Colorado Learning Analysis Studies (CLAS)
The purpose of Colorado Learning Analysis Study (CLAS) was to determine how faculty and students can improve the learning environment on the CU Boulder campus. Investigators interviewed seventy-five undergraduate students to determine what teaching practices enhance and impede undergraduates’ opportunities to learn inside and outside of the classroom. For Year 2 of the CLAS project, researchers sought interview item suggestions and feedback from campus administrators, faculty, and student service officers in a Stakeholders meeting, held in early September of 2008.
The report follows a set of themes discussed in interviews, and uncovers patterns of responses, providing sample quotations from student transcripts. The executive summary serves to summarize and highlight four topics of particular interest to campus stakeholders in the fall 2008 meeting: diversity, students’ experiences learning how to learn, student impressions of grades, and student course cohesion and course choice. The full report includes additional topics regarding learning, student priorities, use of technology in learning, students’ learning inside and outside of academia (e.g. including work and extracurricular settings), and student recommendations to new students.
Professor and President’s Teaching Scholar Clayton Lewis, Computer Science
Dr. Mary Ann Shea, Director, Faculty Teaching Excellence Program
Dr. Sarah Hug, Research Associate, ATLAS
Student recommendations for professors—improving learning out of class
Students described ways to enhance their learning in the classroom by
engaging in myriad opportunities out of the classroom.
• Encourage or require study groups Students state that study groups
increase their learning out of the classroom, by providing them
opportunities to teach content to their peers, and also to gain assistance
• Supply additional material for students Students who chose to engage in
outside readings and experiences reported learning out of class. The
choice to utilize the resources provided may influence students’
impressions of the experience.
• Hire an undergraduate student The undergraduate research opportunity
program (UROP) provides funds for professors in need of research
assistance. The UROP students said the research experience extended
their learning, and also led to positive relationships with professors.
Recommendations for students—maximizing the college experience
CLAS interviewees described ways in which they enhanced their learning
outside of the lecture hall.
• Organize a study group Meeting with peers to discuss core concepts
improves students’ understanding of course material.
• Utilize additional material, and go to voluntary events Make use of
professor-supplied additional readings and multimedia artifacts. Multiple
representations of concepts often shed light on difficult topics.
• Work in your field as an undergraduate Research opportunities help clarify
career aspirations, allow you to form personal relationships with
professors, and secure opportunities for learning out of class.
Unwritten Rules for Student Success
“Do your homework.” “Go to class.” “Don’t party too much.” While the advice may sound
familiar to any entering college freshman, these pearls of wisdom came directly from the mouths of current undergraduates at CU-Boulder. Students realized that many of their suggestions were in fact written, or often quoted to students. In CLAS interviews, participants not only pontificated about how to succeed in college, they backed up their statements with personal experiences, proving they know of what they speak, and can explain not only what to do as undergraduates but why those actions led to their intellectual or personal development. The majority of responses fell into three wide-ranging categories: academic engagement, life skill development, and broader engagement in the community.
Engaging Actively in Academics
Students would tell future students that they really needed to go to class (10) and participate fully (8) when they do attend. Going to recitations is particularly effective in learning at the early stages of college where courses tend to be large, according to CLAS participants (1), particularly because they provide a venue for learning from peers (5), and meeting peers with whom a student could study (1). Students described the benefits of receiving help from professors and TAs (12) when they were not doing well in courses. One student mentioned that pursuing teaching opportunities allows students to learn, as to teach something requires a deep understanding of the material. The quotes below were chosen to illustrate the reasoning and personal experiences grounding students’ recommendations for success.
“I would say, ‘Don’t skip class. You can learn a lot just by going, even if it’s at a time you don’t like or the class itself isn’t very interesting.’ And I know that’s like a technical rule of school but I think it’s important in a lot of people, especially in their freshman year don’t go to their classes when they could do a lot better just by showing up.”
“Just, you have to take advantage of different study groups and things. That’s something I didn’t do before my first test and didn’t do well; then sort of got on that boat for the second one and did a lot better.”
“I think it's a good idea to, for students, to build relationships with people in their classes and their teachers and advisors because it's nice to have other people to relate to what you're doing. And, I joined a business fraternity a couple years ago and that just helped me in so many ways. It was... To be able to talk about class with someone else and like exchange ideas and stuff because some people might not know people in their classes. And, it's really helpful when you do have those relationships.”
“Get to know your TAs, actually, because if they know you, you can learn more from them and they can be more willing to help you. It’s probably the same way for the professor; actually, maybe more so. I never did that so I don’t really know, but I’d say get to know some of them.”
“Professors always say, ‘Come see me at my office hours,’ on the first day and nobody
ever does. I think that that’s a really big thing because if they know your name and they
know who you are, the chances of you doing better in the class will be better because
you feel like you know them so you’re able to ask questions when you need to and speak up in class when you need to. They’ll be more likely to give you a better grade because of participation; they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah. I know this person. They came and saw me. They participate.’ I’ve had a lot of classes where I’ve been on a border between two grades and they bumped me up because they know who I am; because I went and talked to them; or they give me an extra credit opportunity because they know who I am.”
“Unwritten rules for success are – office hours are there for a reason; that is huge, I
learned freshman year. I had taken Calculus in high school and I came into Calculus 1
and I’m like, ‘Oh, I’ve done Calculus before,’ and all that. I bombed my first test and then my professor, he’s like, ‘Oh, anybody who got lower than this score, I’d like you to come talk with me.’ So, I went and talked with him; he’s a really approachable guy and his office hours were really helpful. I was a regular go-er there and then I aced the course.”
Study Continuously During the Semester
CU-Boulder CLAS participants have been there—it’s 10pm, you have a huge test in the
morning, and you haven’t cracked a book. They encourage incoming students to spread out the work so you don’t have to cram (11), and you may also feel more confident in facing exams. They mention that doing your homework (9) and keeping up with readings makes test-taking less anxiety-producing. CLAS students say whether a student heeds this advice or not, the college experience itself teaches undergraduates how to learn (5). For more advice regarding study strategies, CLAS stakeholders recommend the resource Navigating the Research University: A Guide for First Year Students (Andreatta, 2006) as well as “How to Succeed in College: Learn
How to Learn” (Bjork, 2001), detailed in the references page of this report.
“Yeah; homework as well. I think they help so much and when it comes time for a test,
you just look through your homework and be like, ‘Ok, I got this, I got this and I missed
this one; I’ll review that question.’ I can get away with studying an hour or two and other
people are studying for five hours and I think that’s just the homework. You invest the
time into that and then when it comes time for the test, you don’t have to worry as much.”
“Make sure you study, give three days before the tests and start studying. I know I felt
like I studied the day before and I would like get the basic general outline out, and that is the hardest part, once you get that out you can just kind of go over it and memorize it, and I couldn't get the go over and memorize it part because I don't have enough time.
Just kind of study in advance three days before the test.”
“You know, make sure you put enough time towards classes...and do your homework.
That's a big one…There are two reasons, one is a grade and two that is how, at least for
me, I'm learning the material for the class. Not only if I don't do my homework I don't get
the grade on the homework, I am also going to fail the test.”
“Then also like it helps too to every so often instead of like waiting until your test to look
over your notes, like every couple of days just looking back over your notes, because
then like when it comes to your test, you don't have to study as hard. You have read it so many times that it, you know, it sticks better.”
“l… through high school I never really studied and I thought most of my freshman year,
well into my fall semester and probably some of my spring semester, I didn’t study. I did pretty good but then toward the end of spring semester, definitely this year, I found that you’ve got to study. It’s required. And you’ve got to do a lot of reading, which is pretty much part of studying. That’s the single biggest thing I guess I would say.”
A large part of the college experience, according to CLAS participants, is learning how to live independently. They mention life skills they are developing that they attribute to their college careers and experiences, and would urge new freshman to focus on personal development as well as academic and intellectual development while on campus. Specifically, students mentioned developing a sense of school/work-life balance (14) and time management skills (6). The quotes below represent differing student perspectives regarding balancing school work and social life.
“Try to set aside some time just to kind of have fun, relax, so you're not like all stressed
out. Hang out with friends and go to a party or something. And, don't let it interfere with
what you're studying. Don't do it too much, but it's just like, you need a little bit of time to kind of let your brain rest and have fun, so it's not just a completely stressful situation because then you're not going to do well in your classes and then you're not going to learn as much socially which is another big, important part of college. And, you just have to kind of balance both of them well.”
“You know, try not to go out too much, drink too much, you definitely have to find the right balance between partying and going to class and getting your work done. I think that's the biggest, most important thing for incoming freshmen to have to deal with.”
“I have been on both sides of it. When I first came into college I was on the other. I
would rather socialize and school came second. Now I am on the other side of that.
Definitely my advice would be to focus on your education. It may seem like the end of
the world if you do not go to a party but it is so important for everybody involved, for the
people paying for it, for your future, for your family, to just get this done and focus and get the most out of it.”
“I think a lot of students don’t take college seriously enough. I know even a lot of my
friends almost dropped out because they kind of partied, they lazed around, they didn’t
go to class, they didn’t do homework, and then they go to the end of the semester and
had a C minus or Ds and are on academic probation.”
“There are too many distractions at CU, which is good obviously because you have to
know how to manage your time like we talked about, but there are too many. You have
to accept that there are things that you cannot do. Whether that is going to a party in the middle of the week, you know you just have to eliminate that. You can't all work hard all week and then just blow it on a Thursday night. It is too tough to manage. Use your weekend wisely.”
“I think what was hardest for me when I first started was kind of being on your own in the what was due when and when tests were and stuff. And, it really helped to just organize your time and organize, you know, put all your syllabi together and look at all of them. And, I think it's just really important to know that it's up to you individually to study and to organize kind of what you're doing.”
In CLAS interviews, research participants advised new students to take advantage of all that the University of Colorado at Boulder and surrounding community has to offer—from campus resources (2) like the library(2), tutors (3), special events and clubs (6), and local community resources (5).
“I am a big outdoor enthusiast, so I mean the fact that we are so close to that... I mean
like I can hike from my dorm into the forest like... that is so cool. And there is just so
much stuff, there is so much you can do. Try and like tackle it, don't like stay in the
“I guess it's just one of the major like advantages, I guess, of going to a large university. Like, you might have big classes and stuff, but also you have a lot more opportunities whether it be clubs or what not. And, I think that just helps in kind of broadening your horizons and learning about yourself and others.”
“Since (the school) is so huge, there are so many opportunities that you can do; I’m just
now figuring that out. You can get an education unlike anything you can get a private
school if you just take advantage of what’s available here; you could study anything at
this college, which is so great about it. So, yeah; take advantage.”
“Take advantage of what's there to you. Like, you know, the math help lab is a great
resource. Office hours are a great resource. There are so many resources on campus.
If you don't understand something, there are like eight or nine libraries on campus, all of
them have books.”
“If you're struggling even with your first test, get a tutor, get help. Like go to see your
advisor because like you can fall behind really quickly.”
“It’s like there’s so many people here and different things going on and chances to
socialize and meet new people, so go do it. Especially for me, almost at the end of my
experience here, you’re only here for a couple of years of your life so make the most of it. If you want to learn how to snowboard then …especially being on a big campus like this and the rec center and stuff; if you want to learn something new that you haven’t learned before, then go do it.”
Ultimately, CU Boulder is a large university which can seem impersonal if a student is not actively creating a place for him or herself. According to interview data, an education at a vast institution like CU means you “get out what you put into it” (4).
“(On a website about CU Boulder) one girl was like, ‘At CU, you get out what you put in.’
And I was like, ‘Oh my god; that is just the truest statement about this school.’ I’ve never really seen a school like this … I’ve seen state schools and you either do well or you don’t and that’s kind of the way it is; there’s the good kids and the bad kids and they get divided and go through. Here it’s like, you can do just as well as you want; any spectrum that you want. You can learn as much as you want; there are infinite resources and no one is requiring you to take advantage of them.”
“What you put into a class is definitely what you’re going to get out of it. If you don’t go to class or if you don’t care enough to listen, then you’re not going to learn anything. And, there’s a lot more than just your grade, because you can of course have really good grades and then not be able to perform at your job; that’s not going to help you at all.”
“If you're just here to, you know, squeak by and get a degree, then you know, you can go out, party, do whatever you want. If you're actually here to like learn and like you were saying, more than just grades, then actually put yourself into the class and devote time outside of it to learn the material and not only gain a good grade, but knowledge for future reference and just to be a better, more rounded individual.”
Messages for Faculty
• Let students know where to find accurate, supplemental online material. CLAS
students use technology resources to complement, supplement, or replace their texts and course materials. Guiding them to appropriate, accurate materials online is vital to their
• Consider electronic communication as the “new office hours”. Email is CLAS
students’ primary mode of communication with TAs and professors- it breaks down some comfort barriers in addressing experts about content students may not fully grasp. Ensuring these online communications are productive and not burdensome or repetitive to faculty and TAs is important in the digital age.
• Promote diverse one-on-one interactions among students, with students who think
differently from themselves. Students interviewed in the CLAS study view diversity in
multiple ways, though most see diversity as referring not to them, but to other groups of
students (international students, students from other majors, students from other
disciplines) and view diversity as an out-of-course time element of campus life. They feel one-on-one interactions with people unlike themselves are the best ways to benefit from diversity (e.g. dorm experiences, events on campus) while a few mention small course discussion as a venue for exploring diversity.
• Engage with students inside and outside of class. Besides coursework, CU students are engaged in multiple activities during their undergraduate years: internships, jobs, social activities, clubs, and events, maintaining and building social relationships, developing career-related skills, networks, and experiences, volunteerism, and various physical activities that take advantage of the Boulder region. In these myriad activities, they have few opportunities to engage with faculty, staff, and adult (non-student) community members, save for work experiences and courses with professors and TAs. Is there something you could do to engage with students outside of course time?
• Vary assessment in courses to get a better understanding of student knowledge. Grades in courses are regarded as good measures of learning in a course when assessments occur regularly throughout the course, are varied, and contain some constructed response opportunities, such as essays, short answer items, or one-minute papers collected during class.
• Let students know the purpose of and importance of assignments, and how they relate
to your subject matter beyond the classroom. Students describe their decisions to
participate and NOT participate in course activities and assignments as strategic, not
strictly a lack of commitment, motivation or interest in a course. Students describe ways in which they prioritize reading, attending class, homework, and test studying according to their own learning styles and to perceived values of instructors. Explaining the importance and purpose of assignments clearly to students may help them make good choices.
• Share studying and learning tips with students—they value your expertise. For many,
college is the first opportunity for students to learn how to study. While they describe
their learning about learning through trial and error, they also appreciate faculty tips on
studying, and learn how to study from their peers as well.
• To strengthen and deepen their knowledge, describe to students how your field and
research area relate to other fields. Students appreciate interdisciplinary references in
courses. When they can make connections across semesters and across disciplines, they describe feelings of empowerment and deeper understanding.
• Constantly answer students’ unvoiced questions, like “So what?” and “How will this
help me in the future?” Students do not always understand how the skills and knowledge they learned in specific courses would prepare them for their future endeavors. Connecting content to real-life applications and real-world events helps cultivate student interest and motivation in the classroom.
• Even in large classes, build in time for students to connect, to teach one another, and
to reflect on what they are learning. Students “know they know” a subject when they are
confident entering an assessment, receive good grades, can teach the subject to others, and when they can apply the knowledge in other ways to related courses and to daily life experiences. Having opportunities to try out their knowledge on peers supports students in taking risks and receiving feedback. For instance, faculty might pose a question to students, and then provide a few minutes for them to discuss the topic with someone sitting nearby. Faculty might also assign occasional homework to be completed by groups of students, rather than individuals, so that students have an opportunity to collaborate academically.