Course Redesign: A Call to Service

This post was co-authored by Stacey Anderson and Kim Vose

If you’re wary of the CSU’s Graduation Initiative 2025, we get it. We’re CSU faculty, which means we care a lot about our students. We see potential where others might see deficits. Give us your tired and poor, and we’ll help them graduate into creative problem solvers ready to tackle the complex challenges of the 21st century. Do we think that needs to happen in four years for every student? Definitely not.

Nevertheless, ask your students, and there’s a good chance they anticipate graduating in four years. For over half a century, UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) has surveyed incoming first year students at colleges and universities across the country, including several CSUs. Since 2012, this survey of “The American Freshmen” has asked students how long they think it will take to complete their degrees. 85% of first year students surveyed expected to graduate in four years. This suggests that students don’t come to us expecting to languish for six years or longer. It also indicates we can better serve students by implementing innovative tools and strategies that will increase their chances of passing difficult classes the first time.

As participants in the CSU’s Course Redesign with Technology Initiative (CRT), we’ve had the chance to engage in candid and illuminating conversations about what the Graduation Initiative entails. CRT was rolled out by the Chancellor’s Office to improve teaching and learning in the “bottleneck” classes that can slow student progress towards degree completion. Our particular multi-campus cohort has focused on the integration of innovative technologies and practices in writing-intensive classes; but we’ve interacted with faculty from across disciplines and campuses and shared connections regarding our mutual challenges with and visions for our students.

The shocking statistic motivating CRT is that one-third of all CSU first year students received a repeatable grade (DFW) in their first semester. That is 20,000 of 60,000 students essentially failing a class their first time out. As writing specialists, we certainly understand the role of failure in student learning. Nonetheless, when there are classes in the CSU with an 80% failure rate, it can’t just be about lack of preparation or laziness on the part of students.

James Minor, who joined the CSU as senior strategist for Academic Success and Inclusive Excellence, helped personalize this statistic for the CRT community during our Mid-Year Meeting at the Chancellor’s Office earlier this month. He asked us to visualize these 20,000 students when they received their acceptance letters to the CSU. These students never imagined they would fail a class in their first semester, and they almost certainly didn’t come to us with that intention.

Minor also underscored that we admitted these students, which means we believed they were capable of completing our degrees programs. We understand that just 58% of CSU students come to us college ready in math and English (39% here at CI for our most recent crop of first year students). But we committed ourselves to educating these students and felt we were up to the task. How can we redesign our classes to bring success within reach for the students we have chosen to serve?

Initially, we were concerned that Graduation Initiative 2025 would leave our most vulnerable students in the dust or shuffle them along towards perfunctory completion of a deflated degree. Through thoughtful dialogue and debate, we’ve come to understand this initiative as institutionalizing a goal we’ve worked towards all along through our involvement with Teaching & Learning Innovations as well as Course Redesign. If we can inspire other faculty at CI and across the CSU to adopt the inclusive, innovative tools and strategies that are helping narrow the achievement gap in our own classes, we can transform what it means to earn a CSU degree.

Now the urgent part. The graduation initiative is intended to increase both four-year and six-year graduation rates for first time freshmen so that by 2025, 40% of these students complete their degrees in four years and 70% complete them in six years. That still allows plenty of students to take more time if they need it. It also means we need to be prepared to launch our innovations no later than 2019.

Fortunately, you already have the tools and resources at your disposal to improve student learning and narrow the achievement gap in your classes. Step 1 is taking advantage of Teaching & Learning Innovations array of programs, workshops, and academic technology experts. Step 2 is exploring the Request for Proposals for the fifth round of CRT. You might also check out this year’s set of Proven Course Redesign ePortfolios for a range of examples of what works. Proposals are due in three weeks, so don’t delay if we’ve piqued your interest. And do let us know if you’d like to chat about all of this with us. We love talking about innovative, student-centered teaching.


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