One of the biggest obstacles to improving undergraduate graduation rates at universities across the country is first- through second-year retention.

A student’s success in their first few classes is critical to building the confidence and academic foundation needed to move forward. This means ensuring that students can complete their courses without failing or dropping out.

Yet, at the same time, Across the country professors are experiencing record numbers of students in distress, disconnected, ghosted, and overall struggling to contextualize the importance of their courses at a time when so much is happening in the world.

“Those who teach at colleges with a high percentage of low-income students, come from communities hard hit by Covid, or have work and family responsibilities say the cumulative toll of the pandemic has resulted in emotional overload and physical exhaustion” , reports the Chronicle of Higher Education.

However, professors nationwide also see this as an opportunity.

As the Chroncile notes, “Creating that sense of connection, to help students see the larger purpose and value of higher education, may be what helps them get back on their feet.”

As campuses across the country rethink what higher education looks like post-pandemic, many UN faculty have not only been able to maintain their engagement, but have also increased their retention rates by leveraging new pedagogies, by rethinking existing resources and making changes to assessment objectives, showing that even in times of crisis there is cause for celebration.

Here are those stories.


College Algebra and Calculus I

Although the word “math” may scare many students, it is a necessary step to progress in their major, even those who are not pursuing a STEM degree.

Nicole Infante, Ph.D., is an associate professor of mathematics and director of quantitative reasoning at the UN. She joined the UN last summer and immediately began adjusting classes to make students feel more connected to their peers and, therefore, comfortable asking for help.

“We know that a lot of learning takes place in more social situations and when questions can come up more naturally in those social situations.” Infant explains.

Infante was able to solve the problems caused by the isolation by combining the best elements of the laboratory and the conference. This involved moving to more, but smaller sections, and placing an instructor, a graduate assistant and an undergraduate learning assistant in each class.

“A lot of students aren’t comfortable saying ‘I’m stuck’ [in a large group setting] so they end up spinning their wheels. The more small group opportunities you can provide, the more students feel comfortable asking these questions and getting more support. »

Since the change, Infante says there have been hundreds fewer students dropping out or dropping out of math classes. These higher pass rates mean that more students are able to enroll in their individual study programs.

“If you start in a lower course and have a bad experience, you’re much more likely to say college isn’t for me – or that I’m not cut out to be in my major when it’s not It’s not necessarily true. It’s that you arrived ill-prepared, and we just need to bring you up to speed.


Foreign languages ​​and literatures

Gwyneth Cliver

Learning a new language can be an exciting new opportunity, but it can also be a challenge.

Gwyneth Cliver, Ph.D., associate professor of German, explains that the combination of the need for a foreign language to meet the prerequisites of many degree programs and the difficulty of mastering the language gives students the feel like they can’t control their own success. This is especially true since the pandemic.

When she heard about the addition of life coaches to the Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) team, Cliver made sure her students knew about the resource, which helped a number of her students to successfully complete the fall semester.

Cliver says access to resources and understanding that students may have silent difficulties have been central to his teaching philosophy. It’s also been about making sure that a student’s grades reflect hard work rather than language proficiency – meeting students where they are at and helping them improve.

“Instead of my students asking how they can get a better grade, they are now asking questions about course content, which makes them perform better and achieve more academically. My philosophy is that if you do the work, you learn.


Introduction to Computing I and II




Brian Dorn Robert Fulkerson.jpg

On average, one in three students who take an introduction to computer science will not continue with the program – either dropping out, dropping out or failing.

Professors like Brian Dorn, Ph.D., associate dean for university and faculty affairs at the College of Information, Science, and Technology, and Bob Fulkerson, MS, a lecturer teaching computer science, are tackling this problem for many years.

While the department had previously committed to several techniques, including a flipped classroom, having a peer mentor available in the classroom, and implementing adaptive technologies such as interactive textbooks, it took a pandemic to complete the next piece of the puzzle: replacing their previous programming language with a newer and more accessible language.

“It really is last fall’s secret sauce,” says Dorn. “A programming language in an introductory course has a big impact in downstream courses. Even if it’s not one of those first two tracks, it impacts the fourth, fifth, sixth route, etc.

As a result of this change, faculty could replace recorded lectures with more interactive examples, better track students’ collective struggles, and provide more opportunities for students to support other students.

“The material lends itself to being more engaging because it’s more understandable,” says Fulkerson. “It also led to peers going out on their own to help each other, which is something we wanted to do, but hadn’t seen results from.”

Dorn says the effort, although it took a lot of time, effort and energy, not only yielded results but also rejuvenated the faculty.

“We had been trying to do these things with Java for years, but the one step we hadn’t taken was to redevelop our materials. Our teachers were so excited and seeing the smiles on their faces reaffirms why I do my job.


Tips and lessons learned

Just as there are hundreds of different courses offered at UNO, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to improving retention. However, the lessons learned by successful teachers can help lay the groundwork for future efforts that may prove successful.

Progress on perfection

Nicole Infante“Skills have to be learned but we want to see that growth over the semester and not have students constantly in fear. We want to understand where those experiences come from and make them feel better about themselves as mathematicians .

Bob Fulkerson“We prefer that students feel like they are learning. Show students that it is sometimes okay to prioritize other things and sometimes to forget things. »

Gwyneth Cliver“I think we still have a 19th century idea of ​​how education works in the 21st century and 19th century results for 21st century attitudes. We should focus on more learning rather than proving they are learning.

Allow flexibility

Gwyneth Cliver“I want students to see that they can learn a language, no matter how good they are. I don’t want anyone to be put off by the requirement for a perfect grade.

Brian Dorn: “COVID has really changed the perspective of where we can be flexible and so what do the lessons of COVID tell us about what students can or are able to do, and how does that align with our goals We wouldn’t have had these conversations otherwise.

Peer mentoring

Bob Fulkerson“Previously, our labs were all held at pre-scheduled times, but now we’ve worked with GAs to schedule the labs at the convenience of our students, allowing us to group together people who are at the same level of learning, or similar needs and background.

Nicole Infanta“Everyone has this image in their head of mathematicians sitting in their desks coming up with ideas – but that’s not happening. Because we deliberately introduced social elements, we saw more students persist throughout the semester.

Don’t be afraid to make changes

Brian Dorn: “We decided to commit ourselves to the objective and to work on the “what ifs” with our partners as we go along. The team was brave and the decision to rip the bandage off was really helpful. If a change ends up being a disaster, then we have data to know it was a disaster and we can adjust.

Gwyneth Cliver“The big thing that has helped me, and it’s been an evolution, is practicing radical empathy with my students.”


Faculty Resources

If you are a faculty member in need of ideas or resources on how to shape your own courses to help with student retention, the Faculty Center of Excellence has created several modules based on the positive experiences you faculty have had with their retention efforts over the past few semesters. .

Want to learn more about what the Center for Faculty Excellence can offer to support your teaching? Visit their website and explore their calendar of upcoming events.