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UA Little Rock Empowers Student Success Through Strong Start to Finish Initiative

Charles W. Donaldson Student Services Center on July 18, 2016.

The University of Arkansas at Little Rock is helping to build student success in mathematics and composition gateway courses through the university’s participation in the Strong Start to Finish statewide initiative.

In partnership with the University of Texas at Austin’s Charles A. Dana Center, the Strong Start to Finish (SSTF) initiative is an effort by the Arkansas Department of Higher Education and the state’s institutions of higher education to make sure that all students who start college underprepared are enrolled in co-requisite support courses that will help them succeed in their college courses.

“It is exciting to see how student outcome data can give us insights on where to intervene with curricular and student support to make a meaningful difference in our students’ lives,” said Dr. Erin Finzer, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs. “Our math and composition faculty and advisors have taken advantage of SSTF’s professional development in scaling co-requisite support, multiple measures placement, supporting diverse student needs, and equity dashboards to build upon improvements already underway in their developmental courses.”

UA Little Rock implemented Strong Start to Finish in 2020. The goal of the program is to reduce the number of students who stop out of college after unsuccessful attempts at math and composition gateway courses. This goal supports UA Little Rock’s urban mission and its diverse student body. The initiative also empowers students as mathematical and composition learners and prepares them to use these skills in their personal and professional lives.

Three UA Little Rock employees took on leadership roles to implement the Strong Start to Finish effort. They include Dr. Annie Childers, associate professor and graduate coordinator in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, Dr. Melvin Beavers, assistant professor and director of composition in the Department of Rhetoric and Writing, and Carla Griffin, student development specialist for the College of Science, Technology Engineering and Math.

The Strong Start to Finish Initiative focuses on creating a co-requisite support in developmental courses. Students who are enrolled in developmental reading and writing courses should also take a credited course co-currently. The Department of Rhetoric and Writing implemented this learning model in 2013.

“Students placed in our Composition Fundamentals course also take the credit-bearing Composition I course during the same semester with the same instructor,” Beavers said. “This is what’s called the ALP (Advanced Learning Placement) model. We are using the ALP model for students that need additional support in writing while taking the credit- bearing Comp I course. We are exploring ways to create a reading course that serves a similar function.”

As the director of first-year writing, Beavers is using the information he learns from the SSTF workshops to inform decisions about placement and programmatic assessment in gateway composition courses.

“The Strong Start to Finish program is helping us to see the gaps and blind spots in particular divisions or units so we can create interventions that truly align with our vision and mission as an institution of higher learning,” Beavers said. “My goal is to walk away from these workshops with a more well-rounded view of how the writing program can ensure that our program meets the needs of our students and that we are providing a more equitable path to success. We want to make sure that we are eliminating any, if not, all barriers for students taking first-year writing.”

In mathematics, the Strong Start to Finish initiative will create more equitable student outcomes in mathematics pathways through multiple measures placement, co-requisite support, offering quantitative literacy courses as well as college algebra, and other data-informed interventions.

“This program will help students save money and graduate faster because they won’t have to take college preparatory classes,” Griffin said. “It’s especially helpful to students who are not majoring in STEM. These students can go directly into their college-level math class with a straight path to graduation.”

Childers, who has been leading the Strong Start to Finish initiative with the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, said the program is helping the math faculty learn new skills that are making them better teachers.

“In the past year, this has been some of the most valuable professional development I have ever received,” Childers said. “Our math faculty are doing amazing things with multiple measures placement, co-requisite support, and scaling QMR, and our composition faculty are asking some fascinating assessment questions that we are talking about scaling out to campus through diversity dashboards. It is exciting to see how data can truly allow us to pinpoint areas to intervene and make all the difference in our students’ lives!”

Faculty members from the Department of Mathematics and Statistics are working with the Office of Records and Registration to implement a new algorithm that combines high school GPA and test scores to determine what math class a student is placed in.

“This math index helps students get placed in the right math pathway for their majors,” Childers said. “Our developmental students get enrolled in a co-requisite model. Our success rates are much higher when we incorporate our corequisite models. We are placing students in the most appropriate math course that they have the best chance of being successful in. We hope these students are being placed in a class where they have every chance of being the most successful student they can be.”

The math index is being tested this semester, and academic advisors should be using the index to place students in math courses next year.

“UA Little Rock joining this initiative has been very beneficial to our campus,” Childers said. “It’s really helped with the administration and professors being on board and promoting these goals. At the end of the day, it’s all about helping our students be successful and be the best students they can be. That is the hope and goal of the project.”

Educators are also working to make the transition from high school to college math education more successful. Finzer serves as the central Arkansas co-lead of the 9-16 Math Pathways initiatives.

“While we are working to improve math education at the college level, we will be using some of these same interventions at the high school level,” Finzer said. “We hope to align the mathematical curriculum between high school and college. Instead of putting every kid in algebra in high school, you put them in a quantitative literacy course where they learn a whole lot of practical math and statistics for life skills.”

The initiative also includes collaborating with high school teachers and creating partnerships where colleges and universities provide math tutors and peer mentors for high school math students.