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Academics

Ensuring student success

As part of the Carolina Next strategic plan, the University is better preparing students to be successful in a data-driven world.

A student works on a laptop near the Carolina Union.
Scenes featuring students studying on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on February 9, 2021. (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

The coronavirus pandemic forced a reevaluation of all eight initiatives of the University’s strategic plan, Carolina Next: Innovations for Public Good. For the team charged with implementing Strategic Initiative 2: Strengthen Student Success, the shift to remote learning spurred an acceleration of work already underway.

The initiative goals are to ensure equity in success for all students, facilitate experiential learning, expand digital and remote technologies for students and improve data literacy. In light of the pandemic, all four became urgent considerations for the initiative’s captain and team as they worked through ways for faculty and staff to continue providing students with the tools they need to reach their academic goals.

That captain is Abigail Panter, the senior associate dean for undergraduate education and a professor of psychology and neuroscience in the L. L. Thurstone Psychometric Laboratory in the College of Arts & Sciences. As a quantitative psychologist, she develops instruments, research designs and data-analytic strategies, and as senior associate dean, she oversees the College’s programs in undergraduate education, making her uniquely suited to incorporate an expansion of student support, general education and educational outcomes.

The Well interviewed Panter about Strategic Initiative 2: Strengthen Student Success and how the University is preparing students — undergraduate, graduate and professional — to become leaders in their fields and improve the quality of life for all.

How did the pandemic impact Strengthen Student Success?

We went from 5% of undergraduate students being enrolled in remote courses to almost 100% of all undergraduate, graduate and professional students taking classes online. With this type of drastic shift, we needed to ensure that all our student support services were operating at the same level of excellence remotely, and make sure that our students were able to fulfill requirements like experiential education, even though they weren’t on campus. The pandemic significantly accelerated the timeline for the initiative, especially Objective 2.3, “Expand digital and remote technologies to increase access and opportunities for Carolina students, as well as for all the people of North Carolina and beyond.”

How did you go about updating the initiative?

For the Strengthen Student Success initiative, we ask, “Is this in the best interest of the student?” So, that general mission did not change due to the pandemic. But how we achieve that mission did have to change, and it required the rapid acquisition of new skills and technologies. Last March our first priority was making sure that faculty, instructors and graduate students were trained to use remote technologies and could design their courses for high-quality online delivery. Since then we haven’t changed any goals in the initiative, but we are reaching them much faster through the work of the professionals and faculty members working in the Center for Faculty Excellence and the Digital and Lifelong Learning group, led by Todd Nicolet, on resources like the Keep Teaching website.

The pandemic necessitated a sudden pivot to remote learning. What have you learned and how will you apply that in the future?

We learned that nonstop remote learning under these pandemic conditions is grueling work for everyone involved, so we had to figure out how to make sure that our students and faculty were able to learn, teach and thrive under remote learning conditions now and until the time when we get to the “pandemic-less” future. We learned quite a lot. For example, we got an excellent head start on designing a package or program of courses for all remote learning with academic advising, and under the leadership of senior associate dean Rudi Colloredo-Mansfield, we were able to pilot test Carolina Away — a program for students new to Carolina who need an all-remote learning experience — and find ways to improve it.

Chloē Russell, the associate dean for the Thrive Hub Model [an innovative approach underway to optimize student support], is using Strategic Initiative 2.1, “Provide a student-centered experience, strengthen success for all students and foster equity in success across student populations,” as an opportunity to rethink how we advise and support our students and how to use remote appointments more effectively in the future. In the last year we also piloted and refined career preparation courses in different areas such as the health professions and arts management and are continuing to learn what works best in future designs. Telehealth has become more common during the pandemic, so we are using that to improve mental health tools for students at all levels and to reduce access barriers, another area that will continue in full force post-pandemic as well.

Objective 2.2 points to facilitating learning that is experiential and collaborative. How do you incorporate those into remote learning?

We have key experiences like study abroad, internships or research projects where students might be shoulder-to-shoulder with a faculty member, but during a pandemic, you can’t engage in many of those high-impact experiences easily. We have had to study and re-imagine how these experiences could be offered. One example of a new experiential opportunity that emerged due to the pandemic is from Assistant Provost for Interprofessional Education and Practice Meg Zomorodi. Zomorodi is providing students enrolled in a UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health course an opportunity to help with COVID-19 vaccine distribution. The students are not only helping with an integral part of ending the pandemic but through collaborations with the Office of Undergraduate Curricula students also receive experiential education course credit for doing so.

Why is data literacy important for Carolina students?

We can’t envision not having our students be data literate upon graduation because data literacy is a critical ability that students will need when they will operate in society and along their career paths. There are professions that haven’t yet come on the scene, but we’re confident that they will involve analysis and interpretation of data, and often in big data contexts. We want all of our students to be able to contextualize, manipulate and interpret data, as well as generate new questions about what the data suggest.

What is an example of a step the University will take to improve data literacy for students?

As part of the IDEAS in Action general education curriculum, set to start in fall 2022, there is a new required first-year course called Triple I [III] — Ideas, Information and Inquiry — taught by three professors from different disciplines around a common theme. Students in this required course pose research questions and examine data to understand how their data impacts and relates to the questions that they put forward. This formal instruction on examining data, within a general topic area, will begin to teach students to understand and contextualize data using a hands-on approach.

How does Initiative 2 ensure equity in success to all students?

The Thrive Hubs are our vehicle for interacting with undergraduate students from the moment they receive their acceptance letter to Carolina all the way through graduation. The Hubs are an integrated, cross-departmental effort to deliver student support in a sustainable manner. The Thrive Hubs allow us to ensure that important messages about students’ academic paths are conveyed equally and consistently during all of their Carolina years. For example, there are certain developmental milestones that students should be reaching each year of their undergraduate education. Certain career paths require research experience, which we can steer students toward. Part of accomplishing that goal is making sure information and advisers are available to everyone whenever they need guidance, not just for persistent students.

We also found that there were equity gaps in participation rates for opportunities like study abroad and first-year seminar enrollment, so when we created the new general education curriculum, we made sure that those kinds of opportunities are mandatory or more accessible to all students.

How will you measure the success of Strengthen Student Success?

Fortunately, we have experts in assessment on the Strategic Initiative 2 committee who are constantly marking and describing milestones and outcomes for each of the strategic objectives and opportunities. As always, we’re working closely with our campus partner, the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment, to design assessments, gather data and make sure our objectives are accounted for in every step of the process. One example is that we have already developed an entire set of assessment approaches to understand the student learning that occurs for each component of the IDEAs in Action general education curriculum to prepare Carolina students to be lifelong learners. At the forefront of our minds is not only marking the success of the work we’re doing, but also finding ways to share these milestones with everyone to hold ourselves accountable for the programs we have developed.

To read other stories in The Well’s ongoing series about the eight strategic initiatives visit Updating Carolina Next.