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Lessons Learned: Supporting Diverse Populations for Success Through the Research Aligned Mentorship Program

 

Engaging With Diversity in the College Classroom
A National Symposium
November 17-18, 2017
Dillard University
New Orleans, Louisiana

 

Erica J. Friedman, Farmingdale State College
Rose Gonnella, Kean University
Beverly Kahn, Farmingdale State College

Introduction

The Research Aligned Mentorship (RAM) program is funded through a First in the World FIPSE grant awarded by the US Department of Education. Farmingdale State College (FSC), the lead institution, is joined with four other partner institutions in forming a Mid-Atlantic Consortium (MAC). Members of the MAC are FSC, Kean University (NJ), Bowie State University (MD), Central Connecticut State University, and SUNY College at Old Westbury. All five institutions are gathering evidence to demonstrate whether or not the program can improve 4-year graduation rates among full-time undergraduate students.

Through randomized control trial, each school welcomes a treatment group of 100-250 students who are either first generation, minority, low-income, and/or adult learners every fall semester through 2020, along with a matched control group of students who do not receive program interventions. The program’s culminating intervention is the early placement of treatment group students (“RAM scholars”) into mentored research or applied learning experiences on- or off-campus by their junior year. In preparation for this experience, students receive individualized, holistic advisement, a first-year experience course, a second-year introduction to research course, collaborative learning workshops attached to foundational math courses, exclusive event invitations, and additional opportunities for bolstering college success. Each component is qualitatively evaluated via focus group sessions in which RAM scholars provide direct feedback about their experiences in the program. Meanwhile, outcome data is analyzed for comparison between treatment and control groups.

The RAM program is modeled after the successful UCLA PEERS program that immerses underrepresented students in a regimen of intensive support and engagement during their first two years of college (Chang, Sharkness, Hurtado, & Newman, 2014).

The RAM program has been operating for over two years, accepting its first cohort of 650 students in Fall 2016 and its second cohort of 650 students in Fall 2017 across the five MAC institutions. We have learned many lessons through the strategic implementation and evaluation of our carefully orchestrated, multi-pronged, and integrated RAM program. What follows are the most salient lessons that we have learned. Preliminary quantitative and qualitative results and data are cited throughout.

The First Two Years Are Key

The UCLA PEERS program found that underrepresented students are more likely to persist in college if they participate in an early undergraduate research experience with a faculty mentor. Because student engagement in research is not pervasive at any of the MAC institutions, the RAM program interventions focus primarily on the first two years of the college experience for students. Such interventions prep students for early research or applied learning experiences that they can then continue or expand on as juniors and seniors.

First, RAM scholars develop basic college adjustment skills (e.g., studying, time management) through a first-year experience course. They acquire specific study skills in foundational math courses in their first year through a collaborative learning workshop in math. Then they develop research and critical thinking skills (e.g., solving problems with evidence-based solutions) through a sophomore year introduction to research course. They apply all of these skills in a culminating applied learning or research experience course, which is completed on- or off-campus by their junior year. All coursework in the program is credit-bearing. Credit signals to the students that their attendance and work is fully recognized and important. Students are finished with all formalized RAM program activities after completion of their research or applied learning experience. The remaining years are focused on assisting students in applying for additional research or applied learning opportunities (e.g., NSF research experiences for undergraduates), scholarships and awards (e.g., Fulbrights), and graduate school (e.g., masters’ and doctoral programs).

Holistic Advisement

Effective academic advisement is a predictor of student success and satisfaction in college. Conversely, student dissatisfaction with academic advisement is linked to increased attrition rates (Anderson, Motto, & Bordeaux, 2014). While traditional academic advisement is focused primarily (often exclusively) on course selection, RAM program counselors take advisement a step further through a holistic approach. They do not only craft and adjust students’ schedules, but also address all aspects of student life that contribute to academic success, including, but not limited to, work, family, campus engagement, and applied learning outside the classroom.

The goal of the RAM program is for students to see their RAM counselors at least two times per semester. The holistic approach to advisement has been so effective at FSC that Cohort 1 first-year students met or checked in with their RAM counselors at least six times per semester on average. Such careful guidance and student bonding with the RAM counselor has contributed to many positive outcomes. Specifically, we believe that careful holistic advisement directly contributed to higher year one to year two retention rates, as well as lower probation rates (GPA < 2.0) among RAM scholars at FSC in comparison to non-RAM scholars. RAM program scholars were more likely (86.9%) than their non-RAM peers (81.0%) to return for sophomore year (p = .06). RAM scholars were also significantly less likely (6.6%) to be placed on probation after their first semester than their non-RAM peers (20.26%; p < .001).

Extra Support in Gateway Classes

Students struggle in their first year with adjusting to college, especially in foundational courses such as math. At FSC, statistics and pre-calculus are gateway courses to many majors in STEM, business, and social science. At UCLA, collaborative learning increased success in gateway courses for students. Following the UCLA model, the RAM program offers scholars a one-credit collaborative learning workshop in tandem with gateway courses, such as statistics and pre-calculus. These Treisman-style workshops are designed around the theory that students who meet weekly to collaborate and work on math problems together do better in math than students who struggle to master math on their own (Treisman, 1992).

Preliminary analyses show that it’s working. RAM scholars at FSC who took a collaborative learning workshop in conjunction with their statistics or pre-calculus course had a significantly higher GPA in their math course (M = 2.91, SD = 1.15) than control group students (M = 2.35, SD = 1.27) who were not enrolled in the workshop (p < .01).

Community Building and Peer Mentorship

A key aspect of the RAM program’s success is building a sense of community and belonging among the scholars in the program. Students who bond with each other and feel a sense of belonging to their college community tend to believe more in their own competence and abilities (Engstrom & Tinto, 2008). Thus, the RAM program hosts activities and events exclusively for RAM scholars throughout the year. This includes educational activities, service-oriented events, social events, as well as field trips. The RAM program also holds summer programming for scholars to acclimate them to the program and the campus and to help them establish friendships and connect with the RAM staff before they start their classes. For example, the RAM program at FSC hosts a two-day Summer Kick Off in July and a Welcome Event in August before the start of classes each year. Peer mentorship is built into this program as much as possible since we know that peer mentorship positively impacts student success (Tremblay & Rodger, 2003).

Likewise, Kean University in New Jersey strives to build community at the outset of their RAM program. RAM scholars at Kean arrive one week before the start of the fall semester for a rigorous orientation and educational experience that carry college credit. During this initial Transition to Kean (T2K) course (bearing one credit), the students work with faculty, staff, and peers. The interaction and connection to peers is critical in helping the students feel comfortable. The peer “connectors” are called GEMS (general education mentoring students). The faculty assigned to each class of RAM T2K scholars are not only advisers but mentors inspiring them onward in their major area of study. And last but not least, the students learn where to find key administrative staff and how to seek guidance and assistance for non-academic matters and student life. The RAM counselors ensure that the RAM scholars recognize how the faculty, staff, and GEMS interconnect and work together toward their success.

During the T2K course, the RAM scholars engage in a service-oriented event. For example, working alongside staff, faculty, and GEMS, RAM scholars engaged in a “clean-sweep” of the section of the Elizabeth River tributary that runs through the Kean campus. The RAM scholars first discussed environmental issues and sustainability while touring the campus. The RAM group then donned boots and rubber gloves and scoured the riverbanks and shallows, looking for and removing trash. Although the students understood the contribution and effort was small, the mountain of trash they collected was a great result nonetheless. The scholars truly connected to each other and bonded over this shared point of pride they now could claim. They saw themselves as contributing caretakers of their campus.

The river clean sweep was the first of many educational cohort-building events offered to RAM scholars beyond the classroom. After the T2K experience, the RAM scholars at Kean remain in touch with their GEMS and faculty mentor. Arrangements are made to further engage these students in field events related to their major area of study. Business students traveled to New York for a private tour of the Federal Reserve; architecture and interior design students visited the exhibition Designing Life: The Modernist Legacy of Albert Ledner at the Center for Architecture, NY; and science students were given a lesson on botany and grafting while visiting an orchard at apple-picking time. RAM scholars also learn beyond the classroom using Kean facilities, including private viewings in the university planetarium, tours of the many species of trees found on campus, and attendance at design trade shows.

RAM program events such as these take place at all five MAC institutions. They successfully connect RAM scholars to faculty and peers, and shepherd them to the field of study or profession to which they aspire. The experiences accumulate and contribute to the overall sense of community found among RAM program scholars at each school. For instance, the first cohort of RAM scholars at FSC coined the term “RAMily” to emphasize the family-like warmth they feel from the RAM program staff and their RAM peers. Indeed, in focus group feedback sessions, RAM scholars emphasize that the warmth and connection they feel is an important contributor to their positive experiences in the program.

Research Preparation

Too often universities that provide their students with research opportunities simply thrust them into a research setting (e.g., science lab or engineering firm) and expect students to assume the role of “researcher” without any preparation or training. That practice usually short-changes the students. They feel overwhelmed by the strange environment and spend weeks figuring out the lay of the land before they are ready to step up as serious research assistants.

A distinctive component of the RAM program is the implementation of a one-credit sophomore year experience course focused on introducing students to scholarly research practices before they are placed in an actual research setting. The course focuses on preparing students for faculty-mentored research or applied learning experiences. At FSC, students workshop a research idea that develops into a research proposal, which they present as a digital poster at the end of the semester.

Students learn how to search for scholarly research articles in the library databases, critically evaluate research, consider the ethics around conducting research studies, and develop their problem-solving and presentation skills. Students in this course at FSC are encouraged to submit their posters for presentation at a campus-wide Student Research Day. This course helps students develop their critical thinking and problem-solving skills before they begin faculty-mentored research or an off-campus applied learning experience.

Publicize and Celebrate

The grant-funded RAM program aims to become a sustainable program at each institution in the Mid-Atlantic Consortium. In order to ensure that the program continues, publicity and celebration are imperative. Publicizing and celebrating the accomplishments of the program, its scholars, and the faculty mentors build campus-wide support for the program and encourage continued involvement in the program from both students and faculty. As the RAM program continues to evaluate its progress and produce results, the directors at FSC make a point to share these successes with the entire campus. Emails with updates are sent to the president, provost, deans, chairs, and other key administrators. Good news is submitted to institutional advancement for publication in campus newsletters and online.

Celebrating students for their accomplishments in the program also ensures that they see themselves and their peers as scholars. For example, we celebrate students and their faculty research mentors through an internally developed newsletter, Spotlight on RAM, which is shared both digitally and in print. Recently, two RAM scholars at FSC who engaged in early research in the summer after their first year gained SUNY-wide recognition. They presented on their research at a SUNY Applied Learning Conference in Buffalo and were subsequently featured in a SUNY publication.

Conclusion

The carefully orchestrated Mid-Atlantic Consortium’s Research Aligned Mentorship program is proving to be highly effective in guiding diverse student populations along the narrow path that leads to persistence, academic achievement, and graduation in four years. While modeled after the small PEERS program at UCLA, the MAC institutions are not UCLA, an elite institution. As second-tier public institutions, we educate the typical or average US student found at most Faculty Resource Network institutions and, indeed, at most colleges and universities across the US today. As our program implementation and research continue—and as the achievements of our RAM scholars mount up—we are confident that the Research Aligned Mentorship program will serve as a model for effective and proven support for diverse student populations that can be replicated at colleges and universities nation-wide.

 

 
 

References

Anderson, W., Motto, J.S., Bourdeaux, R. (2014). Getting what they want: aligning student expectations of advising with perceived advisor behaviors. Mid-Western Educational Researcher, 26(1), 27-51.

Chang, M.J., Sharkness, J., Hurtado, S., Newman, C.B. (2014). What matters in college for retaining aspiring scientists and engineers from underrepresented racial groups. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 51(5), 555-580.

Engstrom, C., & Tinto, V. (2008). Access without support is not opportunity. Change, 40(1), 46-51.

Tremblay, P. F., & Rodger, S. (2003). The effects of a peer mentoring program on academic success among first year university students. The Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 33(3), 1-17.