Department uses app to boost engagement

BY CINDY GARCIA | MARCH 27, 2015 5:00 AM

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Keeping STEM majors in their respective programs has been a challenge for campuses across the nation, and new University of Iowa programs are attempting to tackle the problem with more technology. 

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 55 percent of students in science, technology, math, and engineering fields leave their major by either switching to a non-STEM field or leaving postsecondary education without earning diplomas.

“Often, these large courses are primarily composed of first-year students, so the uneasiness of an unfamiliar classroom setting is compounded by the challenges of adjusting to college life,” UI chemistry Lecturer Russell Larsen said. “Further, for many students, STEM courses are particularly challenging. Often the grading standards and the workload are substantially different from those that they have experienced in high school.”

The UI has initiated several programs geared toward alleviating the problems. Among these is the research being done by Samuel Van Horne, a research specialist in the Instructional Technology Services Office of Teaching, Learning, and Technology, on a widget called Elements of Success, a customized dashboard found on Iowa Courses Online for students taking General Chemistry I.

The dashboard includes a summary of a student’s current score, a student’s current percentile rank and predicted final grade, and feedback about performance in online homework.

Van Horne said 70 percent of students in the course access the dashboard, and 74 students responded to a survey about it.

“Overall, they were very positive about having access to this information,” he said. “They found it helped them know their current standing. They said they’d be interested in having this type of information for other classes.”

For the performance on online homework section, the difficulty of problems and how long it took to solve them was recorded. 

Student-admissions records helped the dashboard give an estimate on students’ final grades based on their performances in class, their previous performances on standardized tests, and their performances in high school.

“There is potential to iterate it more broadly as long as there is the time to do it,” Van Horne said about the possibility of adapting the dashboard to other courses. “It does take significant resources to say we’re going to use it on a large scale.”

The Elements of Success widget is not the only tool the UI has implemented to improve students’ performances. 

The Transform, Interact, Learn, and Engage program was launched almost five years ago. The program provided classrooms with circular tables to encourage group work. Laptops, flat screens, and white boards all help communication. The professor or teaching assistant also stands in the middle of the room instead of the front.

TILE’s setup encourages active learning, often difficult to generate in a traditional lecture environment. 

“Students frequently comment that they have to work hard in these courses because they must come to class prepared and then dive in to apply, analyze, and synthesize the course content with their peers and the instructor,” said Jean Florman, the director of the Center for Teaching.

According to statistics from 2010 to the present, 17,310 students have enrolled in the TILE program, and 258 instructors have been trained. 

For the current spring semester, the UI has 123 courses and sections in TILE classrooms. 

“But students also clearly appreciate how the in-class team-based learning challenges them to push their thinking to higher levels,” Florman said. “They see this as more exciting and understand that they are learning for the long-term.”

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