Higher Learning Commission

Killer Course Correction: Using Self-studies to Transform Gateway Courses

Andrew K. Koch, Martine Courant Rife and Mark Hanson

The Issue

Concern over performance in “killer” gateway courses dates back at least to the mid-1980s, when Deanna Martin and her colleagues at the University of Missouri–Kansas City (UMKC) initiated an intervention called Supplemental Instruction to address high failure rates in high-risk courses for students in UMKC’s medical school (Martin and Arendale 1993). Supplemental Instruction has become a widely adopted initiative at colleges and universities across the United States. Despite this, failure rates in gateway courses in subjects such as math, chemistry and biology remain unacceptably high. As Cliff Adelman reported in his 1999 publication, Answers in the Tool Box, and his 2006 follow-up work, The Toolbox Revisited, students with 20 percent or more of their grades in the D, F, W, or I categories were the least likely to finish a degree. In addition, the higher the proportion of such grades, the more resources were wasted (in the form of both students’ and institutions’ monies) on duplicate instruction (Adelman 1999; 2006).

The fact that future success in higher education pursuits is directly correlated with success in gateway courses—students have to succeed in gateway courses to be able to move on to further study—means that failure in one or more gateway courses can have a significant deleterious impact on a person’s ability to live and work in, and make contributions to, the contemporary global economy and society. In Education Pays 2010: The Benefits of Higher Education for Individuals and Society, Sandy Baum, Jennifer Ma and Kathleen Payea point out how median earnings, lifetime earnings, lifetime tax payments, job satisfaction, sense of work as being fulfilling, pension plan coverage, health insurance coverage and a host of other measurable variables are all significantly higher for college degree completers when compared to people who either only finished high school or who did not complete high school at all. Equally important is what is lower—college graduates have lower rates of smoking, lower levels of unemployment and shorter periods of unemployment if they do lose a job, and they use less public assistance. When compared to those who do not attend college, college graduates are healthier, are more involved in their communities and vote with greater frequency (Baum, Ma and Payea 2010).

Successfully completing gateway courses and subsequently completing programs of study is not merely a matter of individual concern. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math). Recent reports published by the National Academies Press and the National Science Foundation provide evidence that the number of native-born U.S. graduates in the STEM fields will fall far short of the trained professionals needed to replace the large number of projected retirees over the next 20 years (Committee on Prospering in the Economy of the 21st Century, 2007; National Science Board, 2003). In short, if left unaltered, the sink-or-swim methods historically employed by many institutions in gateway courses may very well result in the nation sinking along with its failing undergraduates.

In summation, the strong correlation between gateway course success and degree completion and the correlation between degree completion and better economic and social conditions make improving gateway course success an institutional and national imperative. The time is right for much-needed institutional efforts to improve the manner in which students enroll, are supported and progress through gateway courses. What follows are examples of how two Higher Learning Commission (HLC) member institutions used a self-study process to create and subsequently implement action plans to measurably improve student and institutional performance in gateway courses.  

The Approach: Using Self-studies to Transform Gateway Courses

In fall 2013, North Dakota State University (NDSU), a public research institution enrolling approximately 12,000 undergraduate students, and Lansing Community College (LCC), an open-access two-year institution with more than 16,000 students, both applied for and were selected to be part of the 13 institutions that made up the pilot cohort of the Gateways to Completion (G2C) process. Gateways to Completion is an evidence-based course transformation process. Employing faculty-driven course review processes, analytics and a teaching and learning academy that supports the application of engaging pedagogies, G2C helps faculty members and staff members build, implement and revise plans to transform teaching and learning in historically high-risk courses.

The Gateways to Completion process was created and is facilitated by the nonprofit John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education with input from a 35-member national advisory committee. Since 2013, 30 institutions, including seven HLC members, have participated in the G2C process. It should be emphasized that while Gateways to Completion is arguably the largest self-study-based gateway course transformation process currently underway in the United States, it is one model—and thus readers should see it as an approach that can be emulated even if they do not wish to formally take part in a G2C cohort.

In accordance with the G2C model, both NDSU and LCC set up task forces to transform up to five gateway courses. NDSU chose introductory courses in biology, chemistry, history and psychology, while LCC chose gateway, college credit-bearing courses in accounting, biology, history, math and writing. Each task force consisted of course-specific committees charged with course-level analysis and actions—in other words, the respective institutions formed committees for each of the aforementioned courses. In addition, both institutions formed steering committees charged with cross-course recommendations and efforts. Both institutions are currently in their third year of the three-year G2C process.

To date, LCC has recorded positive increases in passing rates and decreases in D, F, W and I rates in four of the five courses associated with the college’s effort. The project has become a cornerstone in the institution’s customized student success initiative, Operation 100%. Operation 100% is a comprehensive initiative aimed at ensuring success for all students wishing to obtain certificates and degrees or wishing to transfer to a four-year school (Prystowsky, Koch and Baldwin 2015). The project set as its goal 100-percent completion for students in degree, certificate, or transfer pathways and the G2C effort was a forbearer to and continues to be a major component of the effort. In fact, given the role it plays in Operation 100% and the success it has had to date, LCC is actively working with the Gardner Institute to address additional courses through an invited proposal submission to the Kresge Foundation. If awarded, the grant would fund an additional three years of self-study-based course transformation through G2C at Lansing Community College. Regardless of the grant’s outcome, the LCC faculty members who have already been involved in G2C over the last three years are committed to not only bringing in additional courses to the G2C initiative for another three-year round but also to continuing to scale up G2C course-level promising practices developed as a result of the G2C initiative.

NDSU has recorded decreases in D, F, W and I and increased passing rates in the majority of their G2C-targeted courses. Students have indicated higher levels of satisfaction in participating courses as well. The institution has been able to achieve this through the application of faculty-led pedagogical changes combined with active use of predictive analytics to guide early and frequent forms of feedback and intervention. During 2015, the university applied lessons learned from the self-study-based G2C process to submit a successful National Science Foundation Improving Undergraduate STEM Education (IUSE) grant—a project that will extend the impact of G2C to more than 150 additional instructional staff members and faculty members over the next five years.

As is evident, the task force/self-study-based model brings many strengths to gateway course transformation efforts. It puts data into the hands of faculty members so that they can learn from and, in turn, apply it to make evidence-based changes in how they teach and support student learning. In addition, the approach creates broader ownership of student learning and success-related efforts—thereby increasing the likelihood that the efforts will be successfully implemented. On a related note, faculty members and staff members participating in the self-study-based work are engaged in the generation of solutions; thus they are more prone to embrace them. Because of this, it is no surprise that institutional studies of the self-study-enabled G2C process correlate involvement in the effort with increases in course passing as well as term-to-term and year-to-year retention rates. In addition, involvement in the effort is correlated with decreases in academic probation rates (Koch 2015).

Implications and Conclusion

A scan of the demographics shows that an increasing number of students enrolling in gateway courses come disproportionately from low-income and first-generation student classifications. This has little if anything to do with the courses themselves but is rather a reflection of who is coming to college in the twenty-first century. The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education’s 2008 report, Knocking at the College Door: Projections of High School Graduates by State and Race/Ethnicity, 1992–2022, points out the steadily changing racial profile of today’s high school graduates. The report notes that the nation as a whole and “more and more states are closing in on ‘majority-minority’ status relative to public high school graduating classes, in which the number of graduates who are not White non-Hispanic exceeds the number of graduates who are” (Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education 2008).

As racial diversity increases, so does the age range of the students who enroll in higher education—either as new beginning students or as students who return to higher education after stopping in previous years. Increased degree production among adult students is a core component of national completion agenda goals. Whether focused on Lumina Foundation’s goal of 60 percent of the adult population in the United States having a postsecondary credential by 2025, or the Obama administration’s goal of being “first in the world” in degree attainment, or comparable efforts from entities as varied as the states and the National Governors Association, adult “nontraditional” student enrollment and success in higher education—including gateway courses—is key to realizing national higher education policy goals.

One thing is clear from these demographic trends and the profile of who enrolls in high-failure-rate gateway courses—higher education’s newest participants (first-year students) will be increasingly drawn from the very same populations that have historically fared the worst in postsecondary education. This mixture is a recipe for disaster unless institutions make some drastic modifications to how they teach and support their newest students who enroll in their gateway courses. Fortunately, colleges and universities have some arrows in their quivers on which to draw—ammunition that can help institutions of higher learning hit the target of greater success in gateway courses. This includes the use of self-studies to guide and implement the efforts of faculty members and staff members in historically high-risk gateway courses.

The time for action on improving institutional and student performance in gateway courses is now. For the health of the institution, its students and the nation of which they are all a part, high failure in gateway courses is no longer an acceptable option.      


Adelman, C. 1999. Answers in the tool box: Academic intensity, attendance patterns, and bachelor’s degree attainment. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
_____. 2006. The toolbox revisited: Paths to degree completion from high school through college. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Baum, S., J. Ma, and K. Payea. 2010. Education pays 2010: The benefits of higher education for individuals and society. New York: The College Board.

Committee on Prospering in the Economy of the 21st Century: An Agenda for American Science and Technology; Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy; Institute of Medicine; Policy and Global Affairs; National Academy of Sciences; and National Academy of Engineering. 2007. Rising above the gathering storm: Energizing and employing America for a brighter economic future. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Koch, A. K. 2015. Gateways to completion: Overview, evidence of strength of components & summary of outcomes to date. Brevard, NC: John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education. https://s3.amazonaws.com/jngi_pub/hlc16/Overview+of+G2C+Evidence+of+the+Strength+of+the+G2C

Martin, D. C., and D. R. Arendale, eds. 1993. Supplemental instruction: Improving first-year student success in high-risk courses. Monograph Series Number 7. Columbia, SC: National Resource Center for the Freshman Year Experience and Students in Transition.

National Science Board. 2003. The science and engineering workforce: Realizing America’s potential. Washington, DC: National Science Foundation.

Prystowsky, R., A. K. Koch, and C. Baldwin. 2015. Operation 100%, or completion by redesign. AAC&U Peer Review (Fall).

Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. 2008. Knocking at the college door: Projections of high school graduates by state and race/ethnicity, 1992–2022. Boulder, CO: Author.


About the Authors

Andrew K. Koch is Executive Vice President and Chief Academic Leadership and Innovation Officer at John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education; Martine Courant Rife is Operation 100% Project Manager and Gateways to Completion Liaison at Lansing Community College in Lansing, Michigan; and Mark Hanson is Research Analyst, Office of Institutional Research and Analysis, at North Dakota State University in Grand Forks.

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NOTE: The papers included in this collection offer the viewpoints of their authors. HLC recommends them for study and for the advice they contain, but they do not represent official HLC directions, rules or policies.

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