Summer and Winter ‘Make-up’ Classes Keep Students on Track for Degrees

Biomedical engineering major Julia Measmer in the MakerSpace at UMass Lowell Image by Katharine Webster
Biomedical engineering major Julia Measmer passed Organic Chemistry I after taking a "second chance" River Hawk Review class this winter.

By Katharine Webster

Sophomore Julia Measmer has severe ADHD, and she sometimes gets overwhelmed.

That’s what happened last fall when she took Organic Chemistry I, a difficult class that’s required for her major, biomedical engineering. Despite going to lots of group tutoring sessions, Measmer fell behind and failed.

But instead of having to repeat the course this spring, Measmer got an invitation from Chemistry Assoc. Teaching Prof. Khalilah Reddie to take a “River Hawk Review” course during the two-week winter intersession. Measmer attended class for two hours every day and spent another hour or two working with a tutor who had only two other students. Then she did problem sets every afternoon.

UML Sciences Dean Noureddine Melikechi Image by Tory Wesnofske
Dean of Sciences Noureddine Melikechi wants to give students a second chance in "gateway" classes.

This time, she passed the class with a C+ that replaces the F on her transcript. She says the small class size, the personal attention from her tutor and the chance to focus on just one subject made all the difference.

“My favorite thing was the small group tutoring sessions,” Measmer says. “We worked through a lot of problems, and the tutor explained everything in the most straightforward, concise way possible. And I got to ask whatever questions I had.”

The program was born of a discussion five years ago between Kennedy College of Sciences Dean Noureddine Melikechi and Associate Dean Fred Martin about ways to improve pass rates for “gateway” required classes. Melikechi noted that in the European system, students who fail a final often can take a make-up exam. Could UMass Lowell offer a similar second chance and keep students on track for their degrees?

Martin took the concept and ran with it, proposing “River Hawk Review” classes to be held over the summer and winter intersessions. The classes would offer intensive support to students who put in a strong effort during the semester, but did not earn the grade they needed to progress toward their degree.

UML Sciences Assoc. Dean Fred Martin portrait Image by Adrien Bisson
Assoc. Dean of Sciences Fred Martin says River Hawk Review courses keep students on track while improving their academic foundation.

The first review classes – in first-year biology, chemistry and physics; organic chemistry; and two upper-level computer science classes – piloted in summer 2017. After several years of trying out review classes in different subjects, dropping some and adding others, River Hawk Review has become an established program, even as new courses are piloted, Martin says.

“Students pay a flat fee that’s one-quarter the cost of a full online class, and if they pass, their original grade is replaced with their new grade,” Martin says. “The idea is to save them time and money – and keep them from having to repeat the class.”

Every River Hawk Review course has a different format, ranging from which students are invited to how often it meets and who determines the final grade. In all cases, though, the final exam is as difficult or more difficult than the original, because the review courses focus on the most challenging subject matter, Martin and the faculty say.

That serves a dual purpose, Martin adds: Students build a stronger academic foundation while moving ahead with their degree requirements.

“We consider it a diversity, equity and inclusion initiative,” he says. “It’s often our first-generation, women and underrepresented students who need this.”

UML Biology major Prospera Kuupiel Nibenee Image by Courtesy
Biology major Prospera Kuupiel Nibenee felt more comfortable asking questions in her small River Hawk Review class.

Students say they appreciate getting extra time to master the material and to focus on especially difficult concepts. They also value the personal contact with professors.

Sophomore biology major Prospera Kuupiel Nibenee failed Organic Chemistry I by a single point last fall. She says she struggled with key concepts, but she felt shy about asking questions in class or in large group tutoring sessions.

“The winter class was more personal, and because we’re closer with the teacher, it felt more comfortable to ask questions,” she says.

Asst. Teaching Prof. Suzanne Young, who coordinates the River Hawk Review classes for Chemistry I and II and often teaches them herself, says she always begins with a lesson on how to study STEM subjects effectively. That’s because many of the students who work hard, pass the lab class and yet fail the final exam have never been taught important study techniques.

“We get such bright, wonderful, hard-working kids,” she says. “They sometimes just need a bit of extra support.”

Martin helped select a graduate student to teach the River Hawk Review course for Computing I this winter. Second-year Ph.D. student Fouzi Takelait designed and taught the class, with advice from Martin and Asst. Teaching Prof. James Daly, after serving as Daly’s teaching assistant in the fall.

UML Chemistry Assoc. Teaching Prof. Khalilah Reddie helps a student after class Image by Katharine Webster
Chemistry Assoc. Teaching Prof. Khalilah Reddie helps a student after organic chemistry class.

Takelait says he gained valuable teaching experience and is now more interested in a career as a professor. He’d like to teach a River Hawk Review class again this summer.

“I learned a lot from this program, and now I have a lot of ideas about how to improve it,” he says.

River Hawk Review is also expanding to other colleges. The First-year Writing Program has adapted the model, and a review class for Management Calculus, which is taught by math faculty and required for all first-year business students, piloted this winter.

Business Assoc. Dean Jennifer Percival says about one-third of Management Calculus students withdraw from the class, fail it or get a D, so the Manning School of Business is working with the math faculty to remedy that. The River Hawk Review class is a promising part of that effort.

“We don’t want this to be a barrier course, because it’s there to provide students the fundamental quantitative skills and confidence they’re going to need in their analytics and finance classes,” Percival says.

Bernadette Stockwell, a senior adjunct faculty member in the English Department who teaches the River Hawk Review class for College Writing I and II, says students bring a writing assignment they failed or didn’t finish. Stockwell gets the rubric for each assignment from the original instructor and then coaches the students through completion. The original instructor grades the final paper.

Stockwell says the review class is rewarding – and not just because most students improve their grades.

“Very often at the end of the class, my students say, ‘I don’t hate writing anymore,’” she says. “It’s all about the support.”