In 2013 the University of Portland developed an innovative assessment program to improve the retention rates and academic success of at-risk engineering students. Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the seven-element program provides freshmen and sophomores with academic, social, and professional support while providing faculty with regular qualitative and quantitative insights into their progress.

Sharing similar curricula to other engineering programs, the Shiley School of Engineering requires students adequately pass a number of STEM courses, such as calculus and physics, in their first year of study. In the summer leading to their first year approximately 200 students take a calculus readiness test; approximately 40-50 students per year demonstrate a lack of preparedness and start the year in a pre-calculus course they must complete before enrolling in Calculus 1. As a result, these students begin their degrees behind their cohorts’ schedule and—even if they perform well in other courses—possess lower-retention rates than their peers who begin their degrees in Calculus 1.

To help at-risk students graduate within four years, the Shiley School of Engineering developed a comprehensive retention program for students who did not pass the Calculus 1 preparedness test. This program contains the following seven elements:

  1. Six-Week Academic Summer Bridge Calculus I
    Students may complete Pre-calculus during this six-week summer program so they may begin the fall semester on track with their cohort.

  2. Two-Day Orientation with Online Pre-Calculus Course
    Successful completion of this online course provides students with another opportunity to retake the calculus readiness test.

  3. Pre-Calculus Course in Fall Semester
    Those who did not pass the preparedness test or the six-week summer program are required to complete this course before enrolling in Calculus 1.

  4. Academic Year Achievement Program
    Registration in this program provides at-risk students with resources, academic counselling and workshops to prepare them for success during and after their degree.

  5. Eight-Week Academic Summer Bridge: Calculus II
    In the summer leading to their sophomore year students have the opportunity to complete Calculus II and begin their second year on-track with their cohort.

  6. Scholarships for Summer STEM Courses
    Eligible students are provided scholarships for summer offerings of courses such as Calculus I and II.

  7. Peer Tutoring
    At-risk students are matched with peer-tutors to support them in engineering courses.

The initiative has been largely successful, with at-risk student retention rates increasing above the baseline of 62%. Surveys and focus groups with students show they value the program and its cohort-model of support, which includes team-building and group exercises with their peers and opportunities to explore professional areas of interest through professional engineering firms and alumni.

Unfortunately, the voluntary nature of the program means a number of at-risk students are not participating. In order to increase engagement, the Shiley School of Engineering is restructuring a number of program elements and considering making more aspects mandatory for students who do not pass the calculus preparedness test.

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About the Author: Dustin is a senior account manager with DesignedUX, providing communications and strategy to organizations in education and technology. Dustin is also board member of the Canadian Public Relations Society and contributes as a communications researcher with McMaster University.