Increasing Persistence of All Students in STEM

Tailored approach for Xavier's STEM curriculum

Approximately 70% of all XU undergraduates are in STEM fields and a majority (~33%) of these are majors in the biology department. Based on university-set criteria including high school GPAs, ACT/ACT scores and financial status, incoming students are categorized into three academic risk groups: low-risk, medium-risk and high-risk. Given the ever-expanding knowledge and the high expectations placed on students, it is essential to "level the playing field" without compromising the quality of education and/or the rigor of the courses. Xavier's faculty realized this challenge more than twenty years ago and began the work of developing practical approaches to address these concerns. These efforts, led by Dr. J. W. Carmichael (chemistry), Sister Grace Mary Flickinger and Dr. Deidre Labat (biology), Dr. Harold Vincent (physics) and Dr. Bill Jones (mathematics), resulted in the development of a program where all introductory science courses (lectures and labs) were coordinated. The syllabi with defined learning goals were common as were the tests and final exams. In-depth reviews, one-on-one tutoring, the "open door advising" policy and the accompanying workbooks offered support in form of practice questions, assignments and mentoring. Students had to pass each introductory course with a 70% or higher grade in order to proceed to the next course. This form of curricular designing, although structured, decreased the chances of students "falling through the cracks" because of academic gaps. Students learned a wide range of topics. Their academic preparedness was tested in a variety of means including performance on quizzes, hour-long exams, assignments, final exams, and for labs, practicals and lab-reports. The program was run by a course coordinator and all instructors had active and equal input. To ensure smooth running of these courses and to discuss ongoing progress, data and item analysis, faculty met every week for an hour. In addition, innovative pedagogical ideas, pilot projects and new data were shared with all STEM disciplines through informal meetings of a newly formed Science Education Research Group (SERG). What is significant to note is that all these ideas originated at the faculty level. Although the administration was very supportive, this project and collaboration on such an involved and wide-reaching scale required significant personal time, effort and patience with little funding for their efforts.

Changing with times while keeping what works: Competency and assessment-based curriculum

The above-described curricular design has served us well in bridging the academic gaps, leveling the playing field and in ensuring that appropriate prerequisites are completed before moving to upper-level courses. Thus, for our recent and/or ongoing science-education initiatives, we have retained most aspects of this framework while making substantial changes in the way we think, teach and assess student learning. For example, through Project SCICOMP, we have made systematic changes within individual courses to balance content versus applications, traditional assignments versus group activities, and creating fun and engaging open ended experiments (where applicable). These include our recently developed Foundations of Biology I and II courses, which serve as primers for scientific competencies centered on biomath, biostatistics, biochemistry and biophysics. Systematic mapping of fundamental integrative principles of STEM-focused education have led to specific revisions in targeted courses. As importantly, we are implementing effective and practical assessment tools to evaluate the impact of our strategies on student learning. These include use of technology-based analysis (e,g., use of clickers) to offer immediate feedback to students, employing commercial software to conduct higher-order assessment with generation of "individual mastery reports" (for identified scientific competencies), evaluating students' lab and data interpretation skills through the "Practical" section on tests and more. We have an increased emphasis on formative assessment, analyzing data, sharing of findings and making necessary adjustments while the course is still in session. In addition, the more traditional means of assessment such as item analyses, student mid-semester and final-grade distributions and university-administered student evaluations are helpful in evaluating both student learning and course-quality/effectiveness.

Research Opportunities and Cohort Programs

Xavier students can participate in scientific research in several ways:

  1. By participating in Xavier's NIH-funded BUILD program, the NSF-funded LS-LAMP program or the NIH-funded MARC and RISE programs. Each program has specific selection criteria, scholarship requirements and stipends/wages, but the overarching goal is the same: to increase the numbers of underrepresented minorities pursuing biomedical or basic science careers. Faculty members who serve as mentors to the students receive modest funding for lab supplies and/or release time. Additional details can be found at XU's website for the Center of Undergraduate Research (CUR) at and []
  2. Working with a faculty mentor (on campus) during the semester as a volunteer or a paid student researcher.
  3. Registering for an undergraduate research class and receiving academic credits for conducting research with a faculty mentor.
  4. Participating in formal research as part of a class/course and receiving academic credits for the same. Such courses have an enrollment of fourteen to sixteen students per section as opposed to the option above in No. 3, where one student works with one faculty member.
  5. Engaging in off-campus research programs over the summer (

Showcasing Student Research

A wide range of activities supported by both university and external grants allow students to showcase their research on and off campus. These include the Festival of Scholars Day on campus and presentations at regional and national level meetings. Through participating in formal research and making positive, original contributions to the project, students also can earn co-authorship on abstracts and publications in peer-reviewed journals. In addition, they can take pride in sharing their findings by publishing in XULAneXUs, a refereed online journal for student research. For additional details please refer to the following:

Institution-wide practices and support systems for faculty development and increasing student retention

  1. The Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Faculty Development (CAT+ FD) serves as an excellent resource for faculty at all stages of their careers to interact and work on course portfolios, stay current with current teaching best practices, receive training for online or hybrid courses, present their pedagogical findings, attend workshops, compete for internal teaching/travel grants and more. It also functions as an excellent platform for formal and informal meetings of SERG (Science Education Research Group; participation is voluntary) and all STEM and non-STEM education projects for dissemination of data, discussing impediments encountered and/or seeking input from fellow faculty on new ideas. The link describes these more.
  2. The Student Academic Success Office (SASO) was established in 2009 as a support system to implement, in a coordinated/centralized fashion, the many strategies that help students succeed during their tenure at Xavier. It works with individual departments through departmental liaisons and offers a range of activities. The various STEM Resource/Tutoring Centers improve students' preparedness in all areas and enhance their chances of success at Xavier. Other approaches include working collaboratively with other institution-wide systems like IT and the registrar's office to track attendance and/or participation in specific SASO activities (a requirement for academically high-risk students). The IT office administers the Early Alert System where faculty are able to report their observations on student grades, behavior, attendance, etc., and offer suggestions for improvements as appropriate. SASO also has a component of student advising that supports the academic advising/mentoring through the department of a student's major. The link describes SASO more in detail.
  3. Academic Advising: Academic advising is crucial to student success. Xavier has an "Open Door" policy for advising. Each student is assigned an academic adviser in his/her major. Faculty members are expected to hold a minimum of six hours of office hours/week. These are scheduled across Monday through Friday and are not held at the same times on MWF versus TR so that students taking classes on those days have ample opportunities to see their advisers. All freshmen are also given Adviser Cards. Students are required to see their adviser each week to get to know him/her and share their progress and/or talk about any difficulties (academic or non-academic) they may be experiencing. The adviser then signs the card, which is checked by the instructor teaching the introductory courses (typically biology and chemistry). This practice furthers a sense of community and eases the transition from high school to college. In addition, students are welcome to see their instructors and advisers any time they are in their office and available to see them, particularly if the need is urgent. This open door policy has been a part of XU's culture for decades. Combined, this form of advising system has proven to be an excellent strategy for all students including those who transfer to XU from other institutions.
  4. Career Counseling: Many students join XU with a specific major and career in mind. However, as they learn more through their courses and research experiences, they want to know more about additional career options. These are offered through departmental advising, the pre-med office (, the CUR (, the office of Graduate Placement the Office of Career Services through externally funded programs including the BUILD, RISE and MARC described above. Through a range of activities like seminars by leaders in their fields, off-campus tours and guidance on taking various entrance exams, completing applications, preparing for interviews, etc., students are in a good position to select a career that is best suited for them.
  5. On-campus Employment: Since a significant number (over 50%) of XU students need financial aid, there has been an increased focus on making available on-campus jobs through funded projects, federal programs like "work study" and university-funded projects. For example, students can work as part-time lab technicians, teaching assistants, stock room assistants or even as administrative assistants. Such opportunities are greatly appreciated by students.

Community Outreach summer programs to increase the number of African Americans and minorities pursuing careers in STEM

Over the past two decades, Xavier has developed a number of highly successful three to four week-long summer programs for high school students. The now well-known STAR and SOAR programs (see below) were among the first to be developed with generous funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute grants. These led way to the emergence of several other summer programs as part of Xavier's community outreach initiatives to increase the number of underrepresented minorities pursuing careers in STEM. Over the years, these programs have successfully emerged as effective recruitment events. The website for the summer academy offers a brief summary of the following programs:

  1. SOAR: Stress on Analytical Reasoning is a program that prepares high school seniors in analytical reasoning and provides early exposure to college life and careers in biomedical sciences through challenging lectures, assignments, lab experiments and field trips.
  2. LEAP: The Louisiana Engineering Advancement Scholars Program is a highly competitive honors program aimed at improving the analytical reasoning and verbal skills of ninth-, tenth- and eleventh-grade students interested in STEM careers. Selected students take college-level courses in science, math and English. They also receive training for ACT/SAT preparation.
  3. ChemStar: This program focuses on problem-solving based introduction to high school chemistry. Students must agree to attend all classes and are subject to dismissal if absent from class. They are also expected to complete all assignments on time.
  4. BioStar: The goal of this program is to introduce students to the exciting world of biology through classroom teaching and experiments in the labs. Students must agree to attend all classes and are subject to dismissal if absent from class. They are also expected to complete all assignments on time.
  5. MathStar: This program focuses on problem-solving introduction to high school algebra. Students must agree to attend all classes and are subject to dismissal if absent from class. They are also expected to complete all assignments on time.
  6. FMSTA: The Future Math and Science Teacher Academy is a summer program for middle school and high school students interested in STEM education. It is designed to reinforce and expand students' knowledge of mathematics and science and to encourage them to pursue STEM teaching as their career choice.
  7. CS - Exploring Computer Science at XU: This summer program enriches the computation-specific studies of both college and high school students. Xavier undergraduate students (mentors), with prior instruction from the faculty, teach and mentor high school students through hands-on learning challenges in the computation sciences. This program is distinguished by its interactions of college students leading high school students through computational problem-solving tasks