By Guy Spriggs
(Aug. 5, 2015) — Started in the summer of 2012 as an intensive “boot camp” to help the University of Kentucky’s new students prepare for college-level calculus, the FastTrack program has become an integral part of efforts to help students transition to the college classroom and set them up for success in the College of Arts and Sciences.
The curriculum for FastTrack has expanded over the last four years, and now gives students an invaluable introduction to UK’s math, biology, chemistry, engineering, Spanish and WRD (Writing, Rhetoric and Digital Studies). A key part of the program’s continued growth is the recent addition of FOCUS (FastTrack Orientation for College Undergraduate Success), a component built around developing the non-academic skills students need to achieve in coursework.
Visit https://www.flickr.com/photos/ukartsci/sets/72157646955546531/ to view a photo album from last year's incoming FastTrack students.
FOCUS grew out of sections of A&S 100 aimed at providing outreach to students on academic probation. The course, which was co-taught by A&S academic advisor James Thomas, revealed valuable points of intervention in mitigating the anxieties and challenges that can limit student potential. Both data and student responses suggest the course was a success even in its initial stages, reflecting a significant improvement in retention for participants in the course when compared to the university-wide average.
“We found we were helping these students stay at UK, and they were commenting about how this should be available to everyone,” Thomas said. “We talked to Ruth Beattie about developing an angle of FastTrack that mirrored the tracks that existed, but was a continuation of our course, focusing on transitioning to college and applying it to all students.”
Ruth Beattie, professor and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Biology, works with program faculty to manage content and offer logistical oversight. She says FOCUS is an essential part of how FastTrack prepares students for the level of analysis and work expected at UK.
“FOCUS activities are geared toward study skills, learning strategies, note-taking skills, time management – things students need to succeed,” Beattie said.
As a result, student feedback on the program is overwhelmingly positive. FastTrack participants Jaquann Duff, Monet Proctor and Kelsi Webb all found the program — and the FOCUS content in particular — instrumental to their success and say they would recommend it to anyone. Duff appreciated learning about on-campus services and says the program made it more possible to achieve academic success as a freshman. Proctor said FastTrack helped her develop productive skills and habits and is grateful for the exposure afforded by the program. Webb felt the activities required her to focus on growing as a student, enabling her to learn more about herself “as a student and as an individual.”
The components of the FastTrack program are relatively simple: students come to campus a week before the start of the fall semester and have six hours of classroom instruction each day built around the courses they will take in the upcoming term. However, the benefits of the program are huge, and its successes have led to significant growth.
Thirty-nine students participated in FastTrack’s first year and 50 joined the second year (2013). In those first two years, FastTrack students performed much better in fall math and biology courses than students who did not enroll in the program. In 2014, as the curriculum expanded and FastTrack became linked to the STEMCats Living Learning Program, the number of participants swelled to 270.
“Being part of FastTrack and STEMCats results in much better retention. Students who do both are retained at a 94 percent rate, which is huge,” Beattie said. “The program has grown quite considerably — this year we’re planning for between 400 and 500 students in the program.”
Participation in the program also has benefits beyond the classroom.
“Students can get settled and organized, but they can also learn to navigate campus, experience the classroom, meet faculty and find out about resources. It makes a huge difference to students,” Beattie said.
“We’re trying to get them connected to everything early. It’s about introducing academic material, focusing on academic rigor and making them feel comfortable here,” Thomas added.
As FastTrack faculty prepared for a record number of participants in the summer of 2015, FOCUS similarly expanded to improve outreach across the university. Two new courses — ASPIRE (Academically Sound Preparation for Involved Research Education) and RISE (Resource Infused Sessions in Education) — provided a research-intensive curriculum for students with an area of academic concern and mentoring opportunities for students who may slip under the radar.
“I believe every student we admit can graduate from here — no doubt in my mind,” Thomas said. “What FOCUS does is find that X factor: what stops them from succeeding as best they can. If we can find that, we can better address student needs.”
“I would really recommend FastTrack for any incoming student, not just those in the STEM disciplines. And because we’ve expanded it, it really is open to anyone. I would love to see every A&S incoming major taking part in the program,” Beattie added.