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A Holistic Pathway to Research and Active Learning: The Research Aligned Mentorship Program

Transforming Teaching Through Active Learning
A National Symposium
November 16-17, 2018
Stetson University
Miami, Florida

Erwin Cabrera, Farmingdale State College
Donna D’Ambrosio, Farmingdale State College
Erica J. Friedman, Farmingdale State College
Dylan Gafarian, Farmingdale State College

Introduction

The Research Aligned Mentorship (RAM) program at Farmingdale State College (FSC) is funded by a First in the World FIPSE grant awarded by the US Department of Education. The program is modeled after the successful UCLA PEERS program, which focused on engaging and supporting underrepresented undergraduate students in their first two years of college (Chang, Sharkness, Hurtado, & Newman, 2014). The goal of the RAM program is to improve four-year graduation rates among full-time undergraduate students through a holistic pathway of active learning that culminates in the placement of students in research experiences or internships.

The RAM program randomly selects up to 250 incoming first-year students from all majors who are either first generation, minority, low-income, and/or adult learners each fall semester. The students randomly selected into the RAM program (“RAM scholars”) receive benefits while a matched control group of students do not receive the program’s benefits. Currently, the RAM program has three cohorts of scholars receiving benefits, including holistic advisement, special community events, workshops, and service-learning experiences.

What follows is a breakdown of the RAM-only courses scholars take that engage them in active learning inside and outside the classroom. These courses are: a one-credit first-year transition to college seminar course; a one-credit collaborative learning workshop attached to foundational math courses; a one-credit sophomore year introduction to research course; and a three- to 12-credit research experience or internship course. Focus group feedback directly from RAM scholars about their experiences in each course is shared in what follows. Finally, preliminary quantitative results demonstrate that the active learning components of the RAM program are contributing to its scholars’ academic success.

First-Year Transition to College Seminar

The first-year seminar in the RAM program assists RAM scholars in making the transition from high school to college. In this course, scholars learn strategies for academic success at FSC. Throughout the course, RAM scholars and instructors engage in dialog surrounding important topics, such as: identity, grit and growth, effective study skills, professional email communication and etiquette, and goal setting.

RAM scholars are expected to engage in the development and implementation of their own personal Digital Roadmap to Graduation and Beyond. This online roadmap allows scholars to reflect on their personal and professional goals. The digital roadmap is accessed by scholars and instructors throughout the course. By keeping track of their goals, RAM scholars actively engage in their success from day one.

The First-Year Seminar features a variety of lessons and pedagogies. For example, in one class session, the instructor’s goal is to have RAM scholars gain exposure to various learning styles to determine which they most closely relate to and which they feel weakest with. The Penny Activity helps facilitate this process. To begin, RAM scholars are asked to draw, from memory, the front and back of a penny. Once complete, the instructor displays an image of a penny on the board, hands each scholar a penny, and provides verbal details of the penny’s design to demonstrate visual, kinesthetic, and auditory learning styles. Following the description of the penny, scholars are once again asked to draw the front and back of a penny.

Activities like the Penny Activity use an active learning pedagogical approach and tend to receive the best feedback in focus group sessions. Overall, the course’s active learning activities have contributed to RAM scholars making a successful transition from high school to college.

Feedback from RAM Scholars on the Course

  • “Once I discovered my learning style, I adapted it to the way I study, and it is very beneficial.”
  • “I enjoyed all the activities that we did, it benefited me a lot like the time management.”
  • “The whole course helped me to get to know myself better.”

Mathematics Collaborative Learning Workshop

At FSC, statistics and pre-calculus are gateway courses to many majors in STEM, business, and the social sciences. In order to increase success in these courses, the RAM program follows the UCLA model by providing its RAM scholars with one-credit collaborative learning workshops in math attached to their regular statistics and pre-calculus courses. These workshops follow the theory that students who work together to solve math problems are more successful in their math courses than those who study math independently (Treisman, 1992). The following describes active learning in the Treisman-style workshops attached to FSC’s statistics course.

In the Collaborative Learning Workshop, a dynamic of group work and helping each other is cultivated. The first class focuses on fostering a feeling of community and working together. The instructor emphasizes that students will get through the course by relying on each other. The RAM scholars also co-develop a social contract, which is a code of conduct and set of class rules that everyone must follow (including the instructor of the course). The purpose is to develop a classroom environment built around collaboration and community.

To enhance learning in statistics, weekly worksheets are given to RAM scholars to work on in groups throughout the semester. There are also two statistics projects RAM scholars engage in designed to be completed in groups. For one project, they interview each other and then classify the resulting variables according to whether they are qualitative or quantitative, discrete or continuous, and by the level of measurement. Projects are completed with minimal help from the instructor. The instructor encourages RAM scholars to work within their group and ask for assistance from other groups. The instructor intervenes when the whole class struggles on the same section.

Feedback from RAM Scholars on the Course

  • “My favorite part of this course was making new friends. I didn’t like to talk to people. But this class was different. We all felt connected to each other. Especially while doing the group projects, it made a difference.”
  • In this class I enjoyed working in groups. I enjoyed the assignments that helped clarify topics learned in class.”
  • “I liked the group-work-based assignments. Also, I enjoyed the sharing environment where it was mostly talking and communicating to each other in the class.”

Sophomore-Year Introduction to Research

Taken in their sophomore year, the introduction to research course prepares RAM scholars for research experiences or internship placements. The course introduces RAM scholars to the research process with ongoing exploration and discussion of graduate study and career goals. Through personalized guidance, RAM scholars expand upon their digital roadmaps that are first introduced in the first-year transition to college seminar. By the conclusion of the course, scholars identify options for mentored research or internships of greatest interest to them.

Creating buy-in is a critical first step to engaging students in research or problem solving more broadly. Many students feel underprepared or disinterested in research, therefore it is key to demystify the process and make research more accessible to them. Throughout the course the instructors describe the possibility and flexibility of research by walking RAM scholars through the research process and by helping them—step-by-step—to develop an original research project proposal that they will present to the class.

The scholars are encouraged to “think like researchers” through the introduction of the seminal bystander effect case study of the Kitty Genovese murder, which connects a real-life crime case to research. This case study facilitates the class working together to develop an experiment that solves the problem this case study proposed at the time: “Why did no one help?” Once the class experiment is formulated, the RAM instructors introduce the original study in social psychology (Darley & Latané, 1964), which is compared to the proposal the class created. Ultimately, scholars actively learn how to develop a research study that was conducted and published in the 1960s. They go on to discuss the actual results and how the research relates to real life events and impact. This beginning exercise serves as catalyst to the research proposal scholars create independently during the semester.

The remaining classes are designed around preparing the proposal. The instructors provide the following guidance: a grading rubric introduced up front, weekly topics and worksheets, weekly assignments, constant instructor and peer feedback, a poster template, samples of past scholars’ proposals, and in-class time to brainstorm and workshop their research ideas. Scholars are brought to the FSC library to familiarize them with scholarly journals and databases to build their argument for their research proposals. To introduce them to experimental ethics, scholars are required to complete IRB-compliant research with human subjects training (a CITI certificate).

The result is a research proposal put together in the form of a digital poster that RAM scholars present to their peers at the end of the class. The peer feedback they receive over the semester culminates in their final presentations being partially graded by their peers. Through a social contract administered at the start of the semester, the class determines what percentage of their final proposal grade will come from their peers and what percentage will come from the instructor. Everyone grading them, peers and instructor included, apply the same rubric. This fosters active, community support and also accountability—just as there is through peer review in real-world scholarly research.

Feedback from RAM Scholars on the Course

  • “I learned a lot about the research process. I’m using it all the time. I didn’t know how to look at online sources and find the other articles related.”
  • “It helped me understand the whole [research process] because I didn’t know anything about it before. I learned all the individual steps, what to look for and what to keep in mind.”
  • “One thing I got from the class was how to look for sources that are really valuable.”

Research Experience or Internship

The culminating intervention of the RAM program is the placement of scholars in an on- or off-campus research experience or internship for credit toward their degree. The research experience or internship is designed as an active approach to the learning process that bridges the gap between classroom learning and real-world application of knowledge. This hands-on learning experience gives scholars direct exposure to career options in their field of interest.

Prior to implementation, RAM directors put forth a grassroots effort to build relationships with faculty on-campus and with research or business sites off-campus in order to ensure the best possible experience for RAM scholars in their placements. The resulting database currently includes over 85 faculty research opportunities that are shared with scholars. Off-campus partnerships have been made with over 50 different organizations, businesses, and laboratories.

An initial, one-on-one meeting with scholars helps establish the steps they will take to solidify their research placement. As instructors of record, RAM directors use this meeting to walk through the course syllabus and guidelines for course requirements. RAM scholars are required to meet with their faculty mentor or internship supervisor before the start of activities to complete an Agreement Form that determines learning objectives, hours, and expectations of both the scholar and the mentor or supervisor. Scholars must log their hours and activities and produce deep, weekly reflections on their learning process and accomplishments.

To encourage reflexive thinking, a mid-term and final evaluation requires scholars to respond to various prompts about their learning, development, and experience throughout the course. Although optional, RAM scholars are encouraged to work with their mentor or supervisor to submit to present a poster at a professional conference or a paper for publication in an undergraduate research journal.

Feedback From RAM Scholars on the Course

  • “This experience gave me new found confidence, instilled a love for research and crystallized my decision to further my education with a Doctorate in Nursing.” —Major: Nursing; Research Location: Antigua; Project Focus: Archaeological and Anthropological Occupation of Indian Creek
  • “This experience bolstered my ‘soft skills’ such as teamwork and communication and honed my technical knowledge in web development.” —Major: Computer Programming and Information Systems; Internship Location: Nature’s Bounty Co.; Project Focus: Full-Stack Development of Business Branded Website and Business Analytics
  • “I learned how to deal with clients and owners in a way I never thought possible and most importantly I learned how much I love this field.” —Major: Bioscience; Internship Location: Long Island Veterinary Specialists; Project Focus: Clinical Trial on Tracheal Stenting in Small Breed Dogs

The Numbers Reflect the Positive Feedback

Our first cohort of RAM scholars will graduate in May 2020, but our latest preliminary results already demonstrate the benefits of the active learning experiences scholars have in this program. First, RAM scholars are more likely to persist in college (92.1%) from year one to two than non-RAM FSC students (81.5%), p < 0.001. RAM scholars have higher overall GPAs (M = 2.84) than non-RAM FSC students (M = 2.71), p < .05. RAM scholars have higher GPAs (M = 2.91) in gateway math courses than non-RAM FSC students (M = 2.35), p < .01. RAM scholars take more credits (M = 26.27) than non-RAM FSC students (M = 24.25), p < .05. RAM scholars are more likely to recover from weak academic performance (78%) than non-RAM FSC students (50%), p < .05. Additionally, RAM scholars have higher rates (35.7%) of academic excellence (made it onto dean’s list or president’s list) than non-RAM FSC students (24.0%), p < .001.

These preliminary figures are particularly remarkable when considering RAM scholars are randomly selected for our program. They are not selected based on merit and they are not honors students, but we anticipate RAM scholars will graduate with honors. We are excited to see our first cohort graduate next year and we expect that our RAM scholars will demonstrate higher graduation rates as a result of our program’s interventions. As our program continues to apply active learning pedagogy to our program’s curriculum, we are confident that RAM scholars will continue to succeed and reach their fullest potential.

 

 
 

References

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

Darley, J., & Latané, B. (1968). Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8, 377-283.

Treisman, U. (1992). Studying students studying calculus: A look at the lives of minority mathematics students in college. The College Mathematics Journal, 23, 362-372.