Tracking Student Engagement Can Help Address “First-Year Problem”
First-year introductory courses introduce a large number of students from diverse backgrounds to new material and learning environments. For instructors and administrators, the size and scope of these courses present student success, retention and engagement challenges, sometimes called the “first-year problem.” A new study by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario finds that student engagement surveys can provide valuable insight for instructors looking to improve the experience of students in first-year introductory courses.
Active Learning Strategies in Introductory Financial Accounting Classes examined introductory financial accounting courses at four unique institutions, a primarily doctoral university, a medium-sized comprehensive university, a university-college partnership-based institution and a degree-granting college. Accounting was chosen as it serves as a gateway to a specialized degree, is required for students in a business program and must serve a large, diverse student group.
Students in these classes participated in student surveys after taking the course. The results were shared with instructors, who were free to adjust and implement interventions for upcoming course offerings as they deemed appropriate. Some of the changes introduced included replacing seminars with smaller classes and incorporating news items and real-world problems in lectures. Students in subsequent courses were then surveyed to measure the effectiveness of interventions. Focus groups were also conducted to get more targeted feedback on the course experience.
The most common finding was the importance of activities that encouraged regular practice with problems similar to those being assessed on exams. One instructor went as far as to diminish the importance of classroom time, believing that as long as students are practicing the problems, the location is not important. However, the study’s authors point out that this approach may not be effective with novice learners who need the encouragement of the classroom environment.
The inclusion of current events and topical situations showed promising results and many students credited the technique with their desire to continue pursuing accounting. The introduction of end-of-class reflection opportunities showed some student uptake, but had no significant impact on engagement and learning scores. In all four examined programs, 70-85% of the final grade is based on short answer and multiple choice tests and assignments, so it is possible the students did not see the connection between larger concept discussions and their final grades. The authors argue that expanding the range of assessments should be considered for further study.
Grades were also a promising motivator for engagement. For example at the primarily doctoral university, bonus marks were awarded to students who attended seminar sessions where problems were discussed. Students found this to be an effective motivator and felt it could also be extended to homework assignments, as well.
The smaller, apprenticeship-type model at the degree-granting college was particularly successful at engaging students and developing positive approaches to learning. The course had considerably more non-exam-based assessments than the other schools and was rated by their students as more interesting and the material less difficult.
The authors also note that as teaching and learning is a relatively new field of study, it is important to continue developing trustworthy tools for measurement and assessment. While existing student engagement surveys provide valuable insight, they should be re-examined to make sure they are accurate and useful for all learning environments.
Active Learning Strategies in Introductory Financial Accounting Classes was prepared by Barb Bloemhof and Julia Christensen Hughes from the University of Guelph.