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October 1, 2012

Foundations of Excellence efforts to improve first-year experiences

Boiler Gold Rush

Students participate in a team-building exercise as part of this year's Boiler Gold Rush, an orientation program designed to help new and transferring undergraduate students adjust and acclimate to university life. Purdue is looking at ways to coordinate, enhance and create additional programs aimed at first-year students through its participation in the Foundations of Excellence initiative. (Purdue University photo/Mark Simons)
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Purdue has begun an initiative to improve the experience of first-year students, based on recommendations generated by 200 members of a campus-wide Foundations of Excellence task force.

The FoE process, which began in August 2011, aims to help Purdue design an academic environment and student experience that will enhance first-year students' learning, competence, confidence and overall success. It also seeks to establish a more coordinated, less-confusing set of resources to help students achieve an excellent start in all aspects of college life.

"Purdue's participation in the Foundations of Excellence process is a major response to the perceived and real need for coordination of our efforts surrounding first-year students," says Dale Whittaker, vice provost for undergraduate academic affairs and one of four task force leaders. "Purdue has strong curricular and co-curricular programs, but many of those systems are decentralized and often can be difficult for students to navigate. Removing institutional barriers that may hinder our students' success is key to accomplishing our strategic plan goals."

The other task force leaders -- who represent areas pertaining to first-year students in a variety of ways -- are Melissa Exum, vice president for student affairs; Beth McCuskey, associate vice president for housing and food services; and Christine Taylor, vice provost for diversity and chief diversity officer.

Foundations of Excellence, developed by the nonprofit John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education, is a national initiative that seeks to help universities establish best practices for the first year as the key to overall college success.

Purdue's task force broke into nine committees to address FoE's aspirational standards for excellence: philosophy, organization, learning, faculty, transitions, all students, diversity, roles and purposes, and improvement. After a yearlong self-study guided by FoE staff members, the committees issued 50 recommendations using evidence from surveys, the University's current regulations and student success data to evaluate existing systems.

The recommendations address subjects such as promoting collaboration among academic and non-academic units; aligning student success programs; improving academic advising; and promoting student lifestyles that lend themselves to academic success.

Among its key recommendations, the committees called for a single leader to direct FoE implementation. To fill this role, an existing faculty member will serve a three-year appointment as associate vice provost for undergraduate academic affairs. The appointee will lead a five-member implementation team and will report to the provost. A search for this leader, who will retain his or her faculty appointment, is under way.

Implementation team

Each implementation team member will lead change within his or her home division for a three-year period. The team members are:

* Sue Aufderheide, director of undergraduate studies program.

* Harry Brown, director of leadership engagement.

* Julie Talz, director of academic integration.

* Jared Tippets, director of student success at Purdue.

* Sandra Monroe, director of undergraduate advising.

The team will focus on identifying which of the recommendations Purdue will implement and how to do so. Some implementation is under way. For example, efforts to align student success programs have led to the renaming of Purdue's Student Access, Transition and Success programs to Student Success at Purdue, effective immediately.

Report recommendations

The recommendations fall under three themes:

* Specialized and heightened focus on the experience of first-year students.

* Coordination of curricular, co-curricular and academic success efforts for first-year students.

 * Focus on an environment of improvement based on innovative, evidence-based decision making and scholarship.

Action taken under the first theme will support, for example, the development of a consistent set of outcomes to be included in orientation courses for all first-year students. The implementation of the core curriculum initiative, which will improve course portability across majors, also falls under this theme.

"More course mobility will allow first-year students to explore other disciplines and content areas without penalty," says Teresa Taber Doughty, a task force member, chair of the core curriculum committee and associate professor of special education.

"Having a core curriculum in place provides first-year students with a greater understanding of our expectations for each of them. By articulating these expected learning outcomes from the beginning of a students' program of study, each student is aware of the critical skills we expect of every Purdue graduate."

Action taken under the second theme will coordinate undergraduate success programs and academic advising, involve the streamlining of communication to first-year students and ensure availability of course spaces to allow students to make progress toward degree completion.

Action taken under the third theme will establish a coordinated effort to collect and disseminate information on best practices. It also will compile data useful for instruction of first-year students and for the assessment to enhance program efforts.

Action related to the third theme will stress professional development opportunities for all faculty and staff who interact with first-year students. Those opportunities include encouraging faculty to participate in IMPACT, which seeks to improve rates of course completion and student success in foundational courses. IMPACT stands for Instruction Matters: Purdue Academic Course Transformation.

"One of the most important aims of the IMPACT program is to transform Purdue's foundational courses to create a more student-centered and active learning environment," says Chantal Levesque-Bristol, director of the Center for Instructional Excellence. "In this way, IMPACT will serve to further FoE's goal to improve students' first-year learning experience."

Metrics and collaboration

Brent Drake, co-chair of the improvement team for FoE at Purdue, says the team will track progress at two points -- Are planned steps being enacted by the implementation committee, and are those steps proving effective?  Broad, campus-wide metrics -- including retention and graduation rates, course retake behavior and time to degree -- will help gauge the initiative's effectiveness in enhancing student success. The improvement team expects to release reports every six months.

Whittaker says everyone on Purdue's campus -- from faculty and staff to the students themselves -- has a role in ensuring the success of first-year students.

Students can contribute by focusing on the 4-3-2-1-Graduate! initiative, which emphasizes scholarship, high achievement and leadership as key to graduating in four years. Faculty can adopt helpful tools such as task force-recommended Course Signals, through which they can warn students about potential low grades and tell the students of office hours, help sessions and other support.

The Foundations of Excellence initiative, Whittaker says, holds that students' first-year experiences are vital not only to their first-year success, but to their success during their college careers and beyond.

"We want to jump-start a cultural transformation here at Purdue," Whittaker says. "We want to change how we collectively think and what we value in terms of student success, by getting everyone on the same page so we can best serve our first-year students and their widely varying needs."

Writer: Amanda Hamon, 49-61325, ahamon@purdue.edu