Public Release:  University of Houson program earns kudos for improving grades, retaining students

Successful biology initiative recognized by Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board

University of Houston

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IMAGE: Students attending recitation in the Comprehensive Student Success Program at the University of Houston complete an activity on the mechanism for transport and metabolism of lactose. view more

Credit: UH Department of Biology and Biochemistry

HOUSTON, Aug. 19, 2014 - To improve students' chances of completing introductory biology courses and decrease poor grades, the University of Houston (UH) implemented a comprehensive student success program, employing various interventions for students at risk for failure.

Through a grant from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB), the Department of Biology and Biochemistry embarked on a pilot program focusing on first-year students taking "General Biology" for non-majors and "Introductory Biology" for science majors. These two classes have high rates of students either making a D or F or dropping the course completely, with a 30 to 40 percent non-passing rate.

"Freshman-level biology courses have high enrollments and consistently have the highest non-completion and failure rates of all the department's courses," said Dan E. Wells, dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics and director of the program. "Through the Comprehensive Student Success Program, however, we are making strides toward turning this around. Our success to this point is due to the whole-hearted support and involvement of more than half of the biology and biochemistry faculty."

Funded through the Coordinating Board's College Access Challenge Grant, the program includes curricular enhancement and increased opportunities for student engagement in lecture halls, faculty development workshops and peer-led recitation sessions. Sixteen faculty and staff members and 16 undergraduate majors serving as facilitators make up the student success program team. An additional 24 departmental faculty, postdoctoral students and graduate students have contributed to the program as field trip and lab tour leaders.

"Since fall 2012, the program has served 2,653 students in the introductory course of science majors," said Donna Pattison, the program's co-director and an instructional professor of biology and biochemistry. "The initiative resulted in a 14 percent department-wide increase in the number of students successfully completing the introductory course for biology majors."

Particularly successful is the intervention plan for low-performing students. This component begins after the first exam, with students who score below 70 percent being required to attend weekly group sessions led by junior or senior life science majors, called recitation sessions, as well as meet one-on-one in advising sessions with faculty or staff members on improving time management and study skills. Additional elements include field trips designed to get students engaged with faculty in smaller group settings and tours of labs in the biology and biochemistry department to introduce students to research and faculty. While required for the low-performing students, these opportunities are available to all students in the classes, regardless of exam performance.

"We designed specific curriculum for the recitation sessions. It's not tutoring. The students work in groups on activities that reinforce concepts learned in class, such as making hands-on models of biological processes," Pattison said. "We've noticed students are doing better with these peer-led, interactive recitations being made available to them, and we intend to use the results in these courses as a model for future curriculum development in upper-level courses."

The program has been so successful that it received a "Recognition of Excellence" for "Comprehensive Student Success in STEM" from the Coordinating Board this summer, based on "the exceptional work, success and efforts to sustain and scale" the initiative. Additionally, the THECB awarded more funding to the program for development of an online toolkit to share best practices with the broader college and university community, as well as make available many of the materials developed for the pilot program in biology. The toolkit will include videos of learning activities, such as demonstrations and models, with instructions for implementation, as well as curriculum materials for peer-led, team-learning recitation sessions and resources for student advising, peer-facilitator training and faculty professional development.

Furthermore, based on the success of this pilot program for the entry-level biology courses, UH recently received a $1.5 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to expand the program to entry-level physics, chemistry and mathematics courses.

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About the University of Houston

The University of Houston is a Carnegie-designated Tier One public research university recognized by The Princeton Review as one of the nation's best colleges for undergraduate education. UH serves the globally competitive Houston and Gulf Coast Region by providing world-class faculty, experiential learning and strategic industry partnerships. Located in the nation's fourth-largest city, UH serves more than 39,500 students in the most ethnically and culturally diverse region in the country. For more information about UH, visit the university's newsroom at http://www.uh.edu/news-events/.

About the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics

The UH College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, with 193 ranked faculty and nearly 6,000 students, offers bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in the natural sciences, computational sciences and mathematics. Faculty members in the departments of biology and biochemistry, chemistry, computer science, earth and atmospheric sciences, mathematics and physics conduct internationally recognized research in collaboration with industry, Texas Medical Center institutions, NASA and others worldwide.

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