Increasing student and faculty engagement

Students in a large classroom.Teaching Psychology 230 – Human Sexuality – puts Blythe Duell in front of up to 500 undergraduate students each class session. It’s a massive crowd compared to her previous teaching job at a small college in the south. She was intimidated upon returning to WSU in 2018 – where she’d earned a PhD a decade prior – to be assigned a class with a large enrollment and very diverse students.

Duell wanted to ensure she was doing everything in her power to make sure students were engaged and getting as much as they could out of the class. Her participation in WSU’s LIFT Faculty Fellowship gave her the tools to do it.

One of her first goals was to show her students that they weren’t alone in struggling at times. She had each student in her PSYCH 201 class write down a time they struggled and how they overcame it, and shared the results.

“There’s some evidence that shows that if students understand other people are struggling, that they’ll feel more comfortable, and it’s easier to learn in an environment where you feel comfortable,” she said. “This can be especially important for first generation students and students who feel out of place in a college setting.”

The LIFT fellowship, now on its fourth cohort, teaches a variety of evidence-based teaching interventions. Previous research has shown that these interventions improve student engagement and learning, decrease course withdrawal and fail rates, and boost student retention.

“I’ll never forget the things that I learned by simply sitting in another professor’s class, observing their interactions with the students,” Duell said. “I want WSU students to fondly remember their Coug experience, not just as a crowd at the football game, but as students in a classroom that felt like a community.”

LIFT is one of several programs developed by WSU’s Transformation Change Initiative, said Katie Forsythe, who serves as its director.

“Of our programs underway as part of the Transformational Change Initiative, LIFT has the broadest reach,” she said. “The fellowship serves faculty across our system, including in Pullman, Tri-Cities, Vancouver and Everett.”

“The goal is to help students have a transformative experience at WSU,” Forsythe said. “At the end of the day, we are responsible for using funds set aside from colleges across our university to improve retention, measured in our 6-year graduation rate. We also want to make sure students are having experiences that set them up well for whatever is next.”

LIFT fellows participate in a series of workshops with educators who’ve gone through the course previously, talking about different strategies for increasing student participation and to better recognize when a given strategy might be useful. It’s particularly important to look at ways to improve outcomes for students during their first and second years who take large lecture classes that are prerequisites to more advanced classes in their degree programs.

Dave Torick, an instructor in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, took away a particularly subtle lesson from the program.

“Many of us are raised with the notion that if you did well, it must be because you’re smart, whereas in LIFT we talked about growth mindset wherein you work hard to do well. And so I’ve worked to help students be more comfortable coming to class by telling them that assessments are not a way to prove themselves, it’s a way for them and me to see if what I’ve taught and what they learned over the past three to four weeks has matched well to expectations.”

For Jonah Firestone, an assistant professor of science education at WSU Tri-Cities, participating in the program showed him that WSU is serious about addressing the issues facing undergraduates across the board.

“We tend to lose students because we treat a lot of classes like they are cutting classes – if a student is not doing well it’s because they are not doing well enough – when in reality there are other factors that might turn them off to a topic,” he said. “We can address many of those factors through concepts LIFT talks about.”

He continued, “If you’re interested in how learning works and how to improve your student’s retention, LIFT is worth the time to experience it.”

Top image: Students attend class inside Todd Hall at WSU Pullman.

By RJ Wolcott for WSU News