Published: April 21, 2020 By

Student-success office studying student outcomes to learn which courses signal likely graduation

In academics—like sports—a good start never hurts. That’s part of the thinking behind two efforts to ensure students start strong at the University of Colorado Boulder. One of those projects began this spring: Identifying entry-level and gateway courses—those required as part of a sequence or as a pre-requisite for future coursework—to revamp to ensure the future success of students.

“Gateway courses have a profound impact on a students’ ability to move forward in their curricula of choice,” says Beth Myers, assistant vice provost for Student Success Initiatives (SSI) in the Office of Undergraduate Education at CU Boulder. 

“We believe CU, like most institutions, have entry-level courses that have a big impact on long-term student success. We want to understand which courses have these impacts and whether we can make changes to improve student outcomes.” 

Myers’ office is studying student outcomes to learn which courses signal graduation likelihood, those courses with the potential to boost persistence and graduation rates and courses where students struggle the most. 

“From that data, during the next academic year (’20-21) we’ll work with the departments to better understand the context of the courses to see if any changes are warranted and then implement changes,” Myers says. 

An overarching goal of the Office of Undergraduate Education is to improve student success as measured by student experience and outcomes.​"

“We are really excited to be able to make data-informed decisions based on the outcomes of our students. We definitely don’t want to revamp something that is working well or has the intended outcomes.”

So far, no courses have been identified for possible restructure, Myers adds.

Myers says SSI’s second project is evaluating the effectiveness and impact on graduation rates of first-year seminars—the three-credit courses for first-year undergraduates. 

CU Boulder piloted first year seminars in 2017 and has offered them every fall since, including the upcoming 2020 fall semester. 

Topics vary widely—everything from Pink Floyd and Star Wars to global citizenship and happiness. Professors choose subjects that interest them, as long as the courses meet CU Boulder’s rigorous academic standards and are approved by an advisory board, Myers says 

“That generally means instructors are very enthusiastic about what they’re teaching,” Myers says. Seminars are open to all first-year students but are not required—just “highly suggested” for incoming students in the Program for Exploratory Studies. They last one semester, currently only taught in the fall.

SSI reports that since the pilot, more than 2,500 students have taken First Year Seminars. 

“The feedback has been positive from both students and faculty,” Myers says. “Many faculty members choose to teach year after year, and students say the courses have helped them learn to work more successfully in groups, discover campus resources, learn to communicate better and understand the university’s academic expectations. They also like the small class size (they’re limited to 19 students), their instructors’ enthusiasm and passion and how courses boost critical thinking.”

Myers adds the seminars are common at colleges and universities, some of which report the courses have “high-impact potential to help students persist to graduation.” 

Myers is optimistic for a similar finding at CU Boulder, but she’s focused on finding facts. “Since we only have a few years of data, we don’t have concrete results to share just yet, but we’re tracking students who have taken the courses and the outcomes look promising.”

Myers says there’s no connection between the first-year seminar evaluations and the work on gateway and introduction courses. “While a goal of the first-year seminars is to improve student persistence, the work on those courses didn’t lead to the work on intro courses.”

“An overarching goal of the Office of Undergraduate Education is to improve student success as measured by student experience and outcomes.”