The high failure rate in many introductory courses can have ramifications beyond the class that can derail a student's future. "We need more scientists and engineers to solve the serious challenges the world faces, and this is where they start," said Sushilla Knottenbelt, visiting assistant professor of chemistry who teaches Chemistry 121 at the University of New Mexico. "It's essential that we don't turn them away at the first hurdle."

Chemistry 121 now has the highest pass rate since records have been kept. Knottenbelt and 11 other instructors participated in the Walmart Minority Student Success Initiative at UNM, a national project focused on improving student success in large-enrollment, lower-division courses that present obstacles to student retention and graduation. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics or STEM gateway courses are often the biggest hurdle students have to jump. Gary Smith, principal investigator for the Walmart initiative and director of UNM's Office of Support for Effective Teaching, said Knottenbelt's efforts under the initiative took Chemistry 121 off of UNM's list of courses with problematic pass rates in one semester.

The project worked primarily with math and science faculty to replace lectures with a more collaborative, learner-centered form of education. Studies have shown that balancing lectures with time for students to collaboratively problem-solve, develop projects or respond to short assignments with classmates can improve grades and retention.

The Walmart initiative transformed large lecture rooms and auditoriums where students traditionally learn only passively into active, collaborative learning communities where students learn from each other as well as from the expert instructor and undergraduate peer-learning facilitators, who receive intensive pre-semester training and weekly training during the semester.

Participating instructors said that they were better connected to their students and that attendance improved in collaborative-learning classrooms. Most instructors in the one-year project saw improvement in average grade, and some sections also improved in the percentage of students completing the course and the percentage earning an A or B grade.

Survey responses show that students felt they learned more working with classmates and peer learning facilitators than they would have by lecture alone. Surveys also show that while all students perceived greater learning in a collaborative learning environment, that preference was greater among first-generation college students.

The programs begun through the Walmart initiative have continued and expanded under the umbrella of the Project for Inclusive Undergraduate STEM Success, or STEM Gateway, which received a five-year grant for $3.8 million from the U.S. Department of Education. The goal is to move STEM Gateway toward becoming an institutionalized program at UNM.

Going forward, STEM Gateway has four components: curriculum reform for gateway science and math courses, peer-assisted collaborative learning, STEM student interest groups and data-based decision making.

See the Institute for Higher Education Policy's news release for more information on the national Walmart Minority Student Success Initiative.

Media Contact: Sari Krosinsky, (505) 277-1593; email: michal@unm.edu