About eight years ago, California State University, Long Beach started work on a faculty development program to increase student success in courses with low completion rates. Many of these courses were “bottleneck” courses that slowed students’ progress toward their degrees. Completion rates in some of these courses have increased from 50 percent to 80 percent since the program began.
The program helps faculty learn to teach courses that include supplemental instruction (SI), an academic assistance strategy that uses extra instruction time and collaborative learning to improve student success. Instructors who participate in the faculty development program take a part-online, part face-to-face course on SI best practices.
Terre H. Allen, CSULB professor and the director of the university’s Faculty Center for Professional Development, participated in an email interview with Academic Leader about the program.
AL: When and how did the program come about?
Allen: We began our process in 2005. First, I worked with our vice-provost for enrollment management and associate vice-president for institutional research. They were concerned about “bottleneck” courses—those that had high failure rates and so many repeaters that additional sections were added each semester. These courses were slowing degree progress for many students in accounting, math, chemistry, biology, computer science, and economics. We worked to devise a plan to determine why bottlenecks were happening.
I invited department chairs and one faculty instructor per course to engage in a semester-long focus group. I began by asking them to identify which course in their department had the highest failure rate and which courses were bottlenecks. Not a single participant answered the question correctly. We asked the department chair/faculty teams to identify potential causes and consequences of their actual bottleneck and high failure courses. Here is what we found:
1) student underpreparedness and inadequate time on task
2) course pedagogical issues (large lecture courses only)
3) personnel issues, including faculty being untrained or unprepared to teach, burned-out, or uninterested in teaching the course
4) course organization, design, and assessment
AL: Which courses had low completion rates?
Allen: [Courses in] accounting, math, chemistry, biology, computer science, and economics.
Allen: Ah, now that is a very complex question. One size does not fit all LCRs. For example, the accounting department was able to remedy low completion rates exclusively through SI, with no course redesign or personnel changes. LCR chemistry courses required changes in all areas (course redesign, SI, personnel changes, and pedagogical changes). Assessing the problem or problems, experimenting with remedies, and finding solutions that are sustainable over time are critical to success.
AL: Have completion rates improved?
Allen: We have seen completion rates in LCR accounting, chemistry, and biology courses move from around 50 percent to nearly 80 percent. LCR computer science and economics courses have seen less success, but they have not added SI or undergone significant redesign. The departments opted to develop their own in-department tutoring programs.
AL: How does SI work on your campus?
Allen: SI is offered and managed through our Learning Assistance Center (LAC). The center trains, evaluates, and pays SI facilitators (students who have completed the course and are nominated by a faculty member who teaches the course offering SI). The LAC schedules the SI sections in cooperation with the faculty member teaching the course.
SI facilitators are required to meet regularly with the faculty member and LAC staff during the semester to make sure that the SI is functioning as planned. LAC staff members take the burden off the department and faculty member for managing, scheduling, and administrating SI, although they work in coordination with the department to achieve these tasks.
AL: How might a course be redesigned to integrate SI?
Allen: We offer an online faculty learning community to faculty teaching with SI (which is not required, only recommended). Housed and delivered through our campus learning management system, the online community offers several modules that allow the faculty member to explore best practices for integrating SI into their courses. Other modules include working with “underprepared students,” culturally responsive pedagogy, and tips and strategies for course redesign. The learning community also offers opportunities for faculty to share experiences, tips, strategies, and best practices.
AL: How could an institution offer faculty this type of professional development a way that doesn’t feel punitive?
Allen: In the online learning community, faculty are working with peers rather than being “developed” or “taught.” They have the opportunity to explore information and resources that appeal to them. They also have the opportunity to discuss issues with colleagues and share successes over time (during a semester).
AL: How are faculty held accountable?
Allen: Our university continues to monitor course completion rates and how they impact student retention, graduation rates, and time to degree completion.
AL: How do faculty benefit from participating? (Does participation figure into promotion and tenure decisions?)
Allen: Our reappointment, promotion, and tenure policy requires that faculty assess their courses and demonstrate student learning. The program has been extremely helpful for faculty who struggle to understand and provide evidence of assessment.
AL: What challenges and surprises did the institution encounter when implementing the program?
Allen: The challenge and surprise was just how complex issues surrounding LCR courses are and the amount of work and commitment it takes to sustain our practices.
For More Information about SI
More information about supplemental instruction (SI) is available through The International Center for Supplemental Instruction at www.umkc.edu/asm/si/index.shtml.