Rethinking gateway courses to improve outcomes, equity

The John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education is working with 93 colleges and universities to improve outcomes in gateway courses, which by virtue of their size and scope can pose a particular challenge to outcomes and equity in higher education, The Chronicle of Higher Education writes. These large-enrollment, introductory courses tend to cover a disproportionate amount of content, and often have notably higher failure, withdrawal, and incomplete rates among first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented students—even when those students are performing well in their other courses.

Given these disparities, and the sheer number of students affected by gateway course design, colleges and universities have an obligation to improve their approach, John Gardner, the institute’s founder, says. “We have tried everything under the sun to improve student success,” he said. “But most of these initiatives are on the periphery of the student experience,” Gardner told the Chronicle.

Reforming gateway courses to address inequities

Gateway courses are central to students’ academic trajectory, but they are also highly complex and notoriously difficult to change. “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,” the Chronicle writes.

The Gardner Institute’s Gateways to Completion program aims to facilitate improvements. Since 2013, it has helped colleges reform gateway courses by getting departmental buy-in, focusing on data-driven and evidence-based reforms, and offering support from specialists. The program focuses on ensuring students understand what they must do to succeed and looks to build academic support into course designs to encourage students to ask for help. The institute also maintains partnerships with disciplinary associations and university systems to further improve how gateway courses are designed and taught.

Results from the institute’s pilot program at 13 colleges indicate that students in revamped gateway courses had higher grades and higher pass and retention rates than students whose course sections had not undergone reforms. Despite the strong outcomes, experts note that widespread change could be difficult to achieve in a system where adjunct faculty often teach gateway courses with little support and where some institutions do not prioritize reform or research around teaching and learning.

“We had folks who had really opposed this work initially, or at best were fence-sitters,” Drew Koch, president of the Gardner Institute, told the Chronicle, “But when they saw these outcomes, they said, ‘We are part of this problem.’”

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