Provost’s seminar focuses on first-year student success


Angela Dillard, U-M’s inaugural vice provost of undergraduate education, called for collaborative and coordinated action to further improve first-year student success during the winter semester’s Provost’s Seminar on Teaching.

Dillard juxtaposed recommendations made by campus stakeholders over the last five years with inspiring initiatives carried out at other institutions.

More than 130 faculty, staff and administrators gathered Feb. 20 in the Michigan Union to discuss strategies for helping first-year students achieve early momentum and develop skills that propel them through their undergraduate years.

The Center for Research on Learning and Teaching co-sponsored the event with the Provost’s Office.

A photo of a woman standing and smiling at a podium
Angela Dillard, U-M’s inaugural vice provost of undergraduate education, addresses attendees at the Provost’s Seminar on Teaching. (Photo by Scott Soderberg, Michigan Photography)

Laurie McCauley, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, began the event by broadening the definition of student success beyond degree attainment to the fostering of each student’s intellectual and personal journey.

“Our definition of student success means our students complete their degrees with a holistic understanding of their discipline’s landscape and needs,” McCauley said. “They’re not just employable, but they’re sought after, and it means they carry with them the tools to effect beneficial changes for a diverse society.”

Dillard then moderated a panel with national experts, including:

  • Mark Largent, vice provost for undergraduate education, dean of undergraduate studies, Michigan State University.
  • Amanda Knapp, associate vice provost and assistant dean, undergraduate academic affairs, University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
  • Betsy Barefoot, senior scholar, Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education.
  • Mary Wright, associate provost for teaching and learning, executive director, Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning, Brown University.

Largent said encouraging first-year students to enroll in 30 credits will increase their success rate. While many advisers may tell students to “go easy” and take fewer courses their first year, Largent said, this advice may, in fact, harm the students.

Enrolling in more courses gives students the opportunity to drop a course, if needed, and avoid risking financial aid and scholarships. He said MSU puts the onus of success rates on the institution rather than the students.

“We’re not fixing the students. We’re fixing ourselves so that the students’ experience is better aligned with their needs,” Largent said.

A survey created by MSU highlights the correlation between withdrawal rates and students’ sense of belonging.

“You get the best out of your students when they feel like they’re at an institution where they feel represented, seen and heard. That sense of belonging is what’s important,” Largent said.

A photo of a woman standing at a round table talking to several people
Catherine Badgley, director of the Residential College and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, and in the Residential College, and of earth and environmental sciences in LSA, leads a discussion at the Provost’s Seminar on Teaching on Feb. 20 at the Michigan Union. (Photo by Scott Soderberg, Michigan Photography)

Knapp explained how UMBC’s academic success center is a one-stop hub that eliminates guesswork by students, faculty and academic advisers about where to find resources. Trained advocates provide students with personalized and coordinated care.

UMBC recognizes the different backgrounds and strengths among students and creates supports like embedding supplemental instruction in courses and hiring students who successfully completed challenging courses to help the next crop of students.

Barefoot advised faculty members to help first-year students thrive in the classroom by veering away from lecturing to create a more engaging learning environment, providing frequent feedback and building relationships with students.

She also encouraged faculty members to become familiar with campus resources where they can refer students needing help.

Wright said teaching and course design are complex endeavors that shouldn’t rest on a single instructor, but rather on a team approach. She also cautioned against just presenting data and expecting change.

Brown’s Equitable Learning Inquiry Program works with faculty to choose interventions and metrics grounded in self-determination theory, helping faculty to define effective learning environments.

She also recommended looking for allies. For instance, after faculty and athletic coaches discussed commonalities between teaching and coaching, they worked together to revise policies that had posed barriers for the student-athletes who make up 25% of Brown’s student body.

A photo of a woman addressing a crown seated in a ballroom
Provost Laurie McCauley delivers remarks during the Provost’s Seminar on Teaching. (Photo by Scott Soderberg, Michigan Photography)

Following the panel, concurrent sessions enabled attendees to dive more deeply into four specific recommendations distilled from reports by previous U-M task forces. Topics included promoting early momentum through completion of 30 credits in the first year, advising and teaching with a “validation” approach, covering grades in first-year courses, and lowering withdrawal rates.

Attendees regrouped in the Rogel Ballroom after the breakout sessions for lunch and a closing discussion with Dillard and Mark Moldwin, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, professor of climate and space engineering in the College of Engineering, and director of the new Office of Postdoctoral Affairs. 

Six years ago, Moldwin and LSA Dean Anne Curzan, who then was associate dean for the humanities, co-chaired a task force that articulated a set of values that, if adopted, would reflect a shared vision across the 14 U-M schools and colleges that teach undergraduates.

“If, as a community, we can come together around shared values, it’s easier for us to think about consensus, not necessarily with respect to outcomes, but around the process of ensuring every voice is heard,” Moldwin said.

“With shared values, we can also acknowledge the huge diversity of interests and let different units undertake pilots, without trying to make one size fit all.”

Early momentum is one strategy for closing gaps in equity and opportunity within the framework of academic support for all students. Dillard said that broadly embracing this strategy beginning with 2024 summer orientations is a joint project that will involve a lot of parts of campus working on implementation, messaging and advising.

Doing this work, along with other initiatives, will strengthen cross-campus collaborations among schools and colleges and foster more creative engagement across academic and student affairs units committed to student success, career readiness and well-being.


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