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.

by Lisa Cook, Academic Impressions

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.

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