With funding from a U.S. Department of Education grant, The University of Southern Mississippi will create a new student success center to help identify learning processes, build learning communities, foster collaborative and informal learning and provide faculty opportunities to explore new teaching strategies and conduct corresponding research.
Nearly $2 million was awarded for the five-year project from the Title III Part A Strengthening Institutions Program, which strives to increase enrollment, persistence and graduation rates at eligible institutions. Facilitated by staff from the university’s Learning Enhancement Center, its overall goal is the creation of a curriculum that helps students understand and capitalize on their learning styles and thinking processes.
"With our enrollment and retention initiatives and major budget challenges, this grant is both timely and relevant,” said Southern Miss President Martha Saunders. “It strongly supports our goal of providing a superior education experience for our students, and enhances the teaching and learning research efforts of our faculty."
“This project extends our ability to serve students. By devising individualized plans informed by student preferences, we’re able to help them formulate techniques to improve academically,” said Southern Miss Provost Bob Lyman. “In addition, we’re creating alternate environments for learning, research, and engaging both students and faculty.”
Working with a learning specialist and peer mentors, participating students will devise a personal academic success plan to help them adapt in learning or working environments. In addition, coordinated programs will evolve to build learning communities and provide technology supporting collaborative and innovative learning experiences.
“The center itself will be a flexible, innovative space where students can work with a learning specialist, peers and faculty to explore how they learn,” said Dr. Cynthia Easterling, associate provost and principal investigator for the project. “While this is not a training lab, technology will be one mechanism to encourage collaboration among students and faculty.”
Identifying and improving learning, thinking styles key to success
Sheri Rawls, director of the LEC and co-principal investigator for the project, said Southern Miss wants to provide a holistic experience empowering students to discover and improve the thinking process as it relates to learning. She believes the center will help the university meet that goal.
“In this way, students can identify methods that enable them to successfully develop their own roadmap through the learning experience and in the work environment,” she said. “This may be accomplished through collaborative and informal situations, via an innovative curriculum, by working with a learning specialist or within learning communities.”
The project begins in October with work on the new curriculum and learning space, said Bonnie Cooper, a training specialist with the LEC who will serve as coordinator for the center. The funding for the project, awarded a year after the proposal was submitted comes at an opportune time, she said.
“Now, because of the institutional efforts to improve the student experience over the last 12 months, I believe the project will be even more valuable today.”
Cooper cited the support of Sponsored Programs Administration and other colleagues through the preparation stages. “We look forward to working with an even wider variety of academic service organizations and faculty through this initiative,” she said.
The first year will be spent launching the Hattiesburg model, with a Gulf Coast center and online services beginning during the second part of the project period.
The center also supports the Master Campus Facility Planning principles of emphasizing, creating and promoting environments for learning, research, and social engagement as well as integrating modern technology. “Since the proposal was submitted in May 2007, we’ve made significant progress through efforts such as the Strategic Enrollment Planning Council and the appointment of an assistant provost for student success,” Easterling said.
The project also addresses key focus areas that emerged from the Campus Core Dialogues, such as adequate facilities and infrastructure; improved global connections; faculty development and support; and improved technology.
The center will also offer faculty opportunities to experiment with and assess different teaching strategies, to observe and study how their students work and learn and to build their own learning community, said Shanna Murray-Luke, who will serve as instructional designer for the center.
“We recognize that all students are thinkers, and by providing support to help them develop and understand their own processes, they will be able to adjust to the demands of their classes and eventually their careers,” she said.
About The University of Southern Mississippi
The University of Southern Mississippi, founded in 1910, is a comprehensive doctoral and research-extensive university fulfilling its mission of being a leading university in engaging and empowering individuals to transform lives and communities. In a tradition of leadership for student development, Southern Miss is educating a 21st century work force providing intellectual capital, cultural enrichment and innovation to Mississippi and the world. Southern Miss is located in Hattiesburg, Miss., with an additional campus and teaching and research sites on the Mississippi Gulf Coast; further information is found at www.usm.edu.