Spotlight on Innovation: Arizona State University Rolls Out Project-Based Modular Learning to Improve First-Gen Student Retention and Completion

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The US Department of Education has awarded multi-million dollar “First in the World” grants to 24 colleges and universities that are innovating to solve critical challenges with access, recruitment, retention, and student success. At AI, we have interviewed each of the recipients to learn more about the projects these institutions are pursuing, how their approaches are unique, and what other colleges and universities can learn from these new efforts.

At Arizona State University, students from first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented backgrounds earn bachelor’s degrees at a rate that is 40 to 80 percent of their more advantaged peers. M. Jeanne Wilcox, a professor in in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, and Elizabeth D. Capaldi Phillips, provost emeritus and professor of psychology, head the ASU team that hopes to close that gap with three complementary innovations designed to boost retention and completion. Art Blakemore, Senior Vice President, and Duane Roen, Dean of the College of Arts and Letters, are working with Wilcox and Phillips on the implementation team. ASU hopes to increase first-generation completion rates and prepare students more effectively for life and career after graduation as they pilot several new strategies, learning what works and what requires revision.

The planned innovations include:

  • ASU “project-based modular learning” or “ProMod” majors and general studies courses designed to engage students in interdisciplinary, real-world learning projects.  In doing so, they expect that participating students will acquire knowledge and skills that are in demand in the contemporary workplace and develop ability to understand and integrate information and generate solutions or options relevant to a variety of contexts.
  • The ASU team will also create an Early Start” partnership with a local feeder high school district to empower students to begin college projects during their senior year of high school.
  • Co-curricular supports will also be added, beginning during the senior year in high school and continuing as the students matriculate and progress through ASU.  These include career exploration, financial planning, near-peer mentoring, and parent-to-parent mentoring.

We reached out to Wilcox to learn more about how ASU will use its $4 million grant, which is the largest of the First in the World grants. We find ASU’s model intriguing because it combines a new philosophy for teaching and learning with the co-curricular support that first-generation and other low-income students often need. ASU’s partnership with the local high school district also presents possibilities for more successful transition from high school to college. There are a lot of aspects of ASU’s new projects that other institutions will want to watch.

ProMod: Project Based Modular Learning

The project-based component of ASU’s approach grew out of an ASU faculty working group recommendation to adopt a problem-solving, project-based approach to general education. The working group’s report notes, “In such an approach, students cultivate skills and intellectual habits as they pursue one or more projects grounded in issues meaningful to them and to society at large,” Wilcox explains.

ASU’s project-based model is known as ProMod: Project Based Modular Learning. In it, all courses will contribute to a cohesive curriculum to engage students in a way that they demonstrate competence for content from multiple courses while focused on a single project.  Faculty teams will develop interdisciplinary projects based on real-world experiences and situations in order to shift a student’s focus from passing courses to mastering competencies and to cohere general education and major requirements.

For example, for one potential ProMod project students design a robot that solves the problem of living in the desert like a giant tortoise. The project could involve biology (genetics, evolution, and a live tortoise), writing, history (of the southwest region) and mathematics appropriate to the robot’s design.  At the end of the project, the student would earn credits in English, history, biology, and math, in addition to the credit for the project.

Flexibility is also built into the program. Students who demonstrate competency for a cohering course will be credited for that course at that time rather than waiting until their project is complete.  Further, projects can be completed over more than one semester with different cohering courses each semester.

Other features of ProMod include:

  • Variability in credit hours, length of a project, and whether students work in groups or individually.
  • Each project will require students to engage in inquiry, information collection and critical analysis.
  • Students can choose multiple degree programs using ProMod this fall. There are eight programs ranging from mechanical engineering to criminology and four exploratory major tracks.

Because students may need additional modules and courses to build foundational knowledge, the projects will not replace all course requirements. There will also be discipline-specific learning modules and key courses that will be incorporated into the curriculum.

ASU’s ProMod pilot includes 1,600 low-income students including first-generation and those underrepresented minority groups with the goal of increasing access, success, and completion rates. The project-based approach may also provide a shorter path to a degree because a student’s progression to a degree is tied to mastery learning and competence rather than a certain number of courses and credit can be given for work that students begin during their senior year in high school through the early start program.

Early Start: Partnering with Local High Schools

The other major component is ASU’s “Early Start” program that will target 800 students in the Phoenix Union High School District. Students will begin college projects during their senior year of high school, continue their work during ASU’s summer experience program, and finish the project during their first weeks of enrollment at ASU in the fall of their freshman year.  The projects will be created by teams of faculty and teachers from ASU and the high schools and mapped to ASU general education learning outcomes. What’s more, students can receive up to 12 credits toward an ASU degree if they enroll at ASU.

Co-Curricular Support for Early Start and ASU Students

ASU also recognizes that while their project-based model will engage students, first-generation, underrepresented students often need additional academic and non-academic support. They will offer comprehensive co-curricular support, including:

  • Peer mentoring, featuring ASU student mentors working with small groups of PUHSD seniors.
  • ASU parent to PUHSD parent mentoring and support
  • Career exploration mapped to interests through early access of ASU’s e-advisor system
  • Family assistance in applying for financial aid on time and developing a sustainable financial plan
  • Summer transition experience in a 10-day camp format

Keys to Success

One of the biggest challenges will be transitioning from a university model where work is organized around individual disciplines to one organized around interdisciplinary teams, Wilcox notes. To ease this transition, ASU will rely on faculty who already use project-based teaching to be a key resource for faculty new to this approach.

Wilcox also points out that although undergraduate education traditionally provides few opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration, ASU has past experience to draw from in this area.  This is no small feat in a university that offers 290 undergraduate majors. “Both our interdisciplinarity and innovation-driven education environment will ensure the success of this initiative,” she explains.

Why You Should Watch this Project

“The future of teaching is personalized, self-paced and learning-outcomes focused. The power of what ASU is doing is to show it can be done at scale.”
Jeanne Wilcox, ASU

At AI, we’ll be watching this closely. The idea of implementing these innovations in pedagogy at scale is exciting, and in keeping with Arizona State’s history of re-imagining their curriculum and co-curricular programs in innovative, student-centered ways. As their work with ProMod and Early Start proceeds over the next few years, there may be some very interesting findings to explore from these new initiatives.