Retention receives boost through paired courses

VINCENNES, Ind. - Unprepared for college work, too many students fail in their efforts to obtain a college degree.  This is a problem that particularly impacts poorer students who lack a family tradition of attending college.

This is a serious problem according to the Indiana Commission for Higher Education, which cites that less than a third of Indiana’s four-year college students graduate on time, and only slightly more than half graduate after six years, and that only 12 percent of the state’s two-year college students graduate within three years.

Vincennes University addresses this problem on multiple fronts; however, one of the most recent and most promising approaches is the introduction of paired courses.  The College of Humanities and the College of Business and Convergent Technologies introduced paired courses last fall that involve Introduction to Business, and 009 courses in Reading and English.

The initial results surpass expectations, according to Mary Hollars, dean of the College of Business and Convergent Technologies.  Carolyn Jones initiated the idea, building on a prior VU presentation by Vincent Tinto, chair of the Higher Education Program at Syracuse University.  Tinto’s research reveals a correlation between paired courses and student retention and program completion.

“I believe we’ve seen some great results.  We started with 13 students last fall and we finished with 12 - and all of them are planning to continue at VU,” said Susan Brocksmith, professor of Agribusiness.  Initially she said students were reluctant to participate because they said it reminded them of high school.  Brocksmith said those doubts changed to enthusiasm for the approach because the group “became like a family” and developed a support network that carried beyond the classroom.

“Students have the same topics hit in all three courses.  The vocabulary words come out of their business book as well as several of their writing assignments.  We are seeing some congruency and the students are being hit repeatedly in their major subject.  All of their courses work together,” Brocksmith said.

Students in the paired courses also take trips to look at successful businesses, such as Berry Plastics and Toyota.  Successful local business leaders are also brought in to speak to the students every four weeks. During the fall the speakers included Bill Pea, owner of Peafections Restaurant, and Tony Burkhart, owner of Burkhart Insurance.

“It helps that students see that what we are telling them in class is truly what business people face, such as the importance of communication skills - both written and oral.  Students gain an understanding that they do need an education since it applies in the workplace,” Brocksmith said.

Hollars said the development of the paired courses was a collaborative effort involving Julianne Myers, chair of Reading, and Laurel Smith, chair of English, and the Business faculty.  “We wanted to come up with some way to help at-risk students entering VU.  We decided to pair these three courses and to schedule them back-to-back.”

Hollars said the paired courses complement other retention efforts such as Study Sessions introduced by Lisa Nash, professor of Accounting.  Nash has introduced Study Sessions, one hour in length, which follows her Accounting 201 classes.  That class was selected because incomplete homework led to low test scores.  Students struggle with completing the homework so they did not understand the concepts and, therefore, could not apply them on the exams.  The students must use critical thinking skills to apply concepts learned in the class.  We work on taking notes, study skills, and learning to “think through” a problem based on what is known in the given information.

“I have offered homework sessions for years on a voluntary basis.  At the end of the semester I would see attendance in these sessions rise but it was often too late for some students.  By requiring students to attend Study Sessions from the beginning, they started with a good foundation and did not have to try to catch-up at the end,” Nash said.

She said in the fall she did not lose many students in the Monday-Wednesday-Friday class but it was not as successful in the Tuesday-Thursday class.  “I do know that the students who are remaining have better test scores, better understanding of the material, and better class discussion of the material.  By doing more of the homework in the study session, we have more time to discuss current events in class and that makes for a better learning experience,” Nash said.

Tutors for the Study Sessions are selected from the best students in previous Accounting 201 classes.  “We have been fortunate with our tutors. They have been excellent.  One of our tutors had an aspiration to be an accounting teacher so it was a good experience for him,” Nash said.

Hollars said that both retention strategies will be offered next year based on their initial success.  She said she hopes to continue fine-tuning the strategies based on thorough evaluations.