Foundational Course Initiative enhances student experiences
Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson October 31, 2023
4,023 UD students took courses redesigned and taught by Provost Teaching Fellows
Designing a board game doesn’t sound like a project you’d expect to see at the end of an introductory chemistry course, but for 2023 Excellence in Teaching honoree Professor Lauren Genova’s CHEM103 course, that’s exactly what some students did. Two students, Julia Stolker and Piper Priddy, worked together on this creative final project to demonstrate not just their learning, but their genuine enthusiasm for chemistry. Their board game helped advance their understanding of chemistry.
Stolker shared, “Being a Pre-Veterinary Medicine and Marine Science majors, when we were first learning about the open-ended concept of the creative chemistry final, we both gravitated towards our topics of interest: nature, Julia being the land, and Piper being the water. We wanted to do something interactive and fun, as we are both very visual learners and wanted to be able to share what we had learned over the semester with other people. So, we split the board down the middle and divided it into the ocean and land.”
Genova is one of 20 Provost’s Teaching Fellows, a group of faculty across UD who have spent the last two years reimagining what foundational and introductory courses can look like. The Foundational Course Initiative (FCI), a program developed and housed with the Center for Teaching & Assessment of Learning (CTAL), supports faculty who seek to add greater student engagement and real-world assessments and assignments into their introductory courses. In the fall of 2022, as many as 3,109 students took courses redesigned and taught by these Fellows. FCI courses include STEM, social science, and humanities courses that many first- and second-year students take as part of their degree requirements or to fulfill general education requirements. Each course is unique, but the program’s goals are the same: enhance the student experience of community, real-world connection, and engagement in large lecture courses.
Priddy also noted, “Most of the time in large lecture-style classes we have taken, the professor reads the information to you and then moves on. However, in Dr. Genova’s class, the experience of learning chemistry is much more immersive and personal. Despite the large number of students, Dr. Genova finds creative ways to give each student the one-on-one help they need in the form of office hours, weekly workshop sessions with TAs, and small group work times during the hourly lectures.”
Supporting students’ academic skills
Adapting to a full academic schedule as a first-year student also means adapting study and time management skills from those developed in high school to those more effective for undergraduate education. As part of the FCI, faculty blend skill-building like note-taking and self-reflection directly into the teaching and assessment of their courses.
For Jenn Trivedi, a Provost’s Teaching Fellow for Introduction to Anthropology (ANTH101), learning how to take high-quality notes is essential to anthropology. Students were introduced to field notes and encouraged to apply techniques such as sketching and annotating to their own class notes. When surveyed, students reported that prior to taking this course, they used to “copy what was on the slides” or “try to write everything down,” which didn’t always leave them with helpful study materials. By thinking about their own notes as field notes, students created personally meaningful documents and much more helpful study tools.
Genova also noted that her students reported developing note-taking skills, time management skills, and study strategies. She said, “I take a data-driven approach to my classes, where I rely on frequent feedback throughout the semester from my students to make informed and iterative changes to my course design. As reported by my students on my Fall 2022 CHEM 103 (General Chemistry I) end-of-semester survey (and analyzed by my wonderful collaborators in CTAL), 91% of my students agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that ‘the course environment was welcoming and I felt like I belonged in this class,’ and 89% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that ‘I was encouraged to meet and interact with the course instructor.’”
In Psychology 100, taught by Agnes Ly, students apply psychological principles to their own study habits, such as retrieval practice (e.g., quizzing yourself, taking practice quizzes). They also learned about the benefits of spacing out study sessions (rather than “cramming” the night before a big exam), and how to plan and manage their time from the beginning of the semester. By leveraging Canvas, UD’s learning management system, Ly is able to easily structure weekly reminders and messages for students to help them stick to their learning plans and prepare effectively for exams, even with 300+ students in a single section.
All Provost’s Teaching Fellows have opportunities to learn with and from each other, an aspect of the project that is a unique experience for many faculty members. Genova shared, “For me, one of the most exhilarating aspects of becoming a part of the Foundational Course Initiative was being welcomed into a community of driven and creative scholars from diverse areas of expertise who are united by the same goal of helping students reach their fullest potential.”
Genova added, “It is a common goal to promote retention and persistence in our disciplines, but we cannot achieve such things without providing our students with a strong foundation: not just in terms of foundational knowledge in our disciplines, but also by helping our students establish strong study skills and a genuine sense of belonging in the classroom. But, the development of such critically important skills and needs should not be compromised by the size of the classroom.”
According to Genova, this is where the Foundational Course Initiative's strength truly shines. “It gives instructors a space to collaborate across classroom sizes (and, across disciplines) to swap effective strategies to help promote student success and belonging. As a large lecture professor myself (having taught classes of 246 students), I have been delighted to discover that some of my favorite FCI innovations are not only scalable but also transferrable across class sizes and across disciplines.”
Upon sharing Julia and Piper's chemistry board game at an FCI Winter Retreat, another FCI member has since decided to incorporate a creativity assignment into her introductory psychology classes. “My fellow FCI colleagues (several of which are now active collaborators) have enjoyed similar successes,” Genova added.
A focus on student engagement and sense of belonging
While UD has fewer large-enrollment courses than many other universities of similar size, most first-year students find themselves in one or two large lecture-style courses. Finding one’s way academically and socially in a room of over a hundred other students can be daunting. That’s why one of the FCI focuses has been creating and sustaining a feeling of community, even in very large classes.
For UD’s Provost’s Teaching Fellows, this means developing ways for students to interact meaningfully with each other and the content. At the end of each semester, students are surveyed about their experiences. Data from the last three semesters, show that even these large classes provided students with rich opportunities for engagement, both with their peers and with content.
94% said that the instructor presented course content in more than one way.
87% said that they had conversations with their classmates about course content.
Stolker and Priddy stated, “Developing our project helped us make connections between our fields of interest and what we were learning in Dr. Genova’s class. We were able to explore and learn about reactions and defense mechanisms of animals and organisms in their environments which we detailed on the movement and research cards in our game. The creative freedom we were given really helped us see why it was so important to learn about chemistry.”
Almost 89% of students surveyed agree with the statement “The instructor created opportunities in the course to meet and interact with other students.” Statements like these demonstrate the progress Foundational Course Instructors have made in fostering a sense of community in their courses.
Engaging with classmates and content is an essential outcome of this initiative, but so is creating a sense of belonging for UD students, even in a large course. When surveyed, it is clear that students are experiencing the benefit of sense of community, and the opportunity to hone their skills in these courses:
94% said they felt welcome in the class and like they belonged there.
74% said they plan to continue interacting with the other students they met in the course, even after the semester.
90% said that what they learned the course was meaningful to them and that they’ll be able to use what they learned in future courses, their future career, and their lives.
These metrics show that students form a sense of belonging and community in these foundational courses, which has been shown to be an important factor in positively influencing retention and graduation rates.
What’s next for the Foundational Course Initiative
Faculty fellows engage with the FCI for up to three years, and at the end of their time, they take what they have learned back to their departments to share widely with their colleagues. Some fellows have presented their work at national conferences, including the AAC&U conference on Diversity, Equity, and Student Success. Each year, a small number of new Provost’s Teaching Fellows are welcomed into the program, and through cohort work and one-on-one consultation, they are advancing their own pedagogical goals and the educational mission of the institution. Six new fellows were named for fall 2023: Arijit Bose (Physics and Astronomy), Lillyrose Veneziano Broccia (Languages, Literatures and Cultures), Amy Bustin (Languages, Literatures and Cultures), Alicia Rovner (Health Behavior and Nutrition Sciences), Kami Silk (Communications), and Jennifer Thorpe (Health Behavior and Nutrition Sciences)
Faculty who are currently teaching 100- and 200-level introductory courses that enroll large numbers of students are encouraged to contact CTAL’s associate director for Educational Development, Dr. Rose Muravchick (firstname.lastname@example.org), to learn more about involvement in the program, or visit the CTAL website.