By Doug Ward

Course redesign has become a crucial piece of helping college students succeed.

The statistics below about enrollment and graduation rates make it clear that success is too often elusive. Course redesign is hardly the only solution to that problem, but it is a proven, tangible step that colleges and universities can take.

Course redesign involves moving away from faculty-centered lectures and adopting student-centered techniques that improve learning. It usually includes online work that students do outside of class and in-class work that allows them to delve deeper into course material. (For more, see the report of the Provost’s Task Force on Course Redesign, of which I was a member.)

In the most recent issue of Change magazine, Carol Twigg of the National Center for Academic Transformation lists seven strategies that she says are “essential to improving the quality of student learning.” These strategies have emerged from the center’s work over the past 15 years and mesh well with what we have found at CTE. They are:

Brad Osborne with a group of students in a music theory class
Brad Osborne works with students in a music theory course he redesigned to provide more interaction and active learning.
  • Redesigning courses across sections to provide consistency.
  • Focusing on active learning.
  • Increasing student interactions. This includes group work and other activities that take the place of lecture.
  • Building in prompt, automatic feedback. This involves use of digital tools to provide feedback on quizzes and other assignments.
  • Providing one-on-one assistance. Twigg writes, “Students cannot live by software alone: They need human contact as well as encouragement to assure them that they are on the right learning path.”
  • Requiring sufficient time on task. This means providing incentives for attendance, participation, and completion of assignments.
  • Monitoring student progress and intervening when necessary.

As Twigg explains, none of this can be done without strong departmental and university support. She provides several excellent suggestions on how schools can do this.

College enrollment and completion rates decline

Two reports from the National Student Clearinghouse point to struggles among colleges to attract and keep students.

In one report, the clearinghouse said that six-year graduation rates for students who entered college in 2009 fell to 52.9 percent. That is down from 55 percent among students who began in 2008. Declines were steepest among students who delayed entering college after high school, and among adults.

Students at public universities fared better than the overall average, with 61.2 percent graduating in six years. That is still a decline from 62.9 percent among those who began in 2008. Six-year graduation rates at private universities were 10 points higher, at 71.5 percent.

The clearinghouse attributed the declines in part to strains brought on by the Great Recession, saying that they could have been even greater had colleges and universities not created programs to improve student success.

In another report, the clearinghouse said that fall enrollment at post-secondary institutions has fallen for the third straight year. Four-year public universities bucked that trend, with enrollment rising by 0.4 percent. Enrollment at all other types of post-secondary institutions declined: four-year for-profit colleges by 13.7 percent, two-year public colleges by 2.4 percent, and four-year non-profit private universities by 0.3 percent.

The need for a college education

Those graduation rates loom large as the skills needed for jobs grow. By 2020, 65 percent of jobs will require education and training beyond high school, according to a report by the Center on Education and the Workforce.

The U.S. has a long way to go. About a third of Americans age 25 and older hold a bachelor’s degree, and nearly 40 percent hold at least a two-year degree. (That varies widely by race and ethnicity, though.) Income generally rises along with level of education, but as Brian Stoffel of the Motley Fool explains, that doesn’t mean there’s a direct correlation or that a higher income translates into greater job satisfaction. Not everyone needs or wants a four-year degree. Anyone who wants to adapt to a changing job landscape, though, must be willing to continually gain new skills.

High school graduation rates rise

Interestingly, as colleges and universities struggle to maintain enrollments, the high school graduation rate has reached a record high. As The Atlantic reports, 82 percent of high school seniors received diplomas in 2014.

It points out many reasons to be skeptical of those numbers, though. And The New York Times goes even further, suggesting that high graduation rates may really be a sign of diminishing expectations and lower standards at some schools.

College rankings that follow the money

I don’t give college rankings systems much credence. Far too much of academic success depends on students’ backgrounds and on the amount of effort they put into their academic work, regardless of what college they attend.

The latest fad in rankings focuses on graduates’ earnings, something that has emerged as college costs have risen.

By one measure of earnings, The Topeka Capital-Journal reports, most of Kansas’s public universities don’t hold up well. Graduates of all but one state public university (Pittsburg State) earn less than expected 10 years after they began college. The article is based on federal data compiled by the Center for Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, which created a salary-weighted rankings system.

Under this measure, KU ranks 1,212 out of 1,400 institutions. At the top are the University of Colorado at Denver, and (yes) Georgetown.

Much of the Capital-Journal article is taken up by university officials speculating about why their graduates fare so poorly under these rankings. The upshot: No one really knows, as is the case with most rankings.

Briefly …

Maine is the only state in New England that spends more on education than on prisons, The Bangor Daily News reports, citing a study from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. …

Douglas Anderson of Southern Illinois University vents about university administrative bloat and suggests that higher education could solve many academic problems by slashing administrative staff and hiring “an army of good teachers.” …

Expect more top administrators in higher education to come from business and industry rather than the academy, the Hechinger Report says. The reasons: financial struggles, public pressure, and a lack of high-quality candidates from within academia.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.