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Rising to the Challenge: A Scholarly Community Entering Notre Dame (ASCEND)

January 19, 2023
ND Learning

The Challenge

In 2016, the Department of Mathematics piloted a version of Yale’s ONEXYS (Online Experience for Yale Scholars) program for incoming students at Notre Dame. Leveraging content generated by professors at Yale, ONEXYS-ND provided a free six-week, fully online summer program to a small cohort of first-year students. During the program, students reviewed mathematical and quantitative concepts in an online course and joined small video conference discussion groups weekly led by current Notre Dame student coaches. 

After 2 years of running with Yale’s content, ONEXYS-ND proved to be a very promising program that provided some pre-season math training for incoming students who wanted to pursue degrees in STEM fields There were, however, areas for improvement. For one, there was a need for greater alignment with the content covered in first year STEM courses at Notre Dame. Additionally, there was a desire from both the department and the students to have content that was designed and developed by Notre Dame faculty.

Rising to this challenge, in 2019, Professor Brian Mulholland began working with the Office of Digital Learning (ODL)  to revise the ONEXYS program to better align with the needs of students entering Notre Dame. This new program would be called “ASCEND,” A Scholarly Community Entering Notre Dame. 

The Approach 

Building off the success of the ONEXYS and the ONEXYS-ND initiatives, the goals of this project were to:

          (1) provide incoming ND undergraduate students the ability to succeed in math-intensive courses before arriving on campus in the fall;

          (2) provide them with a social connection to university life at Notre Dame; and 

          (3) develop reusable learning materials that other courses or institutions can access, embed, or modify for their instructional uses.

Over a period of 12 months, the ODL team collaborated with Professor Mulholland and other colleagues from the Math Department to develop a media-rich learning experience for select incoming Notre Dame students. The ODL’s Senior Learning Designer, Kuangchen Hsu, worked closely with Professor Mulholland and the other participating faculty to review the existing curriculum and instructional practices. A top priority was to ensure the new materials linked well with other instructional components of the program, meeting the academic goals while familiarizing students with Notre Dame’s campus, culture, and vital resources. 

At the center of the collaborative effort between the ODL and the Math Department was Professor Mulholland’s zeal for applying best practices to generate an effective product. As noted by KC Frye, the ODL Director of Creative and Media, “Professor Mulholland has always been interested in driving learner engagement and creating courseware that follows research-driven best practices.” The team’s enthusiasm for diverse content and evidence-based practices allowed for the development of a varied course consisting of:

  • Narrative-based weekly introductions
  • Studio-filmed lectures & demonstrations
  • Studio-filmed lightboard worked examples
  • Interviews with faculty from across the university to tie together interdisciplinary applications of calculus 
  • Animations
  • Student testimonials highlighting former students’ experiences and advice
  • Knewton mastery-based assessments
  • Weekly reflections
  • Coach training sessions with former ASCEND participants

The new courseware was delivered in a carefully-curated learning experience on the Canvas learning management system. Each week, students began with a narrative-based introductory video which tied together the program level goals of fostering a welcoming environment with the module level goals. Participants then watched asynchronous lectures before meeting with coaches and doing weekly assessments and reflections. Key to the learners’ experience within Canvas was the learner-centric design – intentionally crafted in collaboration between Kuangchen Hsu and Professor Mulholland – as well as the support present from Professor Mulholland and the coaches throughout the program.

The Result

The ASCEND 2022 cohort consisted of 80 students: 40 entering the College of Science, and 40 entering the College of Engineering. Following the program, students noted that not only did ASCEND refresh their pre-calculus skills, but it challenged them to think critically and engage with multiple learning strategies to explore learning beyond memorization. In addition to mathematical skills, students expressed sentiments of gratitude for the opportunity to connect with their peers and build friendships before journeying into their first year. Many expressed heightened confidence going into their college experience, both academically and socially. One student described the program as “amazing” and was thankful not only for the knowledge they gained through the program, but for the unique opportunity it provided to meet classmates and an upperclassman before their first semester at Notre Dame. 

Reflecting on the ASCEND program, Professor Mulholland situated the program in the Holy Cross tradition. “Our goal is to welcome and prepare ASCENDites to join the Notre Dame family. The Holy Cross tradition is to cultivate the mind, but not at the expense of the heart and this spirit of holistic education is what drives the ASCEND experience,” he said. The student feedback from 2022 describes a learning experience that creates meaningful relationships, bolsters mathematical skills, self-efficacy, and increased sense of belonging; such feedback provides evidence that ASCEND is well on its way to supporting cohorts of students in the future with this spirit of tradition.

You can check out some of the ASCEND course videos here: