Microcredentials: Small Courses, Big Impact at CU Denver 

CU Denver

University of Colorado Denver partners with ACUE to scale teaching excellence through microcredential courses 

At every university, there are pivotal courses that can “make or break” a student’s collegiate career. The University of Colorado Denver (CU Denver) refers to courses that have the largest impact on student success and retention as “influential courses,” and leadership is committed to equipping instructors teaching these courses with every tool necessary to ensure their students succeed. 

CU Denver’s influential courses are typically characterized by having some or all of the following characteristics: have large enrollment of more than 75 students, are part of the school’s undergraduate lower division, and historically produce high DFW rates—meaning 20% of students receive a final grade of D, F or withdraw from the course. These courses are also considered “gateways” to student success. 

“We chose to partner with ACUE to provide professional development to our professors and lecturers who teach these influential courses, and we’ve recently discovered microcredential courses to be incredibly effective,” explains Lindsey Hamilton, director of CU Denver’s Center for Excellence in Teaching & Learning. 

CU Denver’s partnership with ACUE began in 2017, when Hamilton was one of the first faculty members to complete ACUE’s Effective Teaching Practices program.   

“When we first started working with ACUE, CU Denver didn’t yet have a dedicated Center for Excellence in Teaching & Learning. With very little budget and only one staff member working in an office that supported faculty’s overall professional development, I decided that the ACUE course would allow us to help faculty improve their teaching and have maximum impact on the greatest number of faculty,” says Margaret Wood, CU Denver’s associate vice chancellor of academic achievement. 

All was not wine and roses, however. I remember in those early years that our faculty loved the course, but some had difficulty committing to a full academic year. After we went remote in March and I heard that ACUE was planning to offer microcredentials, I was thrilled. This was just the answer we were looking for. The microcredentials offer our faculty robust support around targeted teaching topics while also offering flexibility.” 

Hamilton, too, found the ACUE course content to be practical and useful. 

After receiving her ACUE Certificate in Effective College Instruction, which is awarded in collaboration with the American Council on Education, she served as a faculty cohort facilitator, a role which paved the way for her leadership position in the Center for Excellence in Teaching & Learning. She immediately began examining the best way to meet her university’s ambitious goal of providing professional development to the hundreds of faculty members and lecturers who teach one of the university’s influential courses, including general biology, college algebra and English composition. 

CU Denver found the solution in ACUE’s microcredential courses. 

“There is a lot of value in ACUE’s full Effective Teaching Practices program, but we found offering the course in sections as microcredentials was a better fit for our faculty members,” Hamilton says. “So we’re all in on microcredentials!”  

Faculty participants can complete an ACUE microcredential course in six to eight weeks, which Hamilton says was more compelling to faculty compared to the commitment of a full academic year to complete the full credential program. Moreover, Hamilton had faith that once faulty members participated in one microcredential course, they would see the value and decide to enroll in additional microcredential courses. 

This past summer, CU Denver offered multiple offerings of the microcredential courses in Promoting Active Learning Online and Designing Student-Centered Courses. In large part due to the positive feedback from CU Denver faculty who previously completed ACUE courses, one email from Hamilton was all it took to recruit nearly 100 faculty into the courses.   

The Promoting Active Learning Online microcredential course has been particularly valuable for CU Denver faculty, as 75% of their courses are being conducted virtually this fall due to concerns around COVID-19. 

“ACUE provides real examples of how to incorporate best practices into the virtual classroom—the sort of information our faculty were hungry for,” Hamilton says. “As so many of our courses moved online, this was a great opportunity for our instructors to totally reinvent the wheel—not simply take what they were doing in the in-person setting and try to replicate it online.” 

The feedback from faculty has been extraordinary. 

“I successfully completed the program, proving that even a former dean and provost can still learn new things! The ACUE microcredential was an excellent design, rich in content and very interactive—one of the approaches to engagement, obviously,” shares one CU Denver business faculty member. “One impression of many is that the faculty across our university are creative, committed and highly motivated to do our best work, especially in these trying times.” 

In spring 2021, CU Denver will offer another microcredential course, Inspiring Inquiry and Lifelong Learning in Your Online Course, followed by an additional course, Creating an Inclusive and Supportive Learning Environment, which Hamilton thinks will supplement the university’s Inclusive Pedagogy Academy. 

“By offering this particular microcredential course as part of the academy, we’re really providing a two-for-one training for our faculty,” Hamilton says. “Sometimes with a topic like this, faculty leave discouraged by the enormity of the issue. We hope by providing this ACUE course, our faculty will leave with not only a better understanding of inclusive teaching practices, but also feeling positive about their ability to incorporate practical ideas they can immediately implement  to create a more inclusive learning environment.” 

The long-term outlook points to greater student success. 

Faculty who elect to take all four of ACUE’s microcredential courses will earn the full Certificate in Effective College Instruction, a trend that Hamilton hopes and expects to see. 

Independently validated research confirms that students are more engaged, learn more, and complete courses in greater numbers—more equitably with their peers—when taught by faculty who have earned the full ACUE certificate.  

“We’re already seeing a high retention rate of faculty members opting to enroll in another microcredential course,” Hamilton says. “Our faculty think it’s amazing. They’re enjoying the opportunity to structure their modules in a way that seems more manageable to them.” 

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