New courses at UW-River Falls designed to keep freshmen in school

Posted October 24, 2016

UW-River Falls has been focusing heavily on retention of students, and a new program called First Year Adventure implemented this semester seems to be taking off quite well.

Cyndi Kernahan, assistant dean for teaching and learning in the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS), said that the program tries to ensure students stay at UWRF for their sophomore year. Faculty who developed the program also wanted the courses to be focused specifically on critical thinking, constructive teamwork and information literacy.

“What we’re interested in ensuring is that students stay freshmen to sophomore year,” Kernahan said. “One thing that’s shown to improve retention is classes like this. It’s partly an introduction-to-college course, but also featuring interesting content. And we have some very cool classes.”

The program is specific to CAS. Freshmen enrolled with a major in CAS are required to take one of the 10 courses offered. The UWRF website describes the program as “experienced faculty engaging first year students in a shared process of inquiry in seminar-style classes.”

“What that means is bringing students along,” Kernahan said. “Instead of the traditional, ‘I lecture to you and you pull in this content,’ it’s about involving students in the problem solving. Things that will allow them to test out of some of those higher order skills that are frankly more meaningful, and be able to answer questions like, ‘What is art?’ And we wanted the courses to be small enough that you know everybody’s name, you can talk, and everyone can be a part of solving some larger question.”

Course titles range from “What is Art?” to “The Universe in 14 Weeks,” and many other subjects.

Casey Maude, an adjunct professor in the English Department, is teaching a course called “99 Problems But This Class Ain’t One.” He said the class allows him to try teaching methods he may not get to otherwise.

“As I started going through the application process, doing this was about things I wanted to try in English classes that just didn’t quite fit,” Maude said. “They were either too complicated, or I couldn’t justify them because they weren’t specific enough to English composition.

“So what we’re trying to do in the class is tutorial-style learning,” he added. “Students are researching together separate topics, but ones that have enough in common that we can discuss them together. I can ask what did you learn, and they’ll come and inform me about it. That’s the semester-long project.”

Maude said that a particularly interesting project two students are working on surround police issues. One student is focusing on the tension between American communities and police forces, while another is looking at the influence of pop culture and the movement of athletes kneeling during the National Anthem.

“These topics are different, but there’s something they share,” Maude said. “I’m hoping they can do the traditional research, but also get to know and engage with each other, and practice the teamwork component of this program.”

He’s also incorporating a community-based problem-solving project into the course. This will hopefully allow students to get better acquainted and at home in River Falls, another big part of retaining students.

Maude said he’s enjoyed working with the students and teaching this course so far.

“We’re doing this academic-type thing, but it’s also a community thing,” Maude said, “so they do feel invested in this university. Therefore, less likely to transfer. I hope it will create that community here for them. This is the only class I’ve taught that’s had the chance to do that… It’s real exciting. It’s benefitted not just this class but my teaching as a whole.”

Jake Till, a physics and engineering major, is in Maude’s class. He said that the course isn’t what he thought it would be.

“It’s pretty interesting stuff, really,” Till said. “It’s not typical. It helps us look at problems on and off campus in different ways.

“We have a lot of reaching that actually reflect the real world, which makes it more interesting,” he added.

He said his semester-long project is an interesting component of the course, too.

“We’re getting to take a world problem, analyze it, and think about how we could solve it, what needs to be changed or fixed. I’m working on stuff around nuclear fission, issues surrounding that,” Till said.

Tricia Davis, a sociology professor and associate dean of CAS, said that students in the program are being studied to see what the outcome of the program’s first semester really is.

“It’s on the books for any student that started this year, so we don’t see ourselves canceling it,” Davis said. “We’re doing research, following students and looking at a lot of different factors. We’d like so see how they compare to students who haven’t taken these courses.”