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7 Ways to Make the Fall Semester Better Than the Spring

Making the best of a bad situation.

July 27, 2020
 
 

It’s not too late to make the fall semester a worthwhile experience for our students. Here are seven ideas that I think are worth considering.

1. Divide the fall semester into two six-week terms.

Juggling five disconnected classes simultaneously in a face-to-face environment is hard enough, but doing this online is asking for trouble. Let’s do what many colleges and universities have done this summer: reduce the number of courses taken at the same time to two or three at the most, but offer them in a more intensive and compressed format.

2. Divide first-year students into learning communities that share a common interest.

Cultivating a sense of connection and belonging is more important than ever, and cohorting students around a common theme or interest offers a possible solution. Enroll each cohort’s students into several connected and specially tailored classes. If these cohorts are to be more than a scheduling device, make sure each learning community has a core class taught by a faculty mentor, a series of co-curricular activities and a dedicated adviser.

3. Optimize course offerings.

The pandemic provides an opportunity to do something that our institutions should have done all along: ensure that no student is closed out of a course required for graduation or a particular major and that every new student has the opportunity to take a tutorial or a very small seminar.

Virtual mega-introductory courses -- like the 1,400-student U.S. history survey that I will teach at UT Austin this fall -- will free up faculty to engage in high-impact teaching practices, including a wide range of small online classes.

4. Deploy work-study students as coaches and peer mentors.

The for-profits and the mega-online nonprofits understand that online students benefit greatly from having someone monitor their engagement and stand ready to answer questions and address challenges. Since many on-campus work-study jobs have disappeared, a coaching and peer mentoring model will expand meaningful employment opportunities to undergraduates.

5. Offer large interdisciplinary problem-solving courses.

Let’s engage faculty and students in addressing major societal challenges Some topics are obvious: race and the American experience; multidisciplinary approaches to pandemics; protest, activism and societal transformation; and the future of the city. We should view these interdisciplinary problem-solving courses as communities of inquiry and practice.

6. Enroll every student in an innovative learning experience.

This experience might involve project-based learning, in which the students might create an app or a website or a digital video. It might entail a virtual field or clinical experience. Or it might involve community service or civic engagement. Or it might connect a class with a partner: a foreign classroom, a museum, a lab, a business, a research institute, a nonprofit or a government agency.

7. Make career preparation opportunities widely available.

Offer online workshops in résumé writing, interviewing and job search. Also, give students opportunities to enhance their employability with workshops on spreadsheets, databases, design, project management and etiquette. Support students who are interested in pursuing professional certificates, like those offered by Google. Tap alumni who are willing to serve as career coaches and mentors.

There are other steps that institutions might take but that will require time and energy as well as discussion and negotiation.

Redesign roadblock courses. At many campuses, just 25 courses have at least a third of all enrollment. We need to identify the high-enrollment gateway classes that have the highest DFW rates and equity gap and reconfigure them to maximize student success. This might entail pedagogical innovation, such as infusing active and cooperative learning into the classes, or development of tutorials, or various forms of supplemental instruction, including bridge programs, boot camps or peer-led study sessions, or breakout sessions.

Simplify degree pathways. Identify and remove obstacles to timely graduation: needless prerequisites, essential but unavailable required courses and degree requirements that do not withstand close, critical scrutiny.

Improve the transfer process. Align curricula with feeder schools. Make sure community college advisers are able to provide their students with correct advice. Let community colleges offer courses that automatically apply toward majors. Encourage co-enrollment on two- and four-year campuses. Eliminate curricular roadblocks that require students to repeat classes or that prevent entry into high-demand majors.

Our institutions face serious enrollment, retention and budgetary issues, and no amount of wishful thinking will make those challenges disappear. To my mind, the best response is to offer educational experiences that are engaging, interactive and well supported and that offer the kind of faculty mentoring that we promise but often provide only to doctoral students.

Let’s put on our thinking caps and devise approaches that makes sense. The institutions that will most successfully navigate today’s treacherous waters are those that will offer and deliver the experience that students and their parents find most compelling.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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