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Third year’s a charm for Madison Initiative for Undergraduates

October 9, 2012 By Susannah Brooks

Photo: WisCEL classroom

Students in an electrical and computer engineering course taught by faculty associate Michael Morrow collaborate on an assignment in the Wisconsin Collaboratory for Enhanced Learning (WisCEL) Active Learning Lab in Wendt Library. Photo: Bryce Richter

For students who might otherwise grumble at the prospect of a math class, the Wisconsin Collaboratory for Enhanced Learning (WisCEL) has been a breath of fresh air. WisCEL’s “learning commons” spaces encourage students to collaborate in small groups or work problems out on a whiteboard. Formal instruction combines with more informal learning to encourage immediate feedback and instructor interaction.

The results have surprised even WisCEL’s creators. Students in WisCEL sections of pre-calculus-level math and engineering courses consistently earn more A, AB, and B grades — and fewer D and F grades — than students in the non‐WisCEL sections of the same courses. Perhaps most notably, students report that they are more excited to come to class, particularly because they perceive that their instructors care about the students’ ability to learn the course content.

WisCEL is one of the major success stories of the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates (MIU). As the University of Wisconsin–Madison spotlights practices increasing educational innovation on campus, the release of the third-year MIU progress report shows the impact of this targeted funding on high-impact practices across campus.

A summary of the report, covering the 2011-12 academic year, is now available online. Detailed reports for each MIU project are also available.

In broad terms, MIU funding allowed WisCEL to provide “barrier busting” opportunities. Faculty members who didn’t think that their course format could allow individualized instruction now have access to the tools they need to make the change. An extra TA or student assistance — provided by WisCEL — could provide the time needed for a professor to examine the course fully, then reinvent the entire course format from the inside out.

In turn, the individualized format helps instructors know that their teaching is on the right track.

WisCEL’s example is just one way in which MIU funding has lessened workloads, encouraged innovation and boosted the efficiency of undergraduate programs and services across campus — making a big difference where students need it most.

“One instructor described how he used to teach something to 100 students and see them all nod as if they understood. But they’d still miss it on a quiz,” says Suzanne Smith, associate director of WisCEL. “With WisCEL, you know when your students really get it; you know when they don’t. So you’re able to tailor what you’re teaching to what students truly know, not just what you’re saying that day.”

WisCEL’s example is just one way in which MIU funding has lessened workloads, encouraged innovation and boosted the efficiency of undergraduate programs and services across campus — making a big difference where students need it most.

MIU is expected to add $40 million to instructional funding and financial aid by the 2012-13 academic year. The largest impact came in increasing services and funding available to all undergraduates. Approximately half of the funding went towards new sources of need-based financial aid, including grants for students with unmet financial need.

“We have $20 million in new scholarships that simply didn’t exist before MIU,” says Christopher Olsen, interim vice provost for teaching and learning. “We’re lowering the burden of debt for thousands of students.”

As undergraduate advising underwent a massive restructuring, culminating in the launch of the Office of the Director of Undergraduate Advising, more than two dozen new advisors expanded access and support for students.

A similar expansion in faculty hiring increased access to tenured and tenure-track faculty in high-demand courses and majors. MIU funding supports a total of 78 new faculty positions in 20 departments, with 61 new faculty members arriving on campus by fall 2012.

MIU has also provided support for high-impact educational practices that engage students in active learning, aiding in student retention and engagement. Participation in First-Year Interest Groups (FIGs) has skyrocketed since pre-MIU days. More than 1,000 students enrolled in 55 FIGs in fall 2012, an 80 percent increase in FIG enrollment since MIU funding was introduced in 2009. The FIG program received the 2012 Regent’s Award for Excellence in Teaching.

“We have $20 million in new scholarships that simply didn’t exist before MIU. We’re lowering the burden of debt for thousands of students.”

Christopher Olsen

Other high-impact practices such as residential learning communities, undergraduate research and service learning have also benefited from MIU funding.

“These are all the sorts of things that we link to essential learning outcomes when we talk about the Wisconsin Experience,” says Olsen. “That’s huge.”

One project that has made a difference for a targeted group of students is the University Health Services (UHS) mental health case management system. Envisioned as a way to connect students — and keep them connected — with on- and off-campus resources for specialized care and social support, the system has already moved well beyond original projections. Staff received 451 referrals from campus units, met with 296 students and scheduled follow-up appointments with 110 students.

The result: students can better manage their own care, lessening the impact of chronic mental or physical illness on their studies. The majority of students surveyed about their use of the system agreed that connecting with mental health resources allowed them to stay in school.

MIU’s impact on student learning will be felt well into the future. Beginning with the current semester, for example, all pre-calculus math classes through Math 112 will be offered using the WisCEL format of individualized instruction and monitoring. Students report that they would choose a WisCEL-based course over any other course offered.

“The math department would not have agreed to this format if we hadn’t already shown this demonstrable success,” says Smith. “One of the most amazing things to see is the transformation from what a course was to what it has now become.”

The Madison Initiative for Undergraduates is funded by a four-year supplemental tuition charge to help ensure students receive critical student services and the courses and instructors necessary to graduate in a timely fashion. Beginning in the fall of 2009, tuition was increased by $250 per year for resident undergraduates and $750 per year for non-resident undergraduates. Students from families with incomes under $80,000 were held harmless for the increase.

MIU’s Oversight Committee will meet on Friday, Oct. 19 to discuss the progress report in depth. Full details and comprehensive reports for MIU may be viewed here.