When UC Riverside doubled in population about a decade ago, the campus decided to heavily invest in student success to improve its retention and graduation rates, in part by creating learning communities and supplemental instruction. As a result, UCR is now nationally recognized (even by the White House) for its student graduation rates and has nearly equal graduation rates across all racial and ethnic groups — a rarity among colleges and universities.
On campus, these learning communities take many shapes, bringing together small groups of first-year students, placing them in many of the same classes and providing extra academic support.
Throughout the 2014–15 school year, writer Sean Nealon met with students enrolled in learning communities for three of UCR’s undergraduate colleges: the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, the College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences and the Bourns College of Engineering.
Genesis Montealegre, Henry Pham and Mojan Deriss tell us their stories.
Click on the images to learn more
In the beginning…
Genesis did well at Montebello High School, just outside Los Angeles. She took college prep courses and graduated in 2012. When it came time to think about college, however, she didn’t have much guidance, especially about how to choose a school and pay for it.
She was admitted to several public universities in California, but picked Biola University, a private Christian school, in nearby La Mirada. She soon felt out of place. She held an off-campus job; most Biola students didn’t. She was used to a majority Latino community; the university had relatively few Latinos. But the $40,000 annual price tag for tuition and housing was the deal breaker, even with financial aid. She dropped out after a year.
Genesis arrived at UCR in fall 2014 and quickly felt at home. Instead of staying mainly in her dorm room, as she had at Biola, she found herself socializing with a diverse mix of students, even striking up conversations with people she didn’t know. Friendships quickly developed.
A key reason, she said, was her learning community, a program that brings together clusters of about 20 first-year students, places them in the same classes and provides extra instruction and advising support.
By November, just a couple months after starting at UC Riverside, Genesis was confident she had made the right decisions by enrolling at the university and opting into the learning community.
“The school is so big, but I feel like I am already a big part of it,” she said.
Studies have shown that learning communities, which are increasingly common at colleges and universities across the United States, improve student performance, increase retention and help students graduate more quickly. They are designed to make the university seem more intimate, and build bonds among first-year students.
That model appealed to UC Riverside leaders after the student population became much more diverse and almost doubled, from about 9,000 in the mid-1990s to about 17,000 students in the mid-2000s. The university struggled with how best to educate the new students, many of whom were the first in their families to attend college, came from homes where English was not spoken, or were graduates of poorly performing high schools.
About 10 years ago, the university made a decision to invest in the success of these new students and launched several initiatives, including an expansion of learning communities, to improve their retention and graduation rates. Today, the evidence is clear that the decision worked. UCR has nearly equal graduation rates across all racial and ethnic groups — a rarity among colleges and universities.
Steven Brint, UC Riverside’s vice provost for undergraduate education, called that success the result of Riverside’s “secret recipe” for helping its students.
“I think the three critical pieces for us are creating block scheduling for small groups of students, providing intensive advising and requiring supplemental instruction classes taught by fellow students,” he said.
FIRST-YEAR RETENTION RATES IMPROVED BY 6 TO 8 PERCENT DUE TO LEARNING COMMUNITIES. Those who benefited most include women, Hispanic, Asian-American, first-generation and low income students. At UCR, approximately two-thirds of incoming freshmen participate in learning communities.
October 2014–December 2014
As the school year started, Genesis worried that she was already behind. Her credits from Biola didn’t transfer. She hadn’t declared a major.
That changed the second week of classes. She took a career assessment test as part of a learning community class focused on adjusting to college. The test suggested her personality matched with occupations that focused on helping people and counseling. That led her to think about majoring in psychology, which she did later in the year.
“That test really helped clear my mind,” she said. “It really helped me see [career] options beyond just being a psychologist.”
Henry came to UC Riverside wanting to major in geology. He ended up majoring in chemical engineering, in part because his parents felt it offered better job prospects.
As a resident of Temecula, about 40 miles south of Riverside, he had to commute to campus, usually by bus. With classes and his commute he was spending about 12 hours a day away from home.
“I don’t know what day looks like at my house, at least on weekdays,” Henry said in November.
Initially, Henry said he “hated” the learning community.
“I felt it restricted my freedom of taking classes and it added extra classes,” he said.
As the quarter went on, though, Henry began to change his mind. The learning community helped him make some good friends. He liked that it ensured he was registered for the core classes he needed. He felt the extra study sections allowed him to concentrate on a subject. Still, he worried: “I may have to opt out of the learning community if my classes don’t work with the bus schedule.”
Mojan entered UC Riverside in fall 2014 as a biology major with an interest in medical school.
She signed up for the learning community in summer 2014 on the recommendation of her orientation leader. She liked that students in the learning community received better grades on average and had spaces reserved in sometimes-hard-to-get classes.
By November she knew she made the right decision, which she largely credited to the supplemental instruction component of learning communities.
Supplemental instruction classes are meant to reinforce material taught in lectures. They are smaller, usually with about 20 students, as opposed to hundreds that can be in large lecture classes, and are taught by undergraduate students who have previously taken the class. They are typically offered in conjunction with classes such as chemistry and physics, which students are more apt to struggle with.
Mojan wasn’t a huge fan of the learning community advising seminar, saying it covered a lot of common sense topics, such as how to prioritize tasks and memorize information.
In December, as part of the seminar, the students were asked to give a 30-second talk on a topic as a way to expose them to public speaking. Topics ranged from orange juice vs. apple juice to how to make a paper airplane.
With her classmate Cathy Pham, Mojan stood in front of the class. Wearing sunglasses, the duo launched into a rap:
Whaddup to my homies from the East and West coast!
Have you had your breakfast; ’cus this is y’all’s French toast.
This is the Moj-Cath coming right atcha, atcha?
Achoo! Sneezed on the beat and the beat got sicka!
AT UC RIVERSIDE, THE COLLEGE OF HUMANITIES, ARTS AND SOCIAL SCIENCES STARTED THE UNIVERSITY’S FIRST LEARNING COMMUNITY IN 2002. Research has shown that the CHASS learning community, which enrolled about 900 of the 2,300 first-year students during the 2014–15 school year, led to a 7 percent increase in students returning for their junior year. The learning community also increased student engagement and satisfaction.
Geoff Cohen, who taught one of the first classes and now runs the program, called his initial encounter with the program a life-changing experience.
“I was walking into the classroom and I heard this white noise humming sound,” Cohen said. “I thought it was construction, but it was the students talking. They all knew each other. It was the first time in my life I really felt like an outsider in a classroom. They challenged me. It was exhilarating.”
January 2015–March 2015
Mojan, Henry and Genesis started the winter quarter in January pleased with their academic standing; they all finished with nearly perfect GPAs.
Over the first few months at UCR, Henry developed a system that got him through the day. He always had a scooter to travel between the bus stop and campus. He carried a backpack with his lab coat, Rubik’s cube (he can solve it in 20 seconds) and food, usually Vietnamese, Thai or Chinese made by his mom.
On Fridays he treated himself to Subway. He added every topping and sauce they offered because that gave him the most bang for his buck. He skipped the avocado because it cost extra.
Still, the winter quarter was slightly more challenging for Henry because he was taking physics. Many of his friends took AP physics in high school. Henry didn’t.
He struggled with the college physics class in part because he didn’t like to ask questions and was trying to understand the subject matter by himself.
The supplemental instruction in physics helped because he was more comfortable asking questions in a smaller setting. It also helped because his bus commute – he was up by 4:30 or 5:30 a.m. and not home until about 7:30 p.m. – made it hard to get to office hours offered by the professor.
While he liked the supplemental instruction, he didn’t like the ENSURE (ENgineering SUccess and REtention) program. This required learning community students to attend weekly sessions led by academic advisers or upper-class students about the college-going experience.
“The goal seemed to be to make us connect with others in the group,” Henry said. “That didn’t happen with us; we just didn’t connect. It felt fake and not real.”
Mojan continued to be a big proponent of supplemental instruction. She said it was the reason she got an A in chemistry during the fall quarter.
Meanwhile, her learning community group was getting closer. A smaller group got a study room in the library during finals week in the fall. They walked to class together and often got food or boba tea together. They created a Facebook group page just for their learning community.
In CHASS, students in the learning community take a class each quarter that revolves around a theme. Genesis’ theme was insurgency, and her class fell under the women’s studies department. It was taught by Sherine Hafez, an associate professor of gender and sexuality studies.
Genesis expected to learn about how women developed in society and how women were suppressed, but on the first day, Hafez said the class would focus on the Arab Spring. Genesis thought Hafez was in the wrong classroom.
Despite her initial confusion, Genesis liked the class. It was particularly interesting because one of her roommates was from Syria and the other was Romanian and Armenian.
“My roommates viewed everything different from the perspective of the book,” Genesis said in January. “I was able to ask questions to the professor based on what my roommates said.”
Students in the CHASS learning community are also required to attend workshops, which are taught by students — peer mentors — who previously went through the learning community.
Fall quarter workshops focused on topics including etiquette, academic integrity and stress management. The winter workshops focused on public speaking.
Unlike Mojan and Henry, both of whom didn’t like these non-academic workshops, Genesis did. In fact, when her peer mentors mentioned they were searching for mentors for the following school year, Genesis started to think she might apply.
“I’d like to provide what they provided to me to other students,” Genesis said in January. “Plus, it ties into what I want to do, counseling, and I would get paid.”
April 2015–June 2015
Mojan started the spring quarter taking classes in chemistry, biology, math and computer science. She dropped math a few days later because she had a heavy workload and she felt that the professor’s teaching style didn’t match her learning style.
“I was worried about getting a B,” she said in April. “That would go into my science GPA, and med schools look at that.”
She joined Phi Delta Epsilon, a medical fraternity. She was also accepted to work as an orientation leader for incoming freshmen during summer 2015.
Henry entered the spring quarter still contemplating switching majors. Chemical engineering seemed more physics-based, and he still didn’t think he was strong in physics. He considered geology or possibly chemistry or biochemistry as other options.
Meanwhile, because his class schedule changed, he needed to drive his car two days a week. Because of the cost of the gas, he cut out his Friday trip to Subway to save money.
Genesis decided she wanted to be a peer mentor for students entering the learning community in fall 2015. That meant she had to take a how-to-be-a-peer-mentor class in the spring quarter.
The class is led by Geoff Cohen, who runs the CHASS learning community program and tutors several peer mentors. During each class, teams of students give presentations followed by immediate feedback from their classmates and instructor.
In April, Genesis and her friend Laura Lopez focused their presentation on setting goals. They gave quick outlines of their career goals, then had others in the class share their own goals.
They then split the class into four groups. Each group was given a topic — graduate on time, getting to a career, maintaining a good GPA and extracurriculars — and asked to compile a list of steps to achieve these goals. When the groups were done, Genesis and Laura called on each one and led a discussion on topics they listed.
After the presentation, Cohen commended Genesis and Laura for creating a very positive, friendly environment. He also applauded them for using the names of students when calling on them.
“One of the strongest things you can do as a teacher is know names,” he said. “The sooner you know a name, the sooner you’re going to get control of a class.”
At the end of the quarter, Genesis learned she got an A in the peer mentor class. “I felt like I was in my element in that class,” she said. “I was really comfortable.”
She finished her first year at UCR with a nearly perfect GPA, more than a letter grade higher than the GPA she had during her year at Biola University.
Genesis will spend the 2015–2016 fall quarter as a peer mentor in the learning community. Her goal? To make the next group of first-year students feel as comfortable and successful at the “big university” as she felt at the end of her freshman year.
Student Success: The University Innovation Alliance
In 2014, UC Riverside became a founding member of the University Innovation Alliance, a consortium of 11 large public research universities committed to making college degrees attainable to a diverse body of students.
Created to identify and share best-practices in degree-attainment programs for low-income and minority students, the alliance also includes Arizona State University, Georgia State University, Iowa State University, Michigan State University, Oregon State University, Purdue University, Ohio State University, University of Central Florida, University of Kansas and the University of Texas at Austin.
The UIA group is today modeling the most successful degree-attainment measures within its membership, with the goal of improving higher education outcomes.
UCR is currently working with the University Innovation Alliance to share what we have learned as a campus about student success with Alliance members — whose enrollment represents almost 500,000 students.
Positive student outcomes in higher education are of vital importance to the nation’s future workforce, said UCR chancellor Kim A. Wilcox.
“In 1990, our nation was first in the world in baccalaureate attainment, and now we are 12th. As the world increasingly moves toward knowledge- based industries, and more college graduates are needed, we have to turn that around.”