Dr Neil Williams, Faculty of Science, Engineering and Computing
On paper the University of North Carolina Charlotte (UNC Charlotte) is very similar to Kingston University. It has 23,000+ students with about half living at home; funding is dominated by teaching-related income and it is very committed to widening participation. On
arriving at the 1000-acre campus the similarities end. The student union building is huge, there are many restaurants and meeting places for students, the sports hall seats 9,000 spectators and they are building an American Football stadium at a cost of $100 million.
Such spectacular student facilities contribute enormously to a greater student engagement with the university. Kingston will never be able to match these resources, but I am sure improved sport and recreational facilities would increase student engagement. In contrast, the scientific teaching laboratories and classrooms that I saw looked “tired” compared to the facilities we have in the Eadweard Muybridge and John Galsworthy buildings. It is this mixture of similarities and differences that made the trip so informative. I was missing Induction week during my visit and it was interesting to note that it is managed very differently at UNC Charlotte. Dr Dennis Weiss, Dean of Students, told us about SOAR
(Student Orientation, Advising and Registration) and how they include parents in the process as well. Multiple, small-scale residential 1 ½ day university inductions are held throughout the summer, well in advance of the start of term. This has the advantage of spreading the burden of enrolling freshers and avoiding long queues. Another successful induction program was UTOP, a well-attended, five-week summer residential programme for minority students.
I was particularly impressed by the wide range of central, student support offices and associated programmes, even if some had rather contrived acronyms (PRODUCE Producing Readiness of a Diverse University Cohort in Education!). I attended a number of
sessions on the work of The University Centre for Academic Excellence (UCAE), headed by Catherine Blat, this covered:
• Tutorial Services, providing tutoring in introductory maths, science, business and foreign languages;
• Skills workshops, and a 10 week Freshmen seminar programme for students on probation.
• Supplemental Instruction (SI), which uses small Peer Assisted Learning (PAL) sessions to help keen students improve their grades “in challenging courses such as science or engineering”;
• BEST (Building Educational Strengths and Talents) which focuses on students who are the first in their family to attend college by providing study seminar classes and a Learning Community.
• SOS (Student Obtaining Success) programme. A Peer Mentor scheme for students who are on academic probation. Mentors are trained to identify academic barriers to success and develop an action plan for the student.
• Another successful mentoring scheme, SAFE (Student Advising for Freshmen Excellence) is run by the Dean of Student Office.
This is open to all students but again is focussed on reaching out to students from underrepresented groups. There are examples of mentoring and supplemental teaching at
Kingston, however my impression is that the scale of the offering and the uptake by Charlotte students is much greater. We had the chance to talk and listen to students involved in each of the programmes. They spoke very passionately about being mentors
and it was illuminating to find out what spurred them on to take on these roles; some did up to 6 hours of mentoring work a week. One reason for their success is that these programmes are well established and have slowly developed over 10+ years. When asked about how they managed to recruit so many mentors, they replied that recommendations from academic staff and well established recruitment and training before the academic year
starts, were key factors. Many of the schemes were successful as they were up and running from week 1 of the term and there was close integration with the Colleges (Faculties). Another critical component to the success was significant staffing resources; the centre has 8 permanent professional members of staff, plus grad assistants, tutors, SI leaders, mentors and student office assistants.
Ted Elling, Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, demonstrated the extensive evaluation of these schemes. The results of these evaluations have been instrumental in sustaining many of these programmes. We were also lucky enough to listen to a Learning Community programme research presentation hosted by Cynthia Wolf Johnson (Associate Provost for Academic Services), where the reasons for their success were probed by Kim Buch and Daniel Bonilla from the Psychology department. Learning communities of students have proved successful in improving grade point averages and progression rates.
One fundamental difference is that where at Kingston we might modify the curriculum, teaching or assessment in a module to tackle low grades and poor progression, at UNC Charlotte it seemed that the module is less likely to be changed; instead support mechanisms tend be invoked. Also a lot of the academic skills covered by UCAE are taught in academic skills modules and dealt with in PDP sessions with personal tutors. However, I think Kingston could gain a lot by recruiting more mentors and PAL leaders and using Learning communities to support students who find various transitions at University challenging. Perhaps a university centre to provide training and funding for this type of activity would be a good idea.
I think Kingston could also make use of the principle of academic probation, where students who are failing in semester one are identified and required to engage with one of the activities of the ACAE. This may be a 10-week seminar scheme aimed at getting them engaged with the university and classes on a variety of academic skills, or a scheme such as SOS, where student mentors and staff help develop a personal action plan for the upcoming
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