What would it take to dramatically improve the success rates of non-traditional students in STEM fields?
One answer is a holistic, multifaceted approach that reimagines every facet of the learning experience, from curriculum design to pedagogy, assessments, and support services. Without compromising standards or rigor, this new model pulls multiple levers known to improve student success.
A prototype program – a B.S. in Biomedical Sciences — launched in Fall 2015 at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, which serves the poorest and third poorest counties in the United States in one of the country’s fastest growing regions. Almost all students in the BMed program work full-time. Many also carry substantial caregiving responsibilities. Over twenty percent speak English as a second language and over ten percent are off the grid, lacking cellphone and Internet connectivity.
Texas’s Lower Rio Grande Valley has an urgent need for health professionals. The nation averages about 240 doctors for every 100,000 inhabitants. In Texas, the figure is 170, and in the Rio Grande Valley, just 107. There are similar shortages of nurses and other health care providers.
What elements define this prototype program?
A collaboratively designed curriculum
Teams of faculty from UT RGV, with input from medical school faculty from across the UT System, and assistance from curriculum designers, learning architects, and assessment specialists from the UT System’s Institute for Transformational Learning, mapped out the program’s knowledge grid, disaggregated the existing curriculum, and redesigned the curriculum around essential competencies, sub-competencies, and enabling objectives, carefully sequencing every learning so that each builds on one upon another.
A clear value proposition
The program offers a clearly defined pathway to a rewarding career. Equally important, the program offers windows into a variety of career options and continuously informs students about the value in the health care field of the competencies that they acquire.
The curriculum’s goal is to produce well-rounded health professionals. Thus the curriculum doesn’t simply reimagine the biology or Chemistry or Physics courses, but the humanities, arts, and social sciences courses as well. Objectives include cultivating a professional identity and providing vantage points onto a broad range of health care occupations. Many classes, including the composition course, draw upon a series of Virtual Rounds that focus on 16 diseases and conditions, such as obesity and breast cancer, from the perspective of physicians, nurses, social workers, and the patients themselves. All classes treat their subject through the lens of the health sciences, including the literature component, which emphasizes narrative medicine and the medical humanities, or history, which stresses the history of science and technology, of disease, and medicine.
Activity and project-driven pedagogy
Rather than being lecture centered, the program’s pedagogy emphasizes learning by doing. The student experience, in class and online, emphasizes case studies, simulations, problem solving, and collaborative projects.
A digital learning experience that is immersive, gamified, and highly social
Essential course content, activities, and assessments are delivered on an iPad, ensuring that no student lacks access to necessary readings or other course materials.
The digital learning experience features rich multimedia content, advanced simulations, case studies, and collaborative activities, and access to faculty, advisers, and classmates with the single click.
To maximize student motivation and engagement, students acquire points as they progress through the learning experience and recognition as they advance from one level to the next.
Personalization of the learning experience
Personalization has become one of the defining characteristics of the "new" economy. It needs to play a more central element in a learner-centric educational system. The prototype BMed program allows for the personalization of pace, and in subsequent versions we will seek to personalize content and learning trajectories to better meet individual student needs and aspirations.
A multi-level assessment ecosystem
To ensure mastery of essential knowledge and skills, the program rigorously evaluates student understanding in multiple ways. Checks for understanding assess understanding of key concepts, while project-based assessments and team-based activities evaluate students’ higher order skills, including their ability to apply concepts in a variety of contexts.
Bilingual course content
With over a fifth of the students non-native English speakers, bilingual content helps many master complicated concepts. Equally important, students are able to share the content with their parents—and are encouraged to become fully bilingual professionals.
Students can take the face-to-face components of the program in the morning or evening. Block scheduling helps the students successfully schedule their work and caregiving responsibilities and ensures that they aren’t closed out of essential courses.
A community of care
It is essential that the students never feel lost or alone. To that end, the program provides each student with a life coach and an instructional facilitator to assist with non-academic and academic issues. By providing a clearly identified point of contact, who closely monitors student performance and who checks in with the students regularly, the program ensures that no students fall under the radar screen and that no problems go unnoticed and unaddressed.
Fine-grained learning analytics
The program’s digital learning platform, known as TEx (which stands for Total Educational Experience) collects data about persistence, pace, performance, social engagement, and self-efficacy steps. During the first term, TEx recorded more than 2 million data events, allowing the faculty and advisers to know in real time when students are off-track and to intervene immediately. This data-driven approach also allows the faculty to personalize the learning experience to address areas of misunderstanding or confusion.
The initial results are impressive. In the prototype program 86 of 126 students advanced through the biology courses on an accelerated track with a grade of C or better — with 80 percent receiving a grade of B or better. Half of the other forty students in the normally paced track also received a grade of C or better. Meanwhile, in General Chemistry, which on many campuses is the quintessential roadblock or dreambuster course, 70 percent of the students received a grade of C or better.
It’s far too early to declare mission accomplished, but early indications are promising. Since all expenses are carefully defined, it is clear that the program’s holistic approach is financially sustainable.
This multi-faceted outcomes-focused initiative is quite different from what usually falls under the banner of “competency-based education.” For one thing, the B.S. in Biomedical Sciences is a hybrid program, which combines dynamic face-to-face interactions with an activity-driven, socially-interactive digital component that involves far more than learning in front of a screen.
For another, faculty play a central role in every phase of the program, from knowledge graphing to curricular and learning experience design to instructional delivery, mentoring, and monitoring and evaluating student performance.
In addition, the validity of the knowledge grid and assessment ecosystem are of pivotal importance, and are constructed with input from a wide range of subject area and assessment specialists, professional associations, standard-setting organizations, and industry experts to ensure that these conform to professional standards.
Bringing as many students to proficiency in challenging fields is our overarching goal. Getting there requires a holistic approach that reconsiders every aspect of the learning experience.
Steven Mintz is Executive Director of the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning and Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.