learn best. Once those experiences are created, developers need a more informed, agile process for adjusting and improving curriculum, assessment and content based on evidence, data and feedback.
  • Deliver meaningful, actionable metrics for leadership
    Finally, administrators need a way to understand the performance of courses and faculty, as well as trends over time, so they can identify and support informed opportunities for timely improvements.

Technology-enabled Teaching as a Tool to Improve Student Success Rates

It’s clear that students need additional – and differentiated – learning support to achieve higher success rates in high-enrollment gateway courses. Yet often, faculty in these courses simply don’t have the bandwidth for this amount of tailored attention. Where available, additional help from graduate assistants and student advisors can attempt to address the problem, but staffing up isn’t usually a feasible and cost-effective option. Even if additional resources can be added to support students, scaling those resources to fully address the scope of the problem is nearly impossible without the availability of good data and timely insights to inform early and ongoing identification of students’ progress, needs and challenges.

The key requirements above add up to a seemingly tall order for institutions seeking to make a significant impact on student success, but these goals are achievable. The right technology can be the key enabler that brings all these pieces together, providing the tools, data and support educators need to overcome this challenge. By alleviating rather than adding to educators’ day-to-day duties and challenges, digital learning and analytics systems can prove both effective and pragmatic solutions to improving student success rates – and they’re much more scalable than human capital investments.

Indeed, a proliferation of digital learning tools exists today that aim to support and improve student success, from online homework products to off-the-shelf courseware. Yet an approach that speaks to the multifaceted needs described above gets closer to what Educause defines as a next-generation digital learning environment, with an integrated teaching and learning system encompassing not only course design and delivery, but also assessment, analytics, personalization and student support.

For those ready to move forward, finding the educational technology platform that checks all the right boxes starts with mapping out specific needs and goals, researching potential options, asking the right questions and hearing from fellow educators. While the problem being addressed may no doubt on the surface appear similar across different institutions, the successful solution is usually the one that can be tailored to the specific context of the course and the preferences of the faculty. The expertise, capabilities and perspectives of the technology partner to help design these unique solutions then become critically important in achieving success. 

Pioneering educators have paved the way, building and implementing comprehensive, personalized digital learning experiences that are showing a real and substantial positive impact on student success. A broad array of newer adopters from small, private colleges to large, four-year universities are following their lead, with strong, significant results.

While low student success rates in foundational courses are all too pervasive, the problem is not unsolvable. Rather, it’s one that needs a fresh solution, a little spark from the champions in the community –  faculty and administrators – and small steps toward success, one course at a time.

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