This week:

  • I share one university’s early plans for a capstone course meant to help students reflect on the major events of their college years.
  • I share a recent analysis of DFW rates and put them in context.
  • I pass along an idea for helping students navigate getting their Covid vaccines.
  • I share some recent articles you may have missed.

Pivotal Moments

Before the pandemic, Scott Mattingly was part of a small group working to revise the general-education curriculum at DeSales University, where he is associate dean of academic life. Among other things, the group hoped to rework the university’s capstone requirement, creating a course that would tie students’ education together.

Covid-19 slowed the effort down — and also took it in a different direction.

Mattingly found himself doing a lot of reading and reflection on the “twin pandemics” of Covid and racism. “And then it just hit me,” he says. “Our students need time and space to think about this and to process this.”

Students, of course, talk about what’s going on in the world informally, Mattingly says, with their family and friends and in dining halls and dorms. But that’s different from what happens in a classroom, where discussion is facilitated by a faculty member. In a classroom, discussion can be grounded in shared reference points, while including people who aren’t already close.

At first, giving students a place to reflect on the events of 2020 seemed separate from a capstone course. But then Mattingly realized that DeSales could create a flexible course meant to help students grapple with whatever problems end up dominating their college years.

So this semester, Mattingly taught a one-credit elective, “Pivotal Moments: Fulfilling Your Potential in Times of Change,” in person to 10 juniors and seniors as a pilot of the eventual required course.

Most of the students’ coursework was discussion-and-reflection-based. They also completed a two-part project, first synthesizing what they learned in the course and prior courses and connecting it to their own lives; then choosing a problem in society or their desired career and proposing a set of solutions — including a personal contribution they could make.

In order for this kind of course to be successful, Mattingly said, it’s important to cultivate a classroom environment where students can share openly. Mattingly modeled the kind of vulnerability he hopes they’ll bring to class in the way he talks about his own life experiences where they are relevant.

That kind of discussion, he said, has led to students forming connections and offering support to one another outside of class.

By the end of the course — the last class meeting was earlier this week — several students described the experience as “therapeutic,” Mattingly shared by email. Some professors, he wrote, might bristle at that term, but he thought the students used the term in a nuanced way, and he saw their point. “Pivotal moments,” he wrote, “stop us in our tracks and compel us to think, ‘Why am I here, and what am I doing?’ These are questions we all need to consider from time to time; but I think college juniors and seniors nearing a major transition into their post-graduate lives especially crave the opportunity to do that kind of reflection.”

Have you found a way to help students reflect and make sense of the events they’re living through in your course? Tell me about it at, and your example may appear in a future newsletter.

A Warning Sign

The DFW rate — the share of students who receive a grade of D or F or withdraw — in gateway courses has emerged as an important metric. DFW rates are correlated with progress to graduation. They can also be an important gauge of equity: In general, DFW rates are higher for first-generation students, students from underrepresented minority groups, and men than for their classmates.

Both trends come through in this recent look at DFW rates for a set of common high-enrollment gateway courses compiled by a group of Big Ten universities working together on a project for the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. “These findings,” the report’s authors write, “indicate significant discrepancies in student support and success in these key gateway courses and the need for further examination into the policies, practices, and pedagogy that is having significant differential impact on student populations.”

Some colleges have done this kind of examination and concluded that they need to overhaul their gateway courses. Beth has written in depth about one university’s approach, and taken a closer look at the link between gateway courses and equity.

Vaccination Information

Even if they’re eager to be vaccinated, students might have questions about the logistics of getting their shots or about possible side effects. Elaine Hernandez, an assistant professor of sociology at Indiana University at Bloomington who studies health, recently tweeted an idea of how professors can help: Set up a discussion post on the topic in their learning-management system. “Students in my class asked questions about side effects & helped each other,” Hernandez wrote, “while I monitor discussions.”


  • Some 29 percent of Yale University undergraduates reported committing academic dishonesty, according to a survey conducted by the Yale Daily News. About half of those respondents said their first violation was during remote instruction. And the pandemic seems to have led to a jump in cheating: In a 2019 survey, the News found that 14 percent of the university’s students said they had cheated.
  • Rachel Toor unpacks a recent book about ungrading — a set of practices that de-emphasize grades in an attempt to center learning — in her latest column for The Chronicle.

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— Beckie

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