Newswise — As Graduation Initiative 2025 remains a top priority for California State University leadership, the system has been working to implement the following efforts to eliminate graduation rate equity gaps and achieve GI2025's goals:
- Reengage and reenroll underserved students
- Expand credit opportunities with summer/intersession
- Ensure equitable access to digital degree planners
- Eliminate administrative barriers to graduation
- Promote equitable learning practices and reduce DFW (D-F-Withdraw) rates
After delving into the first four priorities, this fifth installment in the series explores current ways the university is shifting classroom culture, offering professional development for instructors and addressing course structures to promote equitable learning practices and reduce DFW rates. To support similar efforts across the university system, campuses were invited to apply for funds, distributed in spring 2023, out of a one-time allocation of $3 million to address large enrollment courses that have low rates of first-time completion and large equity gaps in those rates.
“Addressing DFW rates is about being student-centered and being faculty-centered," says Michelle Hawley, Ph.D., associate vice president and dean of Undergraduate Studies at California State University, Los Angeles. “The keys to closing equity gaps are to create a sense of belonging, to make sure that every student feels seen and heard, feels like they can be successful, feels like the faculty members on the campus are there for them. And, the same holds true for the faculty members. If there is an equity gap, that needs to be addressed on an institutional level, and the faculty should not be in it alone."
REDESIGN FOR THE BETTER
At Cal State LA, faculty have a range of opportunities in support of implementing equitable teaching to better serve students. The Center for Effective Teaching and Learning (CETL) in particular provides workshops, programs and professional development in this area. The Critical Course Redesign for Equity and Student Success program—a combined effort between CETL and the Center for Academic Success (CAS)—is especially aimed at improving student outcomes in the most foundational classes.
“The course redesign initiatives give us an opportunity to be intentional and to focus our efforts, our funding and our conversations on what takes place in the classroom," Dr. Hawley says. “It gives us an opportunity to come together as a campus around those experiences that are most critical to what we do: teaching and learning. … It's about how we all come together to create a sense of belonging and support one another."
With a focus on multi-section gateway courses, the program works with faculty to redesign challenging courses taken early in the college career to ensure the classes meet students' academic and social needs and are culturally responsive. Courses are first nominated by their colleges after a GI2025 progress review, and faculty can choose to opt into the redesign process. CETL helps with initial redesign efforts through a syllabus review, faculty workshops, analysis of course-specific equity data and a survey of students who previously completed the course. If needed, instructional designers run a Design Your Course Blueprint boot camp for faculty to restructure the course and syllabus.
“We're looking for alignment between student learning outcomes, activities and measurable criteria to have change that is transformative," CETL Executive Director Catherine Haras says.
CAS then helps build in additional support including academic assistance for students like tutoring, faculty development support and regular student outreach with the goal of creating a sense of belonging among both students and instructors.
“Students come into the classroom with different experiences, and [our efforts] allow faculty to identify and quickly bring in students to get them connected in ways that are non-stigmatizing, that are asset-based and speak to their realities," CAS Executive Director Andrew Long says. “We've completely and utterly demystified the academic support in the messaging that takes place with faculty and with everyone involved in this so that this is a standard part of the student experience."
One such effort was the redesign of the Anatomical Kinesiology course to address both the class's high DFW rates and those of the prerequisite course, Anatomy and Physiology, which had about a 67 percent DFW rate among kinesiology majors. The non-passing rates in the latter created a bottleneck in the early kinesiology courses, leading the team to develop a new syllabus and structure for Anatomical Kinesiology that would allow the class to fulfill the same prerequisite requirement as Anatomy and Physiology.
“Our goal was to create a course and curriculum to prepare our students to successfully matriculate through our kinesiology upper division courses, thus ultimately improving graduation rates," says Michael Selvan Joseph, Ph.D., assistant professor of biological sciences and faculty redesign lead. “We intentionally redesigned our course content to be scaffolded to help the student absorb difficult content at all levels of their development."
The redesign process involved working with upper division course faculty to ensure course content successfully prepared students for future classes; developing a general course structure for faculty to follow; and establishing meetings to coordinate learning objectives and track student progress. Preliminary data has shown a decrease in the course's DFW rates.
Dr. Joseph will use the same techniques to redesign an upper division kinesiology course as well—which the CETL and CAS teams have found to be the case for many faculty who complete the redesign process.
“It's about an improved course, it's about an improved experience, but it's ultimately about culture change," Hawley says. “Something that is successful is going to build a community that is going to continue to become stronger, that's going to learn, that's going to have a process of ongoing improvement, and then is going to have opportunities to reflect and want to improve the course further."
TRY, TRY AGAIN
The Summer Boost Program at California State University, Chico, held for the first time in summer 2022, serves the dual purpose of expanding credit opportunities for students and reducing DFW rates by offering students a second chance at a course.
When creating the Summer Boost schedule, the team identified courses with high DFW rates and equity gaps that showed better pass rates during the summer and made those available for free to students who had completed fewer than 45 units, had a non-passing grade in the previous three semesters and had financial need. Faculty were encouraged to use equity-minded pedagogies and to adopt low- and no-cost course materials.
“The overarching plan was to focus on the first year because all our data showed that that's where the big impact is in retention," says Kate McCarthy, Ph.D., dean of Undergraduate Education. “We saw it as a chance for first year students who might be discouraged by that early DFW to have a quick do-over."
Ultimately, the program offered eight general education courses that have historically been challenging for students, with 171 enrollments—137 individual students—and a pass rate of 77 percent and a retention rate of 84 percent. The team will be running the program in future summers, but will analyze the data to learn how to further improve these outcomes.
“Sometimes, a student needs to retake one class and then their whole graduation plan is thrown off," says Lisa Kendhammer, Ph.D., associate professor of chemical education. “The Summer Boost program gave students the opportunity to get back on track and graduate in a timely manner."
Dr. Kendhammer taught the General Chemistry course during the 2022 Summer Boost, a condensed version of the class which involved four hours of combined lecture and lab Monday through Thursday. To encourage learning and help students keep pace, she incorporated outdoor activities and regular 'Brain Breaks.'
“The students were able to not only have more personalized attention, but they also were able to devote more time to learning the material for just this one course," Kendhammer says. “This not only helped students to get back on track, but they were able to successfully pass the course. I think showing students that we are invested in their future and giving them the opportunity to participate in programs like Summer Boost will show them how much the faculty cares about them and their success."
The Summer Boost program falls under Chico State's Advancing Equity Project, the university's most recent iteration of GI2025, and is the launching point for the new Critical Success Course Model being piloted this spring to target classes with high DFW rates. Through that effort, two of the courses offered in Summer Boost will be holistically reimagined with the help of an assigned course coordinator, course assessments and professional development. All faculty involved with the course will participate in a faculty learning community and will agree to an implementation plan to address issues like student outreach, culturally competent content, students' sense of belonging and access to course materials.
“This is something I hope will become institutionalized on our campus for critical success courses or critical gateway courses, and it will be understood that elite faculty teach these classes," Dr. McCarthy says.
LOOKING AT THE GRADE BOOK
While campuses are offering formalized training and programs to improve equitable learning practices, faculty are also leading efforts toward improved student outcomes.
Cassandra Paul, Ph.D., associate professor of physics and astronomy and the graduate coordinator of the Science Education Program at San José State University, has dedicated much study to equitable grading practices with both the CSU and the University of California systems.
“Grading is the most important part of the process because it's what goes into creating the final grade and it's what determines whether or not students are able to move on in their courses," Dr. Paul says. “Equitable grading practices are the first thing we should be looking at when we're trying to increase retention. … The idea should be that equity is achievable, that students’ grades should not be predictable based on their demographics."
Paul's work is built on the course deficient concept, which argues that equity gaps are the result of problems with the course, not deficiencies among the students.
“There are all these things built into the system like systematic sexism and systematic racism," she says. “We need to think about how we're going to change our structures in order to erase those structural barriers that exist. It's not that we have to catch students up; there's nothing wrong with the students. We have to think about how our coursework can better serve the population we have."
Based on her years of testing various grading options to achieve more equitable outcomes, Paul implements and recommends other faculty adopt these five grading practices:
1. Ungrading: While there are multiple ways to use ungrading, Paul utilizes the technique in her small classes by marking all assignments incomplete or complete. Incomplete assignments are returned with extensive feedback, and students are given the opportunity to improve the work to meet assignment criteria. The final grade depends on the number of assignments marked complete.
2. 4.0 Scale: Paul's research found that switching to a 4.0 grading scale, which aligns with the GPA scale and assigns a numeric value to a letter grade (e.g. 4 equals an A), reduces equity gaps across ethnic and racial demographics by 20 percent.
3. Minimum Grading: In this practice, faculty continue using the traditional percentage scale, but 50 percent is the lowest grade given. Doing so aligns the percentage scale with the 4.0 scale and works more easily with learning management programs like Canvas that only rely on the percentage system.
4. Milestone Problem Situation: Based on mastery grading, Paul and her colleagues developed this strategy for their large introduction courses during the first semester of the pandemic. This strategy allows students to attempt a problem three times with feedback following each attempt. Their grade is based on how many correct solutions they achieve after those three tries.
5. Grading by Response Category: Applicable to large classes, this final practice groups students based on the area in which they need further instruction. Students receive feedback based on their most prominent error, so that they know where to focus their efforts on the next assessment. This practice can be coupled with the 4.0 scale or minimum grading.
SUPPORT FROM THE TOP
At the university-wide level, the CSU has been helping its campuses implement equitable learning practices through the CSU Certificate Program in Student Success Analytics. An integral part of GI2025, the certificate program provides professional development opportunities for faculty, staff and administrators to understand the factors that perpetuate equity gaps in higher education.
Since its inception, the program has served more than 600 individuals both within and outside the CSU system. The curriculum utilizes guest speakers and CSU student success data to spur collaborative efforts for how to improve the educational outcomes of college students.
“We leverage the data by addressing equity and student success in a holistic manner," Cynthia Alvarez, Ph.D., assistant director of Student Success at the CSU Office of the Chancellor and program co-lead, said in a previous article. “This process helps our learning community think through what it means to make changes on campus to benefit students, especially historically marginalized students, all while spurring new goals and innovative ideas to serve their campus as a whole."
Read the Action for Equity series' first four installments on reenrollment efforts, digital degree planners, removing administrative barriers and expanding credit opportunities.