Interventions to Improve Engineering Gatekeeper Courses

Interventions to Improve Lower-Level Engineering
Gatekeeper Courses
Horacio Vasquez; Arturo Fuentes; Javier Kypuros
Mechanical Engineering Department
University of Texas-Pan American
[email protected], [email protected], [email protected]
There is a significant amount of resources and activities that can be used to help students succeed
in lower-level engineering courses, in particular, in gatekeeper courses. In general, students
experience transition issues and find difficulty in gatekeeper courses which result in semester
failure rates of 30% or more. This paper reports on an ongoing study with interventions in six
lower-level gatekeeper courses selected as the most important and urgent ones in the College of
Engineering and Computer Science at The University of Texas-Pan American (UTPA). The first
four of the gatekeeper courses are Statics, Statistics, Electrical Circuits I, and Computer Science I
which correspond to Mechanical Engineering, Manufacturing Engineering, Electrical
Engineering, and Computer Science majors, respectively. In addition, Chemistry for Engineers
and Calculus I are the remaining two gatekeeper courses in which interventions are being
implemented. During the first year of the project, most of the emphasis was placed on the Statics
course to create a model of effective interventions that could be adapted and implemented in the
other gatekeeper courses. With the experience obtained in Statics, a workshop was prepared in the
summer of 2014 with the participation of six instructors of the remaining gatekeeper courses.
Various examples of interventions are presented including the materials and tools developed and
implemented in the Statics course. In addition, information is presented about the implementation
regarding student and faculty resources. For example, students in gatekeeper courses are
encouraged to adopt best practices and study habits including time management, note taking,
online homework, office hours, study groups, and peer mentoring. Specifically, a web page with
information and guidelines about these best study practices is being developed to be shared in all
gatekeepers to promote practices conducive to student academic success. The interventions
performed showed preliminary positive impact one student engagement and passing rates in
engineering gatekeeper courses.
Promoting student retention, engagement, and academic success is important for engineering
programs across the Nation. However, efforts to facilitate student retention, engagement, and
success in lower-level, engineering, gatekeeper courses become even more important in regions
with students who lag behind in rigorous course-taking and accomplishment essential for success
in postsecondary education, regions that have a high incidence of poverty or low educational
attainment which negatively impact persistence in postsecondary education, and/or regions with
student population consisting in a significant proportion of underrepresented engineering majors.
Concerning STEM student retention, among other things, research supports the need of
emphasizing the relevance of studies to the real world as one of the key reasons STEM students
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decide to drop out or transfer out of STEM fields1. Therefore, it is important for students selecting
and pursuing STEM fields to be engaged and participate in activities to discover and confirm the
connections, relevance, and compatibility of the classroom learning experiences and the real world
– activities that might not be found in the traditional classroom environments1,2.
On the subject of STEM student engagement, it has been reported that higher student academic
engagement can be found in STEM introductory courses where instructors consistently signaled
an openness to student questions and recognized their role in helping students succeed, as well as,
in courses where students felt comfortable seeking out tutoring, attending supplemental instruction
sessions, and collaborating with other students in the course3. Therefore, for student engagement
to enact change inside and outside the classroom, it is important to develop training for faculty and
peer mentors. With regards to student academic success, engineering professionals require not only
a solid understanding of the fundamental principles and knowledge in their discipline but also they
need to be able to adapt to opportunities for innovation and applications as these fields and the
technology evolve. Achieving adaptive expertise is not trivial; it is common that people can
develop advanced technical expertise in a field independent of abilities to adapt and innovate when
presented with a problem in a new context4. It is also common that students try memorizing how
to solve problems that are similar to examples presented by the instructor or in the textbook;
however, when they are challenged to solve a problem in a new context, they struggle setting it up
and dynamically adapting and applying knowledge and concepts to find solutions. Problem solving
requires knowledge and skills obtained by training, mastering of concepts, and experience applied
in an adaptable and iterative manner, without requiring extensive memorization5-8. Adaptive
experts tend to evaluate multiple perspectives when considering the solutions to new problems,
and view their knowledge as a dynamic resource9-14.
This paper presents ongoing interventions to provide students with support and guidance to
proactively get them engaged so they overcome challenges and discover ways to succeed in
engineering gatekeeper and subsequent courses. The study is organized around key freshman and
sophomore engineering courses with failure rates (i.e. D, F, or withdrawal) that often exceed 30%
and which are referred to as gatekeeper courses. The engagement and guidance of freshman and
sophomore students consists of a combination of best study practice guidelines, online
assessments, and guided challenges. Additionally, to help engage and guide students to understand
and acquire adaptive expertise of difficult concepts, mentoring activities are being adapted, further
developed, and implemented with the participation of other students as peer-led mentors. One of
the goals of this study is to address student engagement and retention to develop adaptive expertise
of fundamental concepts needed to succeed in gatekeeper and subsequent courses.
This project complements other efforts made by the Center of Excellence in STEM Education at
the same institution that promotes development and implementation of challenge-based instruction
(CBI), following efforts during 2009 to 2011, when CBI was the focus of several activities of a
College Cost Reduction Access Act (CCRAA) grant from Department of Education19-21. For
instance, as a result of the CCRAA work, a new “Introduction to STEM” course for dualenrollment engineering students was developed for improvement and growth of STEM
pathways22. CBI promotes that for a learning environment to be effective, it must focus on
knowledge, learner, assessment, and community23,24. In addition, as part of a CCLI grant from
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NSF, Guided Discovery25-28 was developed as a pedagogy that borrows aspects from various active
learning methods including CBI, Discovery Learning29, and Counter Intuitive Examples30.
Intervention Objectives and Targeted Gatekeeper Courses
The objectives of this project in the gatekeeper courses are:
a. Early Course Engagement: to engage and guide students and prepare them through online
recitations and assessments before the beginning and throughout the courses,
b. Adaptive Expertise: to motivate student development of adaptive expertise and
collaboration in the learning process,
c. Ownership of Education Process: to foster students who are more active and responsible
participants in their own learning process,
d. STEM Faculty Interaction: to form a community of Instructors of gatekeeper courses that
together adapt, develop, and implement best practice activities.
The 5-year plan is to stagger adaptation, development, implementation, and revision in the various
gatekeepers throughout the college.
Gatekeeper Courses Interventions
One of the main difficulties engineering students face in lower-level, gatekeeper courses is
grasping and integrating cumulative knowledge covered in the course to develop adaptive
expertise skills in order to apply the learned concepts and procedures to set up and solve problems
in different contexts and situations. In many cases, a gatekeeper course is traditionally taught by
delivering material from a textbook on the board, computer presentations, handouts and/or any
other similar means. Usually, the instructor solves several example problems in class, after that,
students are assigned homework problems that they are expected to analyze and solve by studying
the textbook and lecture notes. In addition, in case students need help outside of the classroom, the
instructor and/or TAs are available during office hours each week to offer guidance. Nonetheless,
gatekeeper courses become difficult for some students from the beginning because of reasons such
as weak preparation or poor knowledge retention and deficient skills in prerequisite materials (e.g.
applying algebra and trigonometry), and sometimes lower-level students lack the maturity to
accept responsibility and ownership of their learning.
Based on the literature, the authors believe that the best practices to transform results in gatekeeper
courses consist of adapting, developing, and implementing the following:
a. Expectations and guidelines for students to get engaged in the course, to understand and
value its support structure (i.e. online and face to face recitations, online assessments, peerled mentoring, homework, note taking and editing, office hours, and others), and to take
responsibility for their own educational process.
b. Pre-test to identify poorly prepared students in prerequisite topics (e.g. algebra,
trigonometry and calculus) required for successful results in the gatekeeper as well as in
subsequent courses.
c. Peer-led online recitations and face-to-face recitations as problem solving sessions (e.g.
creating or using online recitation problems as the ones done by MIT15,16, Carnegie
Mellon17, or Kahn’s Academy18).
d. Online recitations and formative assessments:
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Assessment: evaluate students in prerequisite topics before taking the gatekeeper
 Remediation and engagement: help students that fail the course pre-test by
engaging them through solving problems on pre-test topics.
 Knowledge integration: integrate course material throughout the semester.
Assessment environments such as ALEKS, Wiley Plus, or Mastering Engineering
could be used for these purposes.
e. New or improved challenges with multiple perspective and assessment activities in the
form of online recitations and formative assessments.
Figure 1 summarizes the activities being developed and implemented in lower-level gatekeeper
courses to improve student academic performance (retention and passing rates).
Expectations and
Note Taking
Office Hours
Time Management
Identify at-risk
Survey, Pretest,
other Tools
Attend Mentoring
Team Work
Online Resources
Online Assessments
Manage sessions
Train mentors
Integrate Knowledge
Formative Feedback
Real world contexts
Adaptive expertise
Figure 1: Gatekeeper course intervention plan.
Implementation of Interventions
The first step in the intervention was to develop online assessments for students to review
prerequisite material. After that, a pretest was prepared to identify strengths and deficiencies of
students at the beginning of the course. The next intervention step was to identify the best student
practices to use as guidelines for students to be successful in the gatekeeper courses.
Supplementary instruction in the form of mentoring sessions was also provided to help students
solve homework. Online formative assessments were developed to engage and help students to
persistently study the course material to retain and integrate knowledge and apply it to solve
problems throughout the semester. Another intervention in the gatekeeper courses is to develop
challenges with real world context problems to motivate students to learn the material and acquire
adaptive expertise. Consequently, it is expected that by combining best study practice guidelines,
online assessments, real world context challenges, and peer-led mentoring sessions, student
performance and passing rates in the gatekeeper courses will be improved.
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During year 1, work was performed to create interventions in the following gatekeepers:
 Statics, Fall 2013: 37 students
 Statics, Spring 2014: 57 students
 Statics, Summer 2014: 57 students
 Electrical Circuits I, Fall 2013: 19 Students
 Electrical Circuits I, Spring 2014: 39 Students
 Engineering Statistics, Spring 2014: 29 Students
During the Fall semester, in 2013, the development and implementation of assignments for
preparation for the pre-test, lectures to review prerequisite material, and the pre-tests in Statics and
Electrical Circuits was started. During the Spring 2014 semester, the instruments were revised and
the preparation for the pre-test, motivational survey, course inventory, and pretest were
implemented again in Statics and Electrical Circuits. In addition, in the Statistics course, there
were 27 students, but, only the motivational survey was completed and some mentoring activities
were performed.
The developments for the Statics course were intended to create a model of intervention that could
be adapted in other courses. The following materials and tools were developed and implemented
for the Statics course:
 Lectures to review prerequisite material and prepare for the pre-test
 Online homework to review prerequisite material and prepare for the pre-test
 Pre-test about prerequisite material
 Identification of at-risk students
 Online concept inventory implemented at the beginning and at the end of the course
 Consent form
 Motivational, socioeconomic, and demographics survey
 Online assessments as formative assessments throughout the course
 Mentoring sessions
 Developed challenges to integrate knowledge
 Identification of online resources that could be used as supplementary instruction
In June 2014, a two-day workshop was performed with the participation of 8 instructors of the 6
gatekeeper courses:
 Statics (four Instructors)
 Engineering Statistics (one instructor)
 Electrical Circuits I (one instructor)
 Computer Science I (one instructor)
 Calculus I (one instructor)
 Chemistry for Engineers(one instructor)
Two of the authors of this paper coordinated the workshop. In order to have a discussion and
perform some work to complete tasks during the workshop, instructors were required to bring
some information related to their courses:
 A course syllabus,
 A course pretest if there is one,
 Samples of homework (online and written assignments),
 Samples of lectures, and samples of quizzes or exams.
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One purpose for the workshop was to share the implemented interventions and the results obtained
in Statics during the first year (Fall 2013-Spring 2014) of the project. Another motive was to
prepare a plan to develop and implement supplementary instruction activities during the second
year of the project. Three professors that initiated participation in this project during year 2
(Summer 2014 –Summer 2015) attended the workshop and, together with the professors that
participated in year 1, are implementing interventions in all 6 gatekeeper courses during year 2. A
professor that teaches Statics at a local community college also attended the workshop.
Faculty was reminded that for each of the following activities, it is important to complete and keep
records of results.
a) Preparation for Pretest: create a review and an assignment (online if possible) to prepare
students for a Pre-test about prerequisite knowledge required for the course.
b) Pretest: Create a pre-test to assess prerequisite knowledge and implement it in class during
the first or second week of the semester.
c) Survey: During the first week of the semester, assign students to complete an online survey
to measure motivation and to record socio-economic and demographic information
(instructions will be provided by the project evaluator).
d) At-risk students: Identify at-risk students and work with them through mentoring.
e) Mentoring: Identify mentors and assist in coordinating recruitment and employment.
f) Concept Inventory: Look for or create a concept inventory (preferably online, multiple
choice) for the course and implement it in class at the beginning and at the end (preferably
during final exam) of the course.
g) Formative Online Assessments: Create and implement online assessments; instructors
might use a textbook with online assessment/tutoring features.
h) Challenge(s): Develop one or more challenges to integrate knowledge in your course.
i) Online Resources: Identify and provide student activities with online resources that could
be used as supplementary instruction.
j) Report Results: Report the results obtained in each activity.
Sample Intervention Tools and Preliminary Results
1) Expectations and Guidelines for Students to be engaged in the Gatekeeper Courses
In collaboration with the Center of Excellence in STEM Education at UTPA, a website is being
designed to guide faculty and students to achieve academic excellence. Information that will be
included in the website is presented in this section of the report. This is work in progress, and it
will be disseminated through the website31. The purpose, characteristics, and importance of the
following course materials, resources, and best student practices were described during the
workshop and instructors of gatekeeper courses were encouraged to make students aware of them:
 Considerations to prepare and to explain the syllabus;
 Importance of note taking and record keeping;
 Time management tips;
 Taking full advantage of office hours;
 Solving homework and solution format;
 Benefits of attending mentoring sessions and mentors’ benefits;
 Advantages and disadvantages of team work and study groups; and
 Creating and implementing challenges and promoting adaptive expertise
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2) Identifying At-Risk Students at the Beginning of the Course
Several tools were developed and implemented to identify at-risk students at the beginning of the
gatekeeper courses. It is estimated that supplementary instruction, such as mentoring, could benefit
at-risk students that are willing to work hard, study, ask questions, and dedicate time to learn and
master the material in the course.
a) Factors that were taken into account to identify at-risk students are:
 Grades on first assignments to prepare for pre-test;
 Pre-test grades;
 GPA and performance in pre-requisite courses; and
 Class repetition due to failure or drop
b) A survey to determine motivational, socio-economic, and demographic factors was also
The purposes of students preparing for the pre-test and taking the pre-test are to make them aware
of the need to retain previously acquired knowledge; another purpose is to identify those students
that might be at-risk at the beginning of the gatekeeper courses due to insufficient mastery of
prerequisite knowledge. So far, it has been determined that, when well designed, there is a
correlation among the results of a pretest that evaluates prerequisite knowledge and the final grades
in the Statics course. Hence, it is important that the instructors of gatekeeper courses develop
activities to engage students to review and study prerequisite material because it is important from
the beginning of the semester and could be a determinant factor in the success or failure of the
students in the course. As the courses progress, most students usually assume that new concepts
are not very difficult to understand because they can follow the instructor’s explanation in the
lectures. However, difficulties arise for some students when making decisions needed to adapt and
apply the acquired knowledge to solve different or more complicated problems.
The results obtained in Statics, as shown in Figure 2, determined that a student who failed the
course (final grade < 70) would have scored roughly lower than a 68 on the pre-test. In other
words, a score of 68 on the pretest would, on average, lead to a final grade of 70 with 95%
confidence, estimating the final grade to be between 65 and 75.
Figure 2: Effect of the pre-test results on the final grades for Statics.
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Even though these are preliminary results that need to be verified in future semesters and different
courses, it is expected that well-designed pre-tests could be accurate predictors of student
performance in the course. The pre-test is also used to collect certain information important to
identify students at-risk. The pre-test results not only provide important information to the
instructor, about the students’ preparation and knowledge of prerequisite material, but they also
reinforce students’ understanding of the need to review and further master prerequisite material to
be properly prepared for the new course.
With the help of the grant’s evaluator, a consent form and a socioeconomic, motivational, and
demographics survey, both approved by IRB, were prepared and implemented in the courses. It is
expected that correlations among the surveyed information, student knowledge and performance
at the beginning of the course, and student performance in pre-requisite courses would help
identify students at-risk during the first days of the course. After that, supplementary instruction
could be provided to the entire class and in particular with activities prepared for at-risk students.
3) Online Formative Assessments
The use of frequent online formative assessments is being promoted in gatekeeper courses to keep
students actively learning outside of the classroom, solving problems to master the material, and
abreast of their current knowledge mastery.
a) Assessments were prepared in Statics for students to review prerequisite material at the
beginning of the course. Figure 3 shows an example problem to review geometry.
Figure 3: Example online assessment using Respondus and Blackboard.
b) Assessments and mentoring activities were also prepared throughout the course. Students
are allowed multiple attempts to complete the online assessments and they get feedback
for each attempt. In Statics, Mastering Engineering (from Prentice-Hall) was used for the
online assessments too. However, Respondus and Blackboard assessments were
developed, such as the example presented in Figure 4 in which the values of the parameters
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are randomly generated for each student. One advantage of creating online problems is that
the same images could be used to ask a variety of questions.
Figure 4: Example online assessment using Respondus and Blackboard.
In order to determine individual knowledge gains in the material covered in the course, a concept
inventory was also prepared. During the Spring 2014 semester, students were given a concept
inventory at the beginning and at the end of the semester at the Survey Research Center, at UTPA.
In Statics, the concept inventory was online with multiple choice answers. However, during future
semesters, the evaluator will coordinate this by going to the class and requiring that students use
iPads, laptops or cell phones to complete it. The concept inventory could be done on paper too.
Once a concept inventory is created, it needs to be approved by IRB. One of the main difficulties
with the concept inventory is to implement it during class time at the beginning as well as at the
end of the course. Another difficulty is selecting the questions to be used in the concept inventory.
It was recommended to select or create several questions that evaluate all the student learning
outcomes in the gatekeeper course. Figure 5 shows an example question used in the concept
inventory for Statics.
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Figure 5: Example concept inventory question to evaluate knowledge about moments, reactions, and
equilibrium of rigid bodies.
A concept inventory with 6 questions was prepared for Statics and it was implemented online.
Design of the concept inventory was based on the student learning outcomes for the course. The
purpose of the concept inventory is to have information at the beginning and at the end of the
course to estimate the achievement of the student learning outcomes. General improvement from
the beginning to the end of the semester was achieved on most concept inventory questions as can
be seen in Figure 6.
Figure 6: Concept inventory results at the beginning and end of course.
The average grade on the concept inventory at the beginning of the course was 22.8% and at
the end of the course was 50.7%, which implies an improvement of 27.8%. Higher results are
expected at the end of the course in the concept inventory; but, several situations need to be
controlled to obtain better results, like the place and time to take the inventory and the number of
students taking it. In future semesters, the concept inventory will be done in class to maximize the
number of participants and to have better control of the time and effort the student dedicate to this
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4) Challenges and Challenge-Based Instruction (CBI)
Challenge-based instruction (CBI) is a form of problem-based learning which creates an
effective learning environment that possesses four common dimensions: a focus on the knowledge,
learner, assessment, and community. Fundamental concepts as well as difficult concepts in the
gatekeeper courses need to be identified and categorized. After that, challenges are created to
integrate knowledge and promote developing adaptive expertise about the concepts previously
identified. Challenges are convenient, among other things, to integrate material, assign group
work, and to require students to go public with the challenge solutions. Instructors participating in
this project were tasked to:
a) Create a challenge that could be completed toward the end of the course and in which
students might use the majority of the course concepts in order to find a solution; and
b) Create challenges to get students engaged in real world contexts.
Example challenge to integrate knowledge in Statics: “You worked for a construction company
that needs a machine with a wide gripper to lift and deliver reinforced concrete blocks with weight
of about 2 tons. The blocks are on the ground and need to be lifted so that they are placed onto
flatbed trucks as shown in Figure 7. You must choose a gripper and a lifting mechanism and
analyze all their components to find the forces acting on all of them.”
Figure 7: Challenge to integrate knowledge in Statics.
A possible solution to the challenge is illustrated in Figure 8. Students need to sketch free
body diagrams, determine reactions, and calculate forces acting on all components.
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Figure 8: Possible solution to the challenge.
In this project, instructors have started working as a team to solve common problems in lowerlevel, gatekeeper courses in different fields. Instructors were able to identify at-risk students early
in the semester to provide them with supplementary instruction and guidelines to succeed in the
course. Online assessments were developed in several gatekeeper courses to engage students in
solving problems about fundamental concepts throughout the semester, involving not only recently
studied concepts but also integrating previously learned concepts to promote knowledge retention
and emphasize its relevance in subsequent parts of the course (i.e. to review prerequisite material,
integrate knowledge, and review difficulty concepts). In order to make assessment more practical
and effective, especially in large classes, there are specialized software packages that might be
useful to create online formative assessments and tutoring activities (e.g. Mastering Engineering).
Peer-led mentoring sessions were well received by students that require help to solve homework
or that have questions about the material covered in the lectures. During the mentoring sessions,
students practice and acquire better understanding of concepts and they can clarify class or
textbook content by asking questions. However, clearly defined process must be in place to hire
the most appropriate peer student mentors and to provide them with the adequate training.
In terms of the initial faculty impact, a variety of formative online assessments required significant
time and team efforts to develop, to integrate knowledge, and to target all the course concepts.
Some extra efforts are required by instructors teaching gatekeeper courses to prepare assessment
tools, challenges, and coordinate the complementary instruction activities. While it has not become
an issue, a faculty member mentioned the possibility that online and/or mentoring resources may
be misused by students (e.g. students avoiding lectures).
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Assessments and survey tools had to be developed and approved by IRB before they can be
implemented, which has to be done in a supervised way in order to avoid being misused by
students. A course inventory was prepared and implemented at the beginning of the semester.
Though seemingly awkward, it is necessary to serve as a reference or knowledge baseline in the
course. The course inventory does not serve to identify at-risk students because it covers material
that students are going to learn throughout the course. Implementing the affect survey, pretest,
course inventory and other tools in class is difficult; therefore, online options are being
Future work in this project consists of completing the evaluation of results in Statics, Electrical
Circuits I, Statistics, Computer Science I, Calculus I, and Chemistry I and adapting, developing,
and implementing the materials required to perform the proposed interventions in the
corresponding gatekeeper courses. The project is ongoing and it is in the middle of the second
year of a total of five years. It is also important to complete and analyze the results of the pretest,
surveys, and concept inventory required to identify at-risk students in all six gatekeeper courses.
The instructors continue creating or adapting more online assessments and challenges to integrate
knowledge. In each gatekeeper course, there has to be a plan for mentoring activities and training
of mentors.
The authors would like to acknowledge the financial support of the National Science Foundation
Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Talent Expansion Program (STEP) Graduate
10K+ program (grant number DUE-0311349) with special funding from Intel and General Electric,
under which this project was carried out. We would also like to thank the UTPA Center for STEM
Excellence (C-STEM) and its director, Dr. Cristina Villalobos, for its assistance and support.
Moreover, we thank the UTPA Center for Survey Research and its director, Dr. Jessica Lavariega
Monforti for assisting with evaluation and data collection.
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31. URL:
Proceedings of the 2015 ASEE Gulf-Southwest Annual Conference
Organized by The University of Texas at San Antonio
Copyright © 2015, American Society for Engineering Education