How One Institution’s “Breakthrough Strategies” Videos are Helping First-Gen Students

by Lisa Cook, Academic Impressions

The success of first-generation and at-risk students is the responsibility of an institution's entire community, but faculty members are especially on the "front lines" when it comes to making a real impact. And Heritage University in Toppenish, WA has identified a low-cost, time-efficient way to deliver faculty development focused on how instructors can have a greater impact on student success.

Heritage University has produced a series of short videos in which faculty hear from their peers examples of pedagogical strategies that work for their first-generation and at-risk students. We reached out to Kathleen Ross, founding president emeritus and current director of the Heritage Institute for Student Identity and Success at Heritage University, to learn more about how they approached this project, the challenges they’ve faced in producing the videos, and the results they’ve received so far.

Heritage University's "Breakthrough Strategies" Video Series

Heritage's Breakthrough Strategies videos each highlight a single pedagogical strategy designed to address the needs of first-generation and at-risk students in an interview format. The videos are short: typically just three minutes long. The length makes them more attractive to faculty members who are looking for solutions to pedagogical challenges while contending with a busy schedule.

In each video, a faculty member briefly identifies a challenge first-generation and at-risk students face, explains the breakthrough strategy, and describe the results they have seen.

Topics addressed include:

Behind the Scenes: The Making of the Breakthrough Strategies Series

For the first set of videos, Ross set out to identify teaching strategies that work, and she did this not by asking faculty, but by asking students.

Ross sent students out to do "student on the street" interviews of their peers. The student interviewers asked one of these two questions:

  • Which faculty member has gone above and beyond to help you be successful?
  • In which class at Heritage University have you learned the most and why?

After the first 50 of these informal student interviews, Ross contacted faculty whose names had surfaced repeatedly and interviewed them in depth about their strategy. Intriguingly, many of these faculty hadn't realized they were intuitively using high-impact pedagogical strategies until they talked through the process in the interview, Ross notes.

That is why using student informants to surface great teaching approaches proved so useful: faculty "stars" aren't always exactly aware of what is making them so successful with students. And while students usually aren't experts on pedagogy and may not always be able to articulate why something has worked, they can tell you that it has worked. Ross has found that recent research in the professional literature corroborates the strategies her student interviewers identified and that she learned about in detail through the more in-depth faculty interviews.

More than 100 interviews have been completed to date, and it is likely that the Breakthrough Strategies video series will continue to grow. Ross is also soliciting proposals for new videos from interested faculty members at Heritage and other institutions, such as Yakima Valley Community College, which has proposed topics for the next three videos in the series.

Funding the Videos

One of the biggest challenges has been keeping costs down while producing a quality product, Ross explains. The first videos were produced at Heritage, but colleagues at a national convention told Ross that while the content was fabulous, the production was not.

Ross then secured grant funding to professionally produce the videos that are now on the website. She continues to pursue grant funding for future videos. One solution is to partner with other institutions that are also using the videos, like Holy Names University. At least one of the partner institutions is likely to have grant money that could be allocated to funding the videos.

Positive Response to the Videos

The response has been extremely positive, and videos like "Using Analogies" and "Giving Effective Feedback" have been viewed as many as 1,500 times each since they were posted in July 2013. Ross has also received primarily positive feedback from a survey of viewers.  Some faculty members have also shared the videos with their students, both to provide another perspective and because the videos provide useful information without making students feel lectured.

Practical Takeaways

You can review the Breakthrough Strategies videos here.

If you would like to pursue a similar project featuring your own faculty and helping to address the challenges of the first-generation students at your campus, here are some tips Ross suggests:

  • Keep the video short. "Almost everyone has time for a three-minute video," Ross notes.
  • Have the videos produced professionally to increase viewership and to prevent a low-quality production from detracting from the message.
  • Remember that some of your best pedagogical resources are your own faculty members who work with your institution's unique student population every day. Discover who is making a difference and then determine what teaching strategies they have to share.