Reduce course section variation to improve course completion rates

The role of faculty learning communities in course redesign

By Ashley Delamater

High failure rates in critical gateway courses present one of the biggest obstacles to student success for many colleges and universities. Large gateway courses with failure rates as high as 60% can lead to student attrition or increase time-to-degree for hundreds or even thousands of students at a single institution.

While student academic preparation is clearly an important factor in explaining overall failure rates, data on course completion rates by instructor show significant variation. Grading variation remains true even among students with similar qualifications in different sections of the same course, indicating that a student’s choice (or assignment) of instructor plays a significant role in his or her success.

Instructors Cause Variability

Such variation means students in the same course may have vastly different qualities of experience, which reinforces a common misperception that the specific instructor matters more than the course’s pedagogy or student learning outcomes. This can create significant competition between students for specific course sections based on the instructor, leaving students late to register or with more inflexible schedules to potentially select from sections with lower rates of success.

To ensure each student has the best chance for success, standards for section outcomes must be raised. However, that can only be done with the involvement of all faculty instructors, not just those few who are most willing to experiment with delivery modes and innovative pedagogy in the classroom. Boise State University overcame this pitfall by bringing together instructors through faculty learning communities (FLC) that support individual pedagogical exploration while encouraging collective learning through practice and outcomes sharing. The key? FLCs put faculty in the driver’s seat and allow them to use their skills and expertise to improve courses collectively, instead of mandating change from central administration.

In the face of high failure rates in Calculus I, Boise State’s Center for Teaching and Learning invited mathematics faculty to participate in a course-based FLC focused on restructuring Calculus I. Their goal was to improve teaching and learning through the adoption of shared, evidence-backed materials and approaches.

The redesign effort took place in two phases over the course of about 16 months. The first phase convened an “Exploratory FLC” during which calculus instructors explored and experimented with redesign strategies. This period created greater consensus around effective pedagogy—and most importantly, across multiple instructors engaged in redesign efforts.

Boise State

In the second phase, faculty gathered for a “Collective Action FLC,” the goal of which was to implement agreed-upon reforms in the classroom. Invitations to this faculty learning community were limited to instructors scheduled to teach calculus the following term. During the first half of phase two, instructors determined which reforms they would implement in their Calculus I sections during the following semester (which overlapped with phase two). FLC meetings allowed them the opportunity to share their experiences with the reforms and plan for future weeks.

The Collective Action FLC began by testing a shared textbook and syllabus, which allowed individual instructors freedom in determining course assignments and grading. However, instructors soon realized the benefit of a set of shared grading policies, as well as synchronized assignment of identical homework and similar examination materials.

Join us at a national meeting
Register today

An ancillary benefit to this synchronization was that it fostered community building for students, even across sections. The impact was visible immediately—in the pilot term, student pass rates soared to a weighted average of 74% across sections.

Coherent Multi-Section Course

Boise State was able to achieve sustained reform, as all of the structure and materials developed by the FLC were adopted by 100% of calculus instructors, including non-FLC members, in the next term. There were no incentives or mandates to do so. Though Boise State incurred a small cost in course releases to support the FLCs, the long-term impact of calculus reform far outweighed the magnitude of their investment. In fact, they are continuing to see the benefits, with calculus pass rates climbing to 75% in the subsequent term.

To ensure rigor has been maintained, faculty plan to evaluate the impact of the course redesign by assessing student performance in subsequent courses. However, the use of an FLC helps to pre-emptively guard against reduction in standards or rigor by placing the reforms directly into the hands of instructors.

This is a preview of restricted content.

Full access to this content is reserved for Academic Affairs Forum members. Log in now or learn more about Academic Affairs Forum.

Next, Check Out

Course Completion Playbook

  • Manage Your Events
  • Saved webpages and searches
  • Manage your subscriptions
  • Update personal information
  • Invite a colleague