The outstanding grades that Jill Gamble easily achieved in high school eluded her during her first semester at Ohio State University. Gamble struggled to find time for mountains of course reading, procrastinated and even missed some due dates--leaving the former A student with a disappointing grade point average (GPA) of 2.9--a C+.

"College was completely overwhelming at first," says Gamble, who didn't feel prepared for higher education's rigors. "I felt like professors weren't fair, that they expected too much."

Gamble is not alone. Many new college students, especially those from low-income families and rural and inner-city schools, find themselves unprepared for college-level coursework--at Ohio State University, for example, about 14.5 percent drop out during their freshman year, largely due to failing grades.

Gamble, however, didn't want to be another statistic. Instead, she enrolled in a course that Ohio State educational psychologist Bruce W. Tuckman, PhD, has designed to bolster students' study skills and enhance their academic motivation. Now in its fourth year, the course, "Individual Learning and Motivation" (ILM), draws on the work of psychologists David McClelland, PhD, and Albert Bandura, PhD, and taps such psychology principles as taking reasonable risks, searching the environment for information and using feedback to help students improve their performance and stay in school. Other well-known psychologists such as the University of Texas's Claire Ellen Weinstein, PhD, and the University of Michigan's Wilbert McKeachie, PhD, have pioneered and promoted such courses.

In Tuckman's course, enrollees learn strategies for successful time management, such as list-making, and also practice taking a third-person perspective on their own behavior. And, as students succeed in ILM, they learn that they have what it takes to succeed academically--building self-confidence that's crucial to future triumphs, Tuckman explains.

Outcome studies so far suggest the program helps students boost their GPAs 0.7 points on average. Based on that success, Tuckman and his graduate students have landed a $340,203 Department of Education Fund for the Improvement of Post Secondary Education (FIPSE) grant to bring the program to high schools and community colleges nationwide, starting with those in Columbus, Ohio. Tuckman, in partnership with high school teachers and community college professors, will target low-income, urban students in an effort to give them tools for college success.

"A lot of these students don't believe they can handle college," says Tuckman. "After taking this class, students will look at college and say 'Gee, this isn't all that difficult; I can do this.'"

How it works

Rather than listening to lectures, students taking ILM spend class time in a computer lab, working on the software program Active Discovery and Participation through Technology, or ADAPT. At the same time, a course instructor roams the lab, answering their questions. According to Tuckman, centering the course on computers allows for:

  • Immediate practice. Minutes after students learn about a study skill--making a to-do list, for example--ADAPT guides them through the process of making one on their own. These "quick practices" cement new information into student's memories, Tuckman says, and increase the chances the students will be able to apply study skills to their other classes.

"By the end of the class, they have completed 160 exercises on the computer," says Tuckman. "That is much more practice than you get in most courses."

  • Frequent assessment. Quizzes come almost as frequently as assignments. According to a 2003 study conducted by Tuckman (see further reading), these small assessments motivate students to store new information in long-term memory. Additionally, says Brian Harper, an educational psychology graduate student who works with Tuckman, students amass so many test grades that a single bad grade doesn't mean they fail the entire class--a stumbling block many of these students encounter in their other courses.

  • Self-pacing. Allowing students to work through quizzes and assignments on their own schedules, says Harper, keeps quick students from feeling bored and slower-moving students from feeling overwhelmed.

"The interactivity of the computers keeps everyone engaged," he says.

  • Structured due dates. While students can work at their own pace, instructors set inflexible dates by which each module must be completed. The computer shuts down students' access to quizzes or activities after the deadlines pass.

"The computer is a tremendously effective time-management tool," explains Tuckman. "You can control when people get access to things and lose access to things. If students don't finish by the end of the week, they lose points for the activity."

Not only does the course give students specific tools to improve their performance, it also delves into the underpinnings of their difficulties--what makes them procrastinate and fall behind.

For example, the course teaches students to see through their rationalizations for putting off schoolwork and discover their real reason for putting off a task--perhaps they don't know how to start, or they are afraid of putting a lot of effort into something and then failing.

"Bruce's program works because it sets up limits for people; it sets up consequences," says Joseph R. Ferrari, PhD, a psychology professor and procrastination researcher at Chicago's DePaul University. Proof of that success comes from a study published in a 2003 issue of the Journal of College Student Development (Vol. 4, No. 3).

In it, Tuckman compared the academic performance of 397 students who took ILM with the same number of Ohio State students who had comparable pre-course GPAs but didn't take it. ILM students earned an average post-course GPA of 2.62, compared with an average of 2.13 for non-ILM students. About 75 percent of the ILM students also earned an A or an A- in the course itself.

Such GPA boosts renew students' faith in their ability to achieve in college--an important ingredient for their continued success, Tuckman explains. "Nothing succeeds like success," he notes.

From college to high school

That's why Tuckman and his staff are working to export that success to inner-city schools and community colleges through their FIPSE grant.

The grant, which was awarded in 2003, provides funding over the next three years to bring ILM to 800 community college students at risk for dropping out and 550 urban high school students who may lack the skills to handle postsecondary education.

Teachers at the targeted schools attend a training program taught by Tuckman in which they learn the philosophy of the program and the nuts and bolts of how to use the computer system. They then return to their schools and recruit students to take the class for credit.

The ADAPT software remains largely intact in the high school version, says Harper, but his team has made a few modifications in its pacing. For example, because high school students work more slowly than college students, the revised program gives them more time to complete each course module.

Though the program is only in its first semester at area high schools, with community colleges starting the class this spring, at least one teacher expresses optimism about it.

"Our students tend to come from homes where most of the parents or siblings have not been to college, and so a lot of them really don't know what to expect," says Roger Braund, a teacher at Brookhaven High School in Columbus. "This is helping them to start thinking ahead; the questions and assignments challenge them to think through what kinds of skills they are going to need to have success in college."

In addition to building students' study skills, the class aims to improve their motivation by giving them the wisdom of educational and cognitive psychology, Tuckman emphasizes.

"The course is really a psych course--[the students] don't know it, but it is," he says. "It teaches students to change how they think, which changes their behavior."

And while no one knows yet whether ILM will help urban high school students transition to college, it certainly will aid struggling students at Ohio State University for years to come. Jill Gamble, for one, raised her GPA 0.9 points, thanks to the program.

"I am definitely glad that I took it," says Gamble. "I tell as many people about it as I can; whenever I hear [students] say they are having trouble studying, I say 'Whoa, do I have a class for you.'"

Further Reading

  • Ferrari, J.R. (2001). Procrastina-tion as self-regulation failure of performance: Effects of cognitive load, self-awareness and time limits on 'working best under pressure.' European Journal of Personality, 15, 391-406.

  • Schouwenburg, H.C., Lay, C., Pychyl, T.A., & Ferrari, J.R. (2004). Counseling the procrastinator in academic settings. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

  • Ferrari, J.R. (2004). Counseling the procrastinator in academic settings. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

  • Tuckman, B.W. (2003). The effect of learning and motivation strategies training on college students' achievement. Journal of College Student Development, 4, 430-437.

  • Tuckman, B.W. (2002) Evaluating ADAPT: A hybrid instructional model combining web-based and classroom components. Computers & Education, 39, 261-269.