From “weeding out” to “belonging” at NAU

Bio 181 at Northern Arizona University used to be known as a “weed out” course, with about 30% of students dropping out. It’s a gateway too—required for 25 majors, meaning that about 2,400—or 1 in 10—students need to pass it. When a companion study skills class didn’t improve retention, Ana Araya-Anchetta and Mar-Elise Hill, biology lecturers, and Melissa Welker, NAU’s former executive director for undergraduate retention, completely redesigned it. Araya-Anchetta and Hill, ACUE-credentialed faculty members, incorporated active learning strategies, helped students improve their metacognitive skills, and created a greater sense of community—resulting in increased exam scores and fewer DFWs.

“Our NAU e-Learning Center, and particularly Flower Darby, director of Teaching for Student Success initiatives and our facilitator throughout the ACUE Effective Teaching Practices course, was also instrumental in providing us the pedagogical and instructional design expertise required to make meaningful changes,” said Araya-Anchetta.

Previously, Araya-Anchetta’s students set long-term and summative goals like “get an A.” In retrospect, she compared that to “having a goal to swim the English Channel without strategies around preparation, practice, and progress.” Now, she helps them also adopt intermediate goals attached to specific learning practices. Together, they re-visit goals as the semester unfolds and adjust study approaches as needed—with students becoming better managers of their learning.

Araya-Anchetta also makes a point to better explain why content and assignments are important, creating a shared sense of purpose and community. Key to building community and purpose is also a more strategic use of group work. Araya’s teaching assistants lead specific groups, learn students’ names, and guide students’ thinking rather than simply providing clarifying answers.

It’s a different day in Bio 181—students now report they “belong.”

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