John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Fayetteville State University

Institutional Profile
Foundations of Excellence® Cohort:
2007-2008 National Select
Carnegie Classification:
Master’s S
Regional Accreditation:
Southern Association Colleges and Schools
Contact Information:

Peter Valenti, Ph.D., Professor of English

Foundations of Excellence at Fayetteville State University: Improving Learning Outcomes in the First Year and Beyond

Peter Valenti, Ph.D., Professor of English  

Fayetteville State University (FSU) applied for inclusion in the Foundations of Excellence (FoE) program as a logical development in long-term plans to improve learning outcomes across the curriculum. We sought to enhance retention rates, graduation rates, student satisfaction with their college experience, and in general improve the lives of North Carolinians by offering new resources for cultural and economic growth. Our success with the CHEER program in preparing students for the rigors of college life by immersing them in a summer pre-college program led us to envision FoE as an opportunity to extend the strengths of CHEER more broadly across the curriculum.

FSU’s initiatives to improve student success have been ongoing since the 1970, when the university participated in a consortium to improve literacy. In the 1980s, FSU established a University College to deal specifically with the needs of underprepared students. In the 1990s FSU received national recognition for providing direction and encouragement to students through intentional advising. In the twenty-first century, FSU intends to nurture these strands of literacy, student life, and assumption of responsibility. FoE has already proven a powerful resource in this initiative.

Bringing Constituencies Together

FSU’s Foundations experience involved over one hundred and twenty students, faculty, and staff. From the launch meeting in August 2007, FoE discussions have brought together the diverse interests and needs of the university in unprecedented ways. Never before have we had faculty and staff working together so closely for the direct benefit of students. Never before have we had so many “aha!” moments where faculty see how the work of student affairs personnel can help them to reach students and increase classroom learning. Never before has FSU had so important points of contact between the library and academic staff, a union fueled substantially by participation in the periodic FoE meetings held across the country.

“Never before have we had so many “aha!” moments where faculty see how the work of student affairs personnel can help them to reach students and increase classroom learning.”

Appreciating Data and Finding Synergies

FoE helps an institution to appreciate the larger implications of specific bits of data as a means of driving curricular improvement. For example, our NSSE (National Survey of Student Engagement) results show students reporting being assigned more multiple-draft papers of twenty pages at a greater rate than peer institutions, yet students report that they felt college would be more challenging. One of our tasks, clearly, is to find meaningful ways to challenge students.

Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) efforts at FSU exemplify the importance of Foundations in other ways. As a data-driven institution, we are sensitive to the need to demonstrate that our students are indeed learning effectively, not only for the public that supports the institution, but even more crucially for the teachers and learners who realize that the futures of students and the state depend upon effective collegiate experiences. Our university strategic plan and our QEP for SACS rely on the interpretation of this research in establishing a baseline against which we will measure future growth. Both the CLA and NSSE offer data for longitudinal study that will enable us to hone in on those skills across the curriculum that count both as means of improving performance on the tests and strengthening student performance for life beyond the classroom.

While FoE did not introduce us to the CLA, it did open up new possibilities for managing CLA and similar data. FSU’s concern about literacy predates the 1970s consortium efforts to increase performance. ACCUPLACER tests administered to incoming freshmen since 2005 indicate that FSU students in general perform at slightly above in algebra, but consistently below peer institutions and national averages in literacy. Continuing discussion about how best to address this deficiency led in 2008-2009 to establishment of a Reading Across the Curriculum program to parallel and reinforce the Writing Across the Curriculum program. Faculty discussion of literacy from these complementary perspectives will deepen the discussion in ways that the most promising emerging learning theories see as “deep reading.” Like the CLA tasks, these other means of taking students more deeply into texts they read and create will prepare students for similar tasks in other classes, a synergy we have not previously enjoyed.

We noted other synergistic phenomena as a result of FoE. We determined that we needed a parent-directed agenda for our “First Steps” orientation program; we also saw that we should expand our learning communities to include all freshmen. In evaluating our retention data, we saw that we must change our retention policies to assure that we deployed our financial resources as responsibly as possible. All these efforts support the first-year philosophy developed for the university as the first concrete result of our FoE work. Happily, these other phenomena have been incorporated in policy changes.

Learning From the FoE Network

The 2008 FoE Winter Meeting provided rich opportunities for participating institutions to share concerns about educating students, which we had come to expect after the 2007 launch meeting in Asheville, and also some unexpected outcomes. To cite one example, Galludet presented a workshop on their common reading experiences over the course of several years. They demonstrated a quality that FoE seems wonderfully to foster: a willingness not only to share the successes they have experienced, but to inquire directly about what you are doing, how you see that their experience might be helpful and allow your institution to grow. Several Galludet faculty told FSU faculty how important the common readings were to the overall first-year experience of students at their institutions. This motivated FSU faculty to rejuvenate the “Chancellor’s Reading Club” which had suggested a single book to read across classes. Under the direction of the University College, our new “Chancellor’s Reading Club” has used Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees and Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father as catalyst for diverse experiences across the curriculum and throughout the first year. Again, the synergistic effect of multiple approaches to literacy and to deepening student experience of both the texts they struggle to explain fully and those they create themselves provide a much richer experience than our previous efforts at curriculum construction.

How much of this might we have done without Foundations? We might have done much of it, but we would not have been anywhere near so purposeful or confident that we were on the right track. Like an effective teacher, FoE provided an encouraging context where we felt we were looking for answers others had sought as well, and that we were gaining on our objective.