You’re reading the latest issue of Teaching, a weekly newsletter from a team of Chronicle journalists. Sign up here to get it in your inbox on Thursdays.

This week:

  • I tell you about a national program to increase completion rates in gateway courses.
  • Beckie describes a new report she has written, on teaching creativity.
  • I share some articles on teaching that you may have missed.
  • At AAC&U next week? Meet up with us! Details below.

Widening the Gateway

Last month, I wrote about a major initiative at the University of Michigan to improve gateway courses. If you’ve ever taught one, you know the challenges. They’re supposed to lay the foundation for later work in a department or major, but because they’re so large and often have to cover so much content, they’re hard to make engaging. They tend to have higher than average failure and withdrawal rates. They’re often low status within departments. Worst of all, making improvements can feel like you’re trying to turn the Titanic. I called them the courses everyone loves to hate.

What’s less well known: Which students are most likely to fail. While outcomes vary by course and campus, research shows that first-generation, lower-income, and underrepresented students have higher rates of D’s, F’s, withdrawals, or incompletes in these courses, even when they are performing well in their other classes.

That, says John Gardner, is why fixing these courses is, in essence, a social-justice issue, one that higher education has an ethical, and overdue, obligation to address.

“We have tried everything under the sun to improve student success,” says the longtime education reformer. “There are all kinds of magic bullets. Everybody is drinking the Kool-Aid to try this or that. But most of these initiatives are on the periphery of the student experience.”

Gateway courses, by contrast, are a common experience for most first- and second-year students. At Michigan, for example, they account for one-third of all undergraduate credit hours.

For the past seven years, the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education has been working to help dozens of colleges improve outcomes in gateway courses, using a model somewhat similar to Michigan’s.

As I explained in my story, Michigan’s approach is to turn course reform into a campuswide effort. It does so by asking departments to sign an agreement to work with specialists in the campus teaching and learning center for three years, taking an evidence- and research-driven approach to course reform. Five or six courses enter the reform process each year, with teams of people working together to make improvements. Faculty, staff, and students work alongside specialists in educational technology, learning science and instructional design to collect data, conduct surveys, and experiment with things like redesigning exams or rethinking course content.

The idea is that these courses are so complicated that they require action on multiple fronts. A single professor, or even a single department, can’t go it alone.

Since 2013, the Gardner Institute has run a program called Gateways to Completion, offering a support system for institutions looking to undertake such reforms. A number of the elements in the Michigan program, including departmental buy-in, data-driven and evidence-based reforms, and a network of support from specialists, are part of the Gateways strategy. Many of the 93 participating college, it’s worth noting, are not wealthy campuses that can back something like Michigan’s $5-million initiative. (The nonprofit does charge for its work.)

Leading the effort is Drew Koch, president of the Gardner Institute, who believes the data on DFWI rates the institute has been collecting on gateway courses is a powerful motivator for change in higher education. “We had folks who had really opposed this work initially, or at best were fence-sitters,” he says. “But when they saw these outcomes, they said, ‘We are part of this problem.’”

Much of the course-reform process involves bringing transparency to these courses so they are explicit about what students need to do to succeed. The Gateways project also aims to embed academic support into course design, so that students have an incentive to seek assistance. Preliminary evidence from 13 colleges involved in the Gateways pilot program shows higher grades, pass rates, and retention rates among students in revamped courses compared with students in course sections that did not go through the reform process, Koch says.

The Gardner Institute is also trying to advance the cause of well-designed and taught gateway courses through partnerships with disciplinary associations, such as the American Historical Association’s History Gateways project, and with university systems, like Georgia’s, where 24 institutions are involved in course reform.

While they’re optimistic that awareness is increasing, Gardner and Koch say challenges remain. They include a rewards structure that doesn’t pay enough attention to teaching reform; a system that tends to rely heavily on adjuncts, who are often poorly supported, to teach introductory classes; and a research culture that doesn’t place enough value on research around teaching and learning.

Have you made changes to your gateway course that has resulted in better performance and satisfaction, for both you and your students? If so, drop me a line at beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com, and your story may appear in a future newsletter.

Teaching Creativity

Creativity is sometimes regarded as an innate ability. But regular readers of this newsletter won’t be surprised to hear that it’s a skill experts insist can be taught. So why, and how?

Beckie spent the tail end of 2019 focused on those questions. She spoke with scholars who study creativity, dug into data on why employers say it’s important, and interviewed professors working to foster it in the classroom and beyond. The result: “The Creativity Challenge,” a new report for Chronicle Intelligence. You can purchase a copy here.

The report offers insights for college leaders and classroom teachers alike. She also wrote a short article with teaching tips from Keith Sawyer, a creativity expert and professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. You can read that here.

If you have feedback or ideas, please drop Beckie a line at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com.

ICYMI

  • To help computer-science majors improve their presentation skills, a dean at Northeastern University turned to an unusual partner: the theater department. This video by our colleague Julia Schmalz, a senior multimedia producer, shows how that works.
  • Too much monitoring, no matter how well intentioned, teaches students that compliance is more important than learning, writes David Gooblar, the associate director of Temple University’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching, in this Chronicle advice piece.

Join us at AAC&U next week

Are you going to the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges & Universities next week? Please join us next Thursday, January 23, along with our colleague Goldie Blumenstyk, who writes The Edge newsletter for The Chronicle, for a happy hour from 5 to 6:30 p.m. We’ll be in the lobby bar of the Marriott. We look forward to saying hello to you — and hearing your ideas and feedback for our respective newsletters. Not going, but know people who are? Please let them know.

Thanks for reading Teaching. If you have suggestions or ideas, please feel free to email us, at dan.berrett@chronicle.com, beckie.supiano@chronicle.com, or beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com.

—Beth