'Back to school' for some professors means improved courses at Ball State

Topics: College of Sciences and Humanities, Human Resources

October 4, 2007

Paul Ranieri
Where do college professors go when they need to learn how to better connect with students? Why, back to school, of course.

Nationally known for preparing students for teaching careers, Ball State was thrown a learning curve a couple of years ago. Even though the university has earned widespread recognition for its freshman-retention program, the effort was missing a key element: It did not provide a way for faculty to hone their teaching skills to effectively reach first-year students.

Since its inception eight years ago, Freshman Connections — a learning community experience that has been recognized by U.S. News & World Report — has helped boost retention from 67.5 percent to 76.9 percent. Though, in order to help the initiative improve even more, Paul Ranieri, chairman of the English department and former director of Freshman Connections, secured a $100,000 grant from the Lumina Foundation for Education to launch an intensive summer workshop aimed at improving teaching techniques in several core curriculum courses.

Over the span of three summers, 12 faculty members have been through the course, who effectively have reached more than 1,200 students with their new techniques learned through the workshop. (To see related video, click here.)

Ranieri noted the irony of professors going back to school to better connect with their students, but praised the reasoning behind the process.

"Our professors have been in the classroom a number of years and are experts in their fields, but they don't have a lot of background in teaching 18- and 19-year-old students," he said. "The Lumina project allowed them to focus on making the intellectual process more accessible to students."

To be accepted into the workshop, faculty members had to identify a specific classroom problem that they hoped to fix and to demonstrate a passion for finding a solution. Once admitted, the faculty members worked to overcome various challenges through conversation and research focused on redesigning their courses.

One course that was revamped was World Mythology, a class that saw nearly 25 percent of freshmen fail and only 13 percent earn an A, according to Bill Magrath, modern languages and classics professor. After completing the workshop, Magrath improved how he assessed students' performance early in the course and assigned them to specialized group work that helped them succeed.

"During the (Lumina) experiment's first two years, the failure rate has decreased to eight percent, and the number of students earning an A has nearly tripled to 38 percent," Magrath said. "We've seen the most positive effect in the most at-risk students."

Another professor has also experienced positive results. Through the workshop, Dave Concepcion, associate professor of philosophy, was able to change the way his students read. Subsequently, they improved the way in which they critically analyzed the material offered in his introductory course.

But the positive results go beyond improvement in individual classes, Ranieri noted.

"Faculty members have shown that by making changes to their early major classes students performed better in those classes and in others, as well," he said. "Their students are moving toward graduation at a higher rate than peers who have not had the benefit of going through the classes."

The success of the program reaches beyond Ball State, too. The research Ranieri and Concepcion have presented resonates strongly at many national conferences, Ranieri said.

"The response has been overwhelmingly positive, and it's clear that the issues we're addressing here have broader applications beyond our campus," he said. "It is rewarding that the work we are conducting to help our students relates to much broader educational conversations and has merit with both national and international audiences."

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