How to help students thrive in tough college courses

Students in courses where an unusually large share of students earn Ds, fail, or withdraw (DFW) are often connected to academic support only after they receive informal warnings from an advisor, Bridget Burns, chief executive officer at the University Innovation Alliance, tells The Hechinger Report. Getting students help before they veer off track can lead to more equitable outcomes. Pell Grant recipients, first-generation college students, male students, and students from historically marginalized communities have higher DFW rates than their peers, according to a 2021 report on a cluster of Big Ten schools from the Association of Public Land Universities. Students who receive Ds, Fs, or Ws graduate at lower rates than their peers. 

To support student success, Burns and leaders from the University Innovation Alliance, a national coalition of public research universities with a shared mission to increase the number and diversity of college graduates, have built an “academic first aid kit,” which includes academic coaching, writing assistance, and other resources readily available in colleges and universities across the country, says The Hechinger Report. The University Innovation Alliance began a trial across 11 colleges to test the impact of its resources on 311 students re-enrolled (at no cost) in a high-DFW course which they had previously failed. 

The resources helped students retake tough classes, says Burns. Seventy-seven percent of students in the trial passed the course on their second try, compared to 55% who paid to retake the course and received no additional academic support from the University Innovation Alliance. Burns says that, instead of putting students in easier classes, higher education should connect students to academic support services before they begin difficult courses.

“It’s more expensive, it’s a little bit more resource intensive, I get it,” says Burns. “But it’s so much more costly for us to have students getting Ds, Fs, and Ws and walking away.”

Inclusive pedagogy at Georgetown

Georgetown University’s Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (CNDLS) is helping faculty adopt inclusive course pedagogy to empower students to succeed in academically rigorous classes. As CNDLS explains, “In inclusive courses, the content takes into account the range of perspectives in the class, and is delivered in a way that strives to overcome barriers to access that students might have.” To create an academic environment where all students thrive, CNDLS offers faculty a toolkit, which includes concrete best practices for assessment, teaching, and mentoring that foster student belonging in alignment with the Jesuit value of cura personalis, or care of the whole person. 

Related: Prioritize inclusive teaching to enhance learning, professors say >

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