View Site Map

Increasing Success for Underserved Students:
Redesigning Introductory Courses

Supported by a grant from Lumina Foundation for Education

Full Project Description
June 1, 2004 – May 31, 2005

The Problem

Many students who begin postsecondary education drop out before completing a degree. An estimated 60 percent of students at public institutions fail to complete degrees within five years, and half of these students leave during the freshman year. As shown by research by the Policy Center on the First Year of College at Brevard College in North Carolina and others, the first year of college is the most critical to a college student's success and to degree completion.

Successful completion of introductory courses is critical for first-year students, but typical failure rates in these courses contribute heavily to overall institutional drop-out rates between the first and second year. Although success rates vary by institutional type and by subject matter, Research I universities commonly cite a 15 percent DFW (drops, failures and withdrawals) rate in introductory courses. Comprehensive universities have DFW rates ranging from 22 percent to 45 percent in these courses. Community colleges frequently experience DFW rates of 40 percent to 50 percent or more.

Undergraduate enrollments in the United States are concentrated heavily in large-enrollment introductory courses. In fact, just 25 courses generate about half of all student enrollments in community colleges and about a third of enrollments in four-year institutions. The topics of these courses are no surprise and include introductory studies in disciplines such as English, mathematics, psychology, sociology, economics, accounting, biology, and chemistry. In addition to suffering from a high rate of academic failure, these courses affect literally every student who goes to college.

Most of the weaknesses attributed to large introductory courses are generic in nature and have as their source the limitations of the predominant form of instruction in U.S. colleges and universities: the didactic lecture. An overwhelming body of research shows that students do not learn effectively from lectures, and testimony from the field corroborates the literature.

What's wrong with the lecture? The lecture method treats all students as if they were the same, as if they bring to the course the same academic preparation, the same learning style, the same motivation to learn, the same interest in the subject, and the same ability to learn. The reality is that students with weak skills need more individual attention and more opportunity for interaction, particularly at the beginning of the term. At the same time, students with strong skills—those who would benefit from having more opportunity to explore the material fully or who could accelerate—are locked into a fixed time frame for completing the course. The large, impersonal lecture format simply cannot accommodate the broad range of differences among students.

Most lecture courses are notoriously ineffective in engaging students. The lecture format neither encourages active participation nor offers students an opportunity to learn collaboratively from one another. It does not provide adequate tutoring assistance, and consequently, students receive little individual attention. Even though individual help may be available in office hours, only a small fraction of students take advantage of it. Most students simply study the text, turn in their homework, and take tests and exams.

The primary alternative structure for large-enrollment courses, the multiple-section model, suffers from problems of its own. In theory it allows greater interaction with students, but in practice, sections are often quite large and are dominated by the same presentation techniques as used in larger courses. In addition, the multiple-section model suffers from a lack of coordination. As a result, course outcomes vary considerably and, more important, are not always consistent with students' abilities.

Clearly, making significant improvements in first-year courses can have a major impact on student success and retention.


The Solution

Supported by an $8.8 million grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Program in Course Redesign (PCR) was created in April 1999 to demonstrate how information technology could be used to address the significant academic problems experienced by first-year students at most institutions. The program was managed by the Center for Academic Transformation. Selected from hundreds of applicants in a national competition, 30 institutions each received a grant of $200,000, awarded in three rounds of 10 per year. Participating institutions included research universities, comprehensive universities, independent colleges, and community colleges in all regions of the United States.

Comparative research studies have shown that, instead of improving quality, most technology-based courses produce learning outcomes that are only “as good as” their traditional counterparts—what has come to be known as the “no significant difference” phenomenon. By and large, colleges and universities have not yet begun to realize the promise of technology to improve the quality of student learning, increase retention and reduce the costs of instruction. In contrast, the goal of the PCR was to support colleges and universities in their efforts to redesign instruction using technology to achieve quality enhancements as well as cost savings.

Twenty-five of the 30 projects involved in the program have shown statistically significant increases in student learning; the other five have shown equivalent learning to traditional formats. Of the 24 projects that measured retention, 18 have reported a noticeable decrease in DFW rates, ranging from 10 to 20 percent, as well as higher course-completion rates.

Other positive outcomes associated with redesigned courses included better student attitudes toward the subject matter and increased student satisfaction with the new mode of instruction. Finally, all 30 projects have reduced their instructional costs, on average about 37 percent. The program has produced a significant number of best practices that can be shared with the higher education community. In all cases, active student engagement with the course material, with one another and with faculty members is key.


Project Overview

Although the PCR was directed at a broad first-year student population at all types of institutions, we know that our redesign techniques have been particularly effective with those student populations that are at the center of the Lumina Foundation’s concerns: underserved students, including low-income students, students of color, and adults. For example,

  • The University of New Mexico (UNM) leads the nation’s research universities in student diversity with an undergraduate minority student population of approximately 46.4 percent (31.3 percent Hispanic, 5.5 percent Native American and 9.6 percent other). UNM students are primarily commuters who also work 30 or more hours per week. By redesigning its introductory psychology course, UNM reduced its DWF rate from 42 percent to 18 percent. The number of students who received a C or higher rose from 60 percent to 76.5 percent, and there were more A (34 percent) and B (31 percent) grades than recorded in previous semesters.
  • Rio Salado College, one of the 10 community colleges in the Maricopa County Community College District, has been delivering distance education for the last 20 years with a focus on adult learners. By redesigning four of its online introductory math courses, Rio increased course completion rates from 59 percent to 65 percent.
  • The University of Idaho increased overall student success rates in mathematics. Success rates in Intermediate Algebra for Hispanic students who are part of the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) increased from 70 percent to 80 percent and surpassed the success rate for the entire algebra population as a whole.
  • Two urban universities that serve a high percentage of adult learners, Florida Gulf Coast University and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), respectively reduced their DFW rates from 45 percent to 11 percent in fine arts and from 39 to 25 percent in introductory sociology.

We propose a two-stage project that includes a research and evaluation component and a leadership development and dissemination component:

Stage1: June 1, 2004 – December 31, 2004. The most successful programs directed at higher education reform are thoroughly evaluated to inform both policy and practice. We have conducted careful evaluations of each redesign project to ensure that our conclusions of increased student learning, improved retention, and reduced cost are supported by data and can stand up to public scrutiny. We believe that our redesign approach is strategic and offers both innovative and practical approaches in overcoming challenges to both access and attainment.

We will build on our initial research by conducting an in-depth study to determine what specific techniques among those used by our projects lead to increased success rates for underserved students: low-income students, students of color, and adults. We will document the impact of course redesign on the target student groups. Since the redesign projects vary considerably in their approaches, we intend to identify those characteristics impacting underserved students, who are also frequently at-risk students, which other institutions can adopt as guidelines for best practices. Are these techniques similar or different from those used with traditional-age, better prepared students? What works best with the target population? How can other institutions with a focus on at-risk students use what we have learned? How can what we have learned contribute to the public discourse on higher education access and success among underserved populations?

Stage 2: January 1, 2005 – May 31, 2005. Based on what we learn in Stage 1, we will conduct a number of leadership-development efforts to share our knowledge about those techniques that make a real difference in student attainment and retention. These efforts will include conducting a series of public seminars for college and university faculty and staff, and producing and distributing a monograph summarizing our conclusions. In addition, we will incorporate our findings in our ongoing communications program via major higher education publications and presentations at national conferences.

In summary, the project will achieve the following specific objectives:

  1. Conduct an in-depth study to determine what specific methods and approaches used by the PCR projects lead to increased success rates for underserved students: low-income students, students of color, and adults.
  2. Identify and document those techniques that contribute to increased success among underserved students, including producing institutional profiles, so that those techniques can be adopted by other institutions.
  3. Conduct three national seminars for higher education faculty and administrators from target institutions to increase their understanding of redesign techniques that are most effective in increasing success among underserved students.
  4. Produce a monograph that documents findings and includes case studies of institutions with successful redesign approaches and distribute 5,000 copies to target institutions.


Work Plan

Stage1 – Research and Evaluation: June 1, 2004 – December 31, 2004

We will build on our initial research by conducting an in-depth study to determine what specific techniques among those used by our projects lead to increased success rates for the target populations described below, documenting the impact of course redesign on underserved students.

Institutions To Be Included in the Study

Thirty institutions participated in the PCR; three are community colleges, five are private four-year institutions, and 22 are public four-year institutions. The target of the study will be 24 of these 30 institutions. We will eliminate from the study the six institutions that showed no significant difference in improving student learning and in increasing retention (Brigham Young University, Northern Arizona University, UC-Boulder, UIUC, UW-Madison, and Virginia Tech.) The study will focus on low-income students, African-American and Hispanic students, and adult students. What follows is breakdown of the target institutions and their respective student populations.

Low-Income Students.
Data source: NCES/IPEDS 2001-2002 Student Financial Aid File: percent receiving federal student aid (full-time, first-time, degree/certificate-seeking freshmen), the best available data to determine income status.

  • National average 34%; Public 4-Year Institutions 28%
  • 24 PCR institutions 26%; Private 4-Year Institutions 30%
  • PCR 2-Year Institutions 31%: Public 2-Year Institutions 37%

We will pay particular attention to the following institutions with high percentages of low-income students:

  1. University of Southern Maine: 50%
  2. The University of Tennessee: 41%
  3. Tallahassee Community College: 40%
  4. University of Idaho: 38%
  5. Cal Poly Pomona: 37%
  6. University of S. Mississippi: 37%
  7. SUNY at Buffalo: 35%
  8. Rio Salado College: 30%
  9. Portland State University: 30%
  10. IUPUI: 27%

African-American Students.
Data source: NCES/IPEDS fall 2002 enrollments: percent of undergraduate students who are African-American and NCES/IPEDS percent of freshman undergraduate students who are African-American.

All UGs; Freshmen

National average: 12%; 13%
Public 4-Year Institutions: 11%; 11%
Private 4-Year Institutions: 11%; 10%
All 24 PCR institutions: 7%; 8%
Public 2-Year Institutions: 12%; 14%
PCR 2-Year institutions: 15%; 16%

We will pay particular attention to the following institutions with high percentages of African-American students:

All UGs; Freshmen

  1. Tallahassee Community College: 30%; 34%
  2. University of Southern Mississippi: 25%; 37%
  3. University of Alabama: 14%; 10%
  4. Riverside Community College: 12%; 13%
  5. IUPUI: 10%; 9%
  6. Drexel University: 9%; 8%
  7. Ohio State University: 8%; 10%
  8. SUNY at Buffalo: 8%; 7%
  9. University of Central Florida: 8%; 9%
  10. The University of Tennessee: 7%; 9%

Hispanic Students. Data source: NCES/IPEDS fall 2002 enrollments: percent of undergraduate students who are Hispanic and NCES/IPEDS percent of freshman undergraduate students who are Hispanic.

All UGs; Freshmen

National average: 11%; 11%
Public 4-Year Institutions: 8%; 8%
Private 4-Year Institutions: 9%; 9%
All 24 PCR institutions: 7%; 7%
Public 2-Year Institutions: 14%; 13%
PCR 2-Year institutions: 13%; 16%

We will pay particular attention to the following institutions with high percentages of Hispanic students:

All UGs; Freshmen

  1. University of New Mexico: 33%; 34%
  2. Riverside Community College: 31%; 32%
  3. Cal Poly Pomona: 23%; 24%
  4. University of Central Florida: 11%; 12%
  5. Rio Salado College: 9%; 12%
  6. Florida Gulf Coast University: 8%: 9%
  7. Carnegie Mellon University: 5%; 5%
  8. Tallahassee Community College: 5%; 5%
  9. Fairfield University: 4%; 5%
  10. SUNY at Buffalo: 4%; 4%

Adult Students.
Data source: NCES/IPEDS fall 2002 enrollments: percent of undergraduate students over 25 years of age and NCES/IPEDS percent of part-time undergraduate students, which correlates to adult students.

+25; PT

National average: 32%; 39%
Public 4-Year Institutions: 20%; 21%
Private 4-Year Institutions: 21%; 18%
All 24 PCR institutions: 20%; 25%
Public 2-Year Institutions: 44%; 63%
PCR 2-Year Institutions: 37%; 74%

We will pay particular attention to the following institutions with high percentages of adult students:

+25; PT

  1. Rio Salado College: 46%; 94%
  2. Portland State University: 40%; 38%
  3. Riverside Community College: 39%; 75%
  4. University of Southern Maine: 37%; 49%
  5. IUPUI: 37%*; 39%
  6. Florida Gulf Coast University: 31%; 33%
  7. Tallahassee Community College: 25%; 53%
  8. University of S. Mississippi: 25%; 14%
  9. University of New Mexico: 24%*; 23%
  10. University of Central Florida: 20%; 26%

* Data supplied by institution to correct blank cells in IPEDS.


Each participating institution has provided extensive data to the Center on the learning outcomes achieved as a result of its redesign as part of the PCR. Center staff reviewed and analyzed these data for consistency and validity with assistance from our assessment consultant, Dr. Peter Ewell. The Center then compiled this information and produced a series of case studies that captured the results of each individual project. These case studies have been posted on the Center’s web site and widely publicized.

Our goal is now to mine the data to determine particular impacts on the target student groups and to establish “institutional profiles” that describe and analyze the pattern of individual approaches and results against the backdrop of project-wide trends. After initial data mining, a subset of institutions will be selected for in-depth focus interviews and site visits by the Center staff. During the interviews and visits, the institution's profile will provide the basis for discussion with faculty and administrators and for gaining further insight into the effectiveness of their particular approaches and their relation to student learning outcomes.


Anticipated Outcomes

  • Identified and documented best principles and practices of course redesign that produce the most effective learning outcomes for underserved students.
  • Institutional profiles that provide addition information for colleges and universities that seek assistance in improving service to underserved students.
  • Greater understanding of the specific needs of underserved students in introductory courses so that institutions will be able to structure successful learning environments for these students.

Stage 2 – Leadership Development and Dissemination: January 1, 2005 – May 31, 2005

While conducting sound research and analysis is very important, it is equally important that the results of such an investigation be shared with others who can then incorporate the findings in their own institutional practices. The second stage of this project will increase awareness in the higher education community about those techniques that make a real difference in student attainment and retention. It will also help those in the higher education community particularly concerned with underserved students learn how to incorporate those methods and approaches into their large-enrollment introductory courses.

The Center has established a number of communication vehicles, including a 5,000-person mailing list, print and electronic newsletters, and a comprehensive web site. In addition, we have produced a series of print articles and have been the subject of numerous interviews and articles in national publications. We are also engaged in an active national speaking program. The results of this in-depth study of the impact of course redesign on underserved students will be part of the Center’s ongoing dissemination and communication efforts.

We will feature our findings in our quarterly electronic newsletter, The Learning MarketSpace. With a readership of more than 5,000, this newsletter provides a well-recognized source of information on topics related to redesigned learning environments. We will also target national and regional meetings and conferences, as well as higher education publications, for presentations of our findings and lessons learned. These activities will make a significant contribution to the public discourse on higher education access and success.

In addition, we will conduct two leadership development and dissemination efforts to share the knowledge gained from our analysis aimed specifically at those institutions with high proportions of the targeted student groups:

Convene three national seminars to enable faculty and administrators at institutions with large numbers of underserved students to learn firsthand how to redesign courses and programs from those who have done it.
Produce a monograph that documents findings and includes case studies of institutions with successful redesign approaches and distribute 5,000 copies to target institutions.


National Seminars

Building on the success of the six "State-of-the-Art Learning Environments" seminars that we have offered nationally, which attracted more 500 participants, the Center will convene three seminars that feature the results of our investigation. Tentatively entitled “Increasing Success Among Underserved Students: Redesigning Introductory Courses,” these seminars will provide an opportunity for those in the higher education community who seek to redesign their courses to improve learning and retention of underserved students to talk with faculty who have done so successfully. Such seminars have proven to be very successful in allowing those interested in integrating redesign ideas at their home campus to learn more about how to do so.

The seminars will be offered at the following times and places: January 2005 in or Orlando, March 2005 in Phoenix, and May 2005 in Chicago. This schedule is designed to allow participants to attend a seminar in their part of the country, thereby reducing their travel costs. The seminars will showcase projects in a variety of academic disciplines and will feature a) Center staff who will provide a comprehensive overview of the methods and approaches found to be successful, and b) faculty leaders from PCR projects that have effectively increased the learning and retention of underserved students who will discuss these approaches based on their concrete experiences. Participants will have multiple opportunities for interaction with faculty project leaders and Center staff during formal question and answer sessions and in informal conversations during breaks and lunch.

The success of this effort will be measured in several ways. First, the Center will survey attendees at the conclusion of each seminar to determine how well the seminars met their needs as well as to ascertain their level of understanding of the redesign methodology and findings and their plans to implement these approaches on their home campuses. The Center will also interview presenters as to the success of the seminar and ideas for modifications. Through these feedback loops, Center staff will make any needed changes prior to subsequent seminars.

Anticipated Outcomes

  • Three seminars attended by at least 300 interested administrators, faculty and policy makers.
    Increased understanding of how specific course redesign techniques can be used to increase student success among underserved students.
  • Focused national awareness of project outcomes among the higher education community as a result of seminars announcements.



Building on the Center’s highly successful monograph series, we will produce and distribute a monograph reporting the processes and outcomes of the meta-analysis conducted during Stage 1. The monograph will assist readers in interpreting the findings by recommending how best to pursue these ideas in their campus environments. This monograph will provide a second venue for reaching faculty members and administrators as well as policy makers concerned with increasing the success of underserved students.

Five thousand print copies of the monograph will be distributed to institutions with a high proportion of the target student population as well as to a group of “opinion makers,” the leaders of the predominant higher education organizations, private foundations and government agencies. In addition, the monograph will be available at no charge in PDF format on the Center’s web site. The availability of the PDF version of the monograph will be publicized through the Center’s electronic mailing list of 5,000 opinion makers, administrators, faculty members and policy makers, spanning all sectors of the higher education community. The monograph will be published in May 2005.

Based on our prior experience, we will receive qualitative feedback regarding the usefulness and clarity of the ideas from the target audience. In addition, the success of the monograph will be monitored through tracking requests for reprint permission and the numbers seeking online access.


Anticipated Outcomes

  • A well-written monograph describing the findings of the meta-analysis and an ongoing opportunity for those in higher education concerned about these issues to learn more.
  • At least 5,000 people directly concerned with improving learning opportunities for underserved students will have a greater understanding of effective approaches that may be applied on their campuses.


The focus of our study will be on large-enrollment, introductory courses. Most research on increasing student success and retention tends to examine institutional factors rather than what happens in specific courses, yet success in these particular courses is critical to overall student success. For example, the study being conducted by Vincent Tinto, chairman of the Syracuse University Higher Education Program, will determine how learning communities can increase college success rates. We are certain that our study will dovetail nicely with his project since learning communities focus on cross-course or extracurricular student clusters while our focus will be on what goes on within courses. The combination of our findings with Professor Tinto’s findings will indeed advance the nation’s understanding of what works effectively to increase student academic success among underserved students.

In addition, our emphasis on cost effective instruction will show institutions how they can afford to implement the approaches that work. Good ideas must be affordable in order to be adopted. Far too many good ideas about increasing student success and retention are viewed by many in higher education as things that would be nice to do but are simply not possible to implement given budget constraints. The PCR has shown how to make significant gains in student success while reducing the cost of doing so—something sorely needed by all institutions but especially by those institutions that will be targeted by this project.