CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — If anybody could make a dry lecture on research citations digestible for freshman college students, it's Nikki Harken.
The instructor of a course for first-year students at the University of Northern Iowa flipped a discussion of APA citation style, a common way of referencing sources in academic writing, into a giggling game of “Jeopardy.”
“I know APA style is just all sorts of exciting,” Harken told her Wednesday morning class, pulling mini-whoopee cushions and glow sticks from a prize bowl. “But we're turning this into a game.”
The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier reports Harken is among a handful of educators teaching Cornerstone, a course launched in fall 2011 to help integrate freshmen into college life. It's a yearlong class in oral and written communication taught by the same instructor and with the same group of students.
The idea is to help young people make the transition into campus life by offering a more intimate and consistent learning atmosphere. Before this program, freshmen would take these subjects separately, and likely with upperclassmen.
As many as one in three first-year students don't return for their sophomore year, according to U.S. News & World Report. Reasons vary from family matters and academic struggles to financial hardship.
But almost 83 percent of first-year students returned to UNI this year, higher than the national average, about 72 percent, for similar universities. UNI officials said programs like Cornerstone have contributed to that success.
Student retention could play a larger role in the financial future of Iowa's public universities because the state Board of Regents is considering rewarding institutions for their performance.
The board is asking the State Legislature to increase funding for Iowa's three public universities this year by 4 percent. And at its October meeting, board President Bruce Rastetter said part of that funding increase may be used to reward universities for meeting graduation and retention goals.
In 2008, UNI looked at how first-year students fare in the university's particular college atmosphere.
“We just realized as an institution that the first year matters,” said Deirdre Heistad, an associate professor and UNI's director of the liberal arts core, the curricular foundation all UNI graduates are expected to complete. “We wanted to make sure that when they set their foot on campus, we wrap our resources around these students.”
Faculty and students joined forces with the campus colleges and departments to create a First-Year Council. It launched a number of initiatives including an online alert system that identifies freshmen who may be on the brink of dropping out.
The system starts with an online student survey called MAP-Works, a tool used to improve student retention among a number of colleges and universities nationwide. More than 94 percent of incoming UNI students took it this year, answering questions about study habits, financial stability and happiness.
Student answers are stored in an online database accessible to first-year course instructors. The program rates those answers, red-lighting at-risk responses so instructors can intervene early on.
But many UNI faculty said the academic success and emotional success of their freshmen hinge on more than 40 peer mentors, typically upperclassmen, selected to support them in first-year courses. Mentors hold office hours in the library and teach small seminars on topics such as course registration.
“When I got here I was pretty homesick my first semester, and my own students feel that way, too,” said Morgan Nibe, 20, a UNI junior and peer mentor from Story City, Iowa. She took a Cornerstone course as a freshman in 2011.
“I think without the class I would have had a harder time finding someone to go to events with me,” she said. “Nobody wants to go by themselves.”
Peer mentors such as Nibe can earn academic credit for their work. Nibe said she will likely highlight mentoring on her résumé when she applies for a job in the nonprofit sector.
“I feel like I've grown academically and professionally,” she said.
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