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Students listen to their instructor during a College Thriiving course in the classroom.
From left, Rebecca Carter, Karina Goping and Morgan Griffith engaged in a discussion in a “College Thriving” class in fall 2022. (photo by Donn Young)

A new paper takes a look at key outcomes after the first year of the “College Thriving” course in the new IDEAs in Action curriculum. We chatted with co-author Abigail Panter, senior associate dean for undergraduate education in the College of Arts and Sciences, about the research in this Q&A.

Q: Give us a brief snapshot of what the course “College Thriving” is designed to do.

A: Transitioning from high school to college is a big step that can challenge students in different ways. The “College Thriving” course is designed to create a low-stakes and consistent way for a diverse group of incoming students to learn together with an academic adviser about topics that are directly relevant to being a scholar at a large public research university. Some of the topics include: the science of how students learn, what it means to pursue a liberal arts education and wellness. Along the way students practice the behaviors that help them thrive at Carolina — including getting used to interacting with professors and student success professionals, engaging with key resources on campus such as the Learning and Writing Center, planning potential academic paths, interacting with classmates in study groups and beyond, and participating in campus events outside the classroom. We want students to know that we want them to succeed and there is a community in place to support them early.

Q: IDEAs in Action was implemented in fall 2022. This paper takes a look at key outcomes for the “College Thriving” course after the first year. Why evaluate it early on?

A: We are modeling a scholarly approach to designing the course. In a nutshell, this means that we will plan, implement, evaluate, adjust and implement again. Evaluating how the course impacts our students helps us make appropriate tweaks along the way, based on different types of data. For example, we hypothesized that “College Thriving” could be particularly helpful in the fall semester versus the spring semester and created many more sections for fall than spring. We are looking to see if that hypothesis is supported, which might lead to a change with even more sections in fall. An evaluation plan was designed before IDEAs started by a group of experts from UNC’s faculty, Institutional Research and Assessment and Office of Undergraduate Education and examines all aspects of the general education curriculum. Specifically, for “College Thriving,” we examine topics such as enrollment patterns, course feedback, student learning course outcomes, analyses of specific student work and later course-taking and academic behaviors during college.

Q: “College Thriving” was designed around three concepts: The science of learning, the benefits of learning at a liberal arts institution and resilience/community. Why center on those as important foundations?

A: One of the first activities accomplished by the coordinating committee of the new curriculum was a series of campus community listening sessions. These are themes that emerged in those sessions, and they are also themes that we saw in the scientific literature about how to support students who are making the transition from high school to college, especially a large research university like ours. We cannot assume that all Carolina students know the latest research on how best to learn, understand why studying in the social sciences, arts and humanities and the sciences will enrich them as citizens, have the tools to bounce back from setbacks, and will find a community that helps them feel a sense of belonging. By exposing all students to these areas, we believe we are getting closer to our goals of supporting the success of all students.

Q: What were some key outcomes from this recent study? What surprised you?

A: Although we were not surprised by it, we did not know until we fully implemented the course how students would interact with their academic adviser teaching the course. The “College Thriving” instructors were viewed as caring, respectful and seeing student differences as assets. Also, for years we have encouraged students to engage with certain services at Carolina because the research suggested that these early engagements are important for later student success. For example, in the course they can engage in Learning Center and Writing Center academic coaching sessions, think about why they chose an academic major when Carolina offers majors in fields they’ve never heard of before, complete an assessment about interests from the Office of Career Services and/or attend professors’ office hours. With IDEAs in Action, all incoming students engage in these types of behaviors in their first or second semester.

Q: What are some of the most meaningful student reflections that the team gathered?

A: We started the new curriculum in a post-COVID period, so some of the reflections we gathered could have been affected by the extreme educational conditions that high schoolers were exposed to in these past years. However, right away we regularly heard comments from students who said, “I learned that I am not alone.” The idea that the course creates an opportunity for a small group — who share only that they are incoming students at Carolina — to come together with an adviser to discuss how it is going in real time is very powerful. While some students may have seen this “advisory” model in high school, some are now experiencing it for the first time. We hope that this results in a smoother transition to college.

We also learned and are paying attention to content areas during the semester that can be adjusted. An important early finding for this course was that some students felt that the material is useful to some other students, but not for themselves — with an implication that only students who struggle to adjust to college benefit. However, we conducted pilot work with Honors students and reaffirmed that all students can benefit from the course and contribute to discussion topics in wonderful ways.

Q: How will this research inform future iterations of “College Thriving?”

A: We have an outstanding director of the College Thriving program, music assistant professor Donovan Livingston. Dr. Livingston is an expert on transitions to higher education. He will be using the research that the evaluation provides, along with his expert judgment based on the literature, to make appropriate updates within these three topic areas of the science of learning, the benefits of studying within a liberal arts university and maintaining psychological wellness even in the face of setbacks.

“An Inclusive Approach to Transitioning to a Research University: A College Thriving Course” was published in the American Psychological Association’s journal Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology. Co-authors include Laurie B. Buchanan, Kelly A. Hogan, Andrea M. Hussong, A.T. Panter, Valerie Polad, Viji Sathy, Nicolas Siedentop and Erica H. Wise.

Interview by Kim Spurr, College of Arts and Sciences





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