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  • Ask eAIR
  • 09.17.19

Curriculum Design and Student Success

  • by Meihua Zhai, Assistant Vice President, Wayne State University

Dear Meihua: At my institution we are focusing more on student success as it relates to curriculum. I have heard about a “synergetic combo” and a “toxic combo.” Can you define those terms and discuss other areas on which we should focus when designing curriculum?

Glad you are asking this question and glad that your institution is bringing curricula into Meihua_Zhaithe study of student success (SS)! I first learned about the concept of “toxic/synergetic combos” when I was working with my colleagues in Academic Advising on predictive analytics of SS. Academic advisors have long been observing strategies that students employ to maximize results from their college learning experience. To be specific, students often take certain courses together for the semester, either due to general education requirement or major pre-requisite needs or personal interest. From our studies we discovered that when certain courses were taken together (such as Beginning Chemistry and Pre-calculus, Introduction to Accounting and Pre-calculus), students tend to get more grades of D, F, W, or I from both courses than those who did not take that combination. Advisors call this type of course combo “toxic” because of its negative impact on student academic success. Opposite to the “toxic” combo is what advisors call “synergetic” combo, i.e. when taken together, students tend to get better grades from both courses than their peers who do not. We found that Chemistry (CHEM) and Foreign Language (FRLG), Accounting, and Legal Environment for Business were synergetic. I think toxic/synergetic combos might be institution-dependent – different institutions have different combos.

In terms of the roles that toxic/synergetic combos play in curriculum design or optimization, our current knowledge is still too limited to act upon. We need to know more about how our current curricula interact and impact learners with different cognitive and learning styles. When we first discovered that CHEM and FRLG were synergetic, I tried to see if some known factors, such as student term credit-hour load, major, or college readiness might have contributed to this synergetic effect. The data did not support any of my hypotheses. The person who accidentally led me out of my rut was a professor teaching gateway CHEM courses. In one of her presentations she ‘casually’ mentioned that learning CHEM, especially Biochemistry was like learning a foreign language. At the beginning, it required lots of symbol and meaning matching and memorization! Those casual remarks by the CHEM professor shed light in my research probing; besides the usual external factors associated with SS, whether a certain combo is toxic or synergetic may be the outcome of learner cognitive and learner styles. In the case of CHEM and FRLG, the memorization type of learning played a role.

In spite of the rich literature on cognitive and learning styles, traditional IR SS analytics tend to focus more on student demographics, personal engagement, or financial barriers. Since IR professionals are not the Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) in curriculum research, the best strategy for us in conducting curriculum-related SS analytics is to team up with those who are SMEs – academic advisors, faculty members, or researchers in cognitive learning development. The combined expertise coupled with strong skills in data mining and analytics will eventually lead to more discoveries that will enrich our knowledge on SS. In the era of shared academic governance, individualized services and evidence-based decision making support, any data evidence that can quantify the benefit of synergetic combo and reduce course grades of D, F, W, or I will be embraced by the campus. These cumulative data-based evidences of curriculum impacts on SS will in turn inform and guide academic program’s effort to develop curricula that fit the type of learners the program serves.

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