By Andrew Willoughby
On Sept. 17, Linda Vaden-Goad, provost and vice president for academic affairs, invited all faculty to an impromptu meeting to discuss improving Framingham State University’s first-year student initiatives.
According to Vaden-Goad, the University has been involved with the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ (AACU) Reimagining the First Year program for the last three years.
Vaden-Goad said, “Thinking along with 44 other universities ... we’ve changed policies. We’ve changed procedures. We want policy not to be in the way of student success, but to assist them.”
After addressing changes to policy and procedure, the University is now looking at academics.
The result of this undertaking is the new RAMS 101 pilot program, which started at the beginning of the fall 2018 semester.
“We really care about our first-year students. We want to make sure that they get the very best,” Vaden-Goad said.
According to Vaden-Goad, as of fall 2017, the University’s retention rate of first-year students was 76 percent. Preliminary estimates suggest a lower retention rate for fall 2018.
This created a “sense of urgency” regarding retention, Vaden-Goad said. “It’s an ethical issue. We must always be making [the first-year experience] better. I believe we can.”
In order to encourage first-year students to continue attending FSU, several courses have been implementing what Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP), a subset of the AACU, refers to as High Impact Educational Practices (HIPs).
According to the AACU website, HIPs “have been widely tested and have been shown to be beneficial for college students from many backgrounds. These practices take many different forms, depending on learner characteristics and on institutional priorities and contexts. ... Educational research suggests [HIPs] increase rates of student retention and student engagement.”
So far, LEAP has identified 11 HIPs: first-year seminars, diversity/global learning, common intellectual experiences, ePortfolios, learning communities, service and community-based learning, writing-intensive courses, internships, collaborative assignments and projects, capstone courses, and undergraduate research.
According to Vaden-Goad, last spring, a number of “HIP-infused” courses were introduced throughout a number of departments. However, a new program has been introduced that will double down on one specific HIP.
Starting this semester, the RAMS 101 program aims to focus on the HIP of first-year seminars and experiences.
There are six RAMS 101 courses in progress in the sociology, chemistry, political science, and physics and earth science departments.
Vaden-Goad said it’s important to implement multiple courses with a common goal.
She added, “College is really different than anything incoming students have done.” Because of this, the RAMS 101 courses serve as a way to bridge the gap between high school and college.
“We want students to be here, stay here and excel here,” Vaden-Goad said.
According to LaDonna Bridges, director of academic support, high school students spend, on average, fewer than 6 hours per week on homework and still manage to get A-and-B-level grades.
“Deep learning is not required for good grades in high school,” she said.
Political science professor Christopher McCarthy-Latimer is currently teaching “South Park and Political Society,” one of the RAMS 101 courses.
McCarthy-Latimer said focusing on the transition from high school to college is important. “I have heard from a number of students that the [Freshman Foundations] course was not effective or helpful with the transition to Framingham. They still found themselves lost while trying to figure out how to move forward.”
Incoming first-year students have the option of choosing either Freshman Foundations or a RAMS 101 course.
He said something that each RAMS 101 course has in common that helps with this transition is
Bridges said, “We know from Foundations that peers and peer mentors are really important in the process for first-year students.” As a result, each RAMS 101 course has a supplemental instructor (SI) who is “chosen by faculty and vetted by CASA.”
The course’s SI attends each class meeting, meets one-on-one with the professor every week “so that they’re totally on board with what [the professor] wants to communicate to the students,” and has office hours during which students can receive extra help. They also have weekly meetings with Bridges herself, she said.
Bridges added SIs are “statistically significant” to first-year students’ success and help them “navigate the academic world.”
Lina Rincón teaches “From Your Home to Campus, From Your Country to Mine: Migrations in a Global World.”
Matthew Bennet, a junior and Rincón’s SI, said his students “are finding it hard to balance social and academic life.”
He said he helps students to “cultivate good study skills, time management, and learning how to read academic articles.”
McCarthy-Latimer said his SI helps him prepare the assignments for his course and provides “integral ... information that students need to know to be successful at Framingham.”
Rincón said her RAMS 101 class “openly addresses the economic, social, and adaptation challenges FSU first-year students confront.”
Rincón has also taught a Freshman Foundations course in the past. She said the two programs share similar goals, but the ways in which they are implemented are drastically different.
“In Foundations,” she said, “students take a regular class that is attached to a supplementary session that focuses on teaching first-year students basic skills that are important for their academic success.
“In RAMS 101, I combine teaching academic skills with these basic skills in every class session. I work closely with my peer mentor to design lectures and assignments that help students hone all of the skills they need to succeed academically,” added Rincón.
She said, “I want first-year students to feel like they are at home here at FSU. Even if their transition to college can feel difficult and confusing, I want them to know that there are faculty, staff, peers, and offices that will support them.”
Chemistry professor Michael Grimm teaches the RAMS 101 course “The Transformation of Matter: From Alchemy to Modern Medicine.”
He said most of his students have declared majors. However, not all of them are in the field of his course. Most are communication arts or criminology majors.
This is a trend among the RAMS 101 classes – many of the students enrolled in them aren’t majoring in the discipline of the course, according to a number of RAMS 101 course professors.
McCarthy-Latimer said some political science majors weren’t able to get into his class because it filled so quickly.
Physics and earth science professor Vandana Singh teaches “The Big Melt: People and Polar Bears at the Crossroads of Arctic Climate Change.”
She hasn’t taught a freshman-only course in the past. She said she tells her students, “It’s not just you that are coming into a new situation. I’ve never taught a course like this. ... I’ll be learning from them as well.”
Every week, Singh collects anonymous feedback from her students regarding the course.
“I want to make sure that no student feels left out or overwhelmed in any way,” Singh said. With the anonymous feedback, “We can address any issues right there.”
Singh said a HIP that LEAP failed to identify is “learning through real-world case studies.
“This is something that was pioneered by Harvard Business School and in the field of medicine. ... We are looking at a fictional – but based on a real-life – case study that I’ve developed on the native community on the north shore of Alaska,” she added.
Singh said she is using this case study to connect students with the local community and as a way to “dissolve the walls of the classroom.”
The desires of the University’s faculty mirror Vaden-Goad’s. When asked at the meeting to discuss what could be done to improve the first-year experience, one group of professors suggested linking curricula to the greater Framingham community.
Vaden-Goad said moving forward, the University is planning on improving and expanding the RAMS 101 program and the first-year experience as a whole. She said she would like to implement a first-year community project that reaches outside of campus and to introduce even more HIPs into the standard curriculum.
The current RAMS 101 courses are designed for high school graduates, but since the age range of all first-year students is 17-32, Vaden-Goad said the University is working on ways to retain older first-year students.
“Thirty percent of students that were here last year did not come back,” she said. “We can do better than that.”