Student Success Insights Blog

The false tradeoff between academic rigor and course pass rates

by David Attis

It shouldn’t be news to anyone: failing a college course, or withdrawing without a grade, is a strong indicator that a student is at risk of dropping out.

This piece of conventional wisdom has been confirmed by our own analyses of data from across the Student Success Collaborative membership, and from extensive internal study by hundreds of institutional research departments. Failing or withdrawing from courses has a strongly negative relationship with students’ likelihoods of graduating; what’s more, a small subset of courses account for a large proportion of students’ D, F, or withdrawal marks (DFWs).

Too often, though, administrators and faculty believe that rigorous academic standards and high student failure rates are inextricably linked; in their minds, the only way to lower DFW rates in these courses is to ease up on the academic rigor.

But 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.

Beyond that, in our student success research, we have identified and validated a number of pedagogical and advising approaches that correlate with positive student outcomes, including both course success rates and long-term well-being. Close contact and attention from faculty mentors, active and project-based learning exercises, and frequent assessment are just a few demonstrated best practices that deserve replication and expansion across all of higher education.

It’s no surprise then, that nearly all of our members are invested in scaling many of these high-impact practices to the courses and class sections in which students are struggling the most. Below, we’ve outlined four proven approaches to working with faculty and academic departments to redesign high-DFW courses while maintaining or even strengthening their academic rigor.

Course-Based Learning Communities

Boise State University

Faculty members and instructors in the mathematics department at Boise State University have created a learning community around Calculus to explore ideas and practices that might improve student outcomes.

Each faculty cohort goes through two phases—the first is exploratory, encouraging each participant to explore new teaching and assessment techniques on their own and share results back with the rest of the group. The second is constructive, requiring agreement on a set of shared practices and course materials for use across sections, using findings from the exploratory phase.

As a result, Calculus instructors adopted a common textbook and syllabus, synchronized homework and quizzes, migrated to a problem-based learning model, and created an exam review process to guard against wide variation in assessment practices. Pass rates jumped from 61% to 74% after the adoption of these practices.

Task-Specific Retention Subcommittees

Auburn University - Montgomery

While retention committees are certainly not new, faculty members and administrators at Auburn University – Montgomery (AUM) have implemented a creative solution to two problems that often prevent these assemblies from moving forward on course redesign initiatives: a lack of clear direction and a lack of a single source of information about barriers to student success.

At AUM, three subcommittees divide critical analysis and recommendation steps to ensure that problems with and solutions to poor pass rates in course sections are tightly linked. The Campus Response Team, comprised of 20 faculty members, turns broad concerns into specific questions for investigation; the Data Management Team, comprised mostly of institutional research staff, pulls together the requisite information in order to answer those questions; and the Data Investigation Team, comprised of faculty and staff members, analyzes the data to provide actionable intelligence to the Campus Response Team.

Through close collaboration and this ‘separation of powers’ approach, AUM is able to create and sustain momentum on initiatives like course redesign, and ensure that faculty members are centrally involved in both the identification and resolution of curricular bottlenecks.

Large Course Redesign Service

University of North Carolina – Charlotte

The Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) at the University of North Carolina – Charlotte (UNCC) provides a “large course redesign service” to departments interested in re-evaluating their approach to teaching and assessment in their most subscribed course sections.

Using principles and practices from the National Center for Academic Transformation, CTL staff work with instructors over the course of 3-4 semesters to think through student needs and outcome goals, the latest pedagogical techniques within the discipline, staffing and budget planning, course materials, and faculty training needs.

UNCC’s physics department recently redesigned their introductory courses, migrating from a lecture-based model to a hybrid, active learning approach that improved pass rates and student retention.

Upper Division Delay Diagnostic

University of Maine

Finally, leaders at the University of Maine (UM) have begun to analyze student graduation rates for each major, measuring the share of students who graduate within the program within 2 years after attaining 65 credit hours.

After identifying majors with the lowest graduation rates, the deans and chairs conduct a second analysis to determine whether barriers within the relevant departments are outside of their control (for example, extensive accreditation requirements) or addressable, and what resources would be needed to remedy those that pose unintentional or undesirable obstacles for timely graduation.

Departments that are able to address "low hanging fruit" curricular barriers become eligible for additional funding from the provost’s office to work on larger issues, such as limited seat availability in upper-division courses or a need to re-evaluate scheduling practices.

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