Reducing the Gateway Barrier: Course Redesign at UNC Charlotte

Case Study

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Gateway math and statistics courses tend to have high dropout and failure rates. The University of North Carolina at Charlotte is responding with adaptive design.

Case Study
Credit: Muslianshah Masrie / © 2023

Institutional Profile

The University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNC Charlotte) is a public research university in Charlotte, North Carolina. UNC Charlotte offers 24 doctoral, 66 master's, and 79 bachelor's degree programs through nine colleges and at two campuses. In Fall 2022, the total enrollment at UNC Charlotte was 29,551 students, including 23,461 undergraduates.

The Challenge/Opportunity

Like many other higher education institutions, UNC Charlotte is challenged by the fact that a significant number of students do not progress through "gateway courses." These courses are often large-enrollment general education courses (e.g., algebra and composition) that are taken by first-year students. The word gateway is sometimes also used to refer to courses that are required to begin a major: for example, an introductory anatomy class for prospective nursing majors. Gateway courses are meant to prepare students for success in their majors and careers, but in effect they sometimes act more as a barrier than a door to academic progress.

The success of gateway courses is typically indicated by the DFW rate: the percentage of students who earned a D or an F grade or who withdrew. Some institutions include incompletes in this measure and refer to it as the DFWI rate. Research has shown that D and F grades and withdrawals are strong predictors that students will not finish a degree. Gateway courses with high DFW rates disproportionately impact already marginalized groups such as students of color and low-income and first-generation students.Footnote1

UNC Charlotte recently turned its attention to the gateway courses in which many undergraduates enroll to satisfy the university's general education math requirements. Two of the most frequently taken courses are algebra and statistics. These two have been significant barriers for many students, according to Kiran Budhrani, director of teaching and learning innovation at the Center for Teaching and Learning at the UNC Charlotte School of Professional Studies. For example, from 2015 to 2018, the DFW rate in College Algebra (MATH 1100) was 20% and in Introductory Statistics (STAT 1222) was 22%.Footnote2

There was also a significant achievement gap based on race or ethnicity. UNC Charlotte tracks data by URMs (underrepresented minorities) and non-URMs. URMs include students who are American Indian or Alaska Native, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, Hispanic, and two or more races. Non-URMs include Asian, non-resident alien, and White students. Between 2015 and 2018, for all the math courses tracked, URMs had a DFW rate of 30% while the DFW rate for non-URMs was 23%. In Introductory Statistics (STAT 1222), the gap was 27% to 18%.Footnote3

To address the problem of low completion rates in gateway math courses at UNC Charlotte, in 2020 Budhrani and her team at the Center for Teaching and Learning, together with statistics faculty members, embarked on a course redesign project that utilized active learning and adaptive learning technology. The project began by piloting an introductory statistics course (STAT 1222) for social science students in three sections with over 50 students each. As that pilot was used in later semesters and has since been scaled up, more than 2,000 students per academic year are taking the course (see table 1).

Table 1. Statistics I Enrollment, 2020–2023
Semester STAT 1222 (Statistics I) Enrollment Sections Project Phase

2020 Spring

161 students

3 sections

Pilot: Select sections

2020 Fall

410 students

6 sections

Pilot: Select sections

2021 Spring

372 students

6 sections

Pilot: Select sections

2021 Fall

372 students

5 sections

Pilot: Select sections

2022 Spring

1,022 students

15 sections

Department-Wide Scale-Up: All sections

2022 Fall

1,154 students

12 sections

Department-Wide Scale-Up: All sections

2023 Spring

968 students

13 sections

Department-Wide Scale-Up: All sections

Credit: Data provided by the Center for Teaching and Learning, School of Professional Studies, UNC Charlotte.

This statistics course design then became the model to redesign Statistics II (STAT 1322) for social science majors (completing a unique pathway for them) and to create two other pathways and redesigned courses for STEM, business, and humanities majors. In total, the redesigned gateway math and statistics courses today enroll approximately 10,000 students.

The Process

UNC Charlotte began the project of redesigning math courses by piloting a new format for the introductory statistics course, particularly for social science majors. The redesign had four goals:

  • Align the content of the statistics course with social science students' areas of study
  • Support students with adaptive learning technology
  • Lower DFW rates for non-STEM students by incorporating algebra concepts into the statistics course and removing the need for those students to take UNC's gateway algebra course
  • Narrow achievement gaps for underrepresented minorities

To achieve those goals, the codesign team reimagined the statistics course, Active+Adaptive Statistics I, as a blended and flipped format using active learning practices and adaptive learning technology to support a large enrollment. Like most other gateway courses, Statistics I had previously been designed with a traditional format of lectures and high-stakes summative assessments. Sections in the initial format ran at the same time as the pilot sections, acting as a control.

The redesigned pilot course embedded algebra concepts into the curriculum, eliminating the need for students to complete algebra as a prerequisite and separate course. Instead, to satisfy the two-course requirement, social science students could now take a second statistics course in the math pathway (this second course was also redesigned, later in the project).

In class meetings of the new course, students worked on activities in groups, or pods, answering questions about real-world scenarios, creating a statistical analysis, and coming up with interpretations and conclusions. "They use class time to really address questions, solve problems, do activities together, and collaborate on ideas for larger projects," said Budhrani.

The course project is a "global goals" poster addressing one of the United Nations' 17 Sustainable Development Goals. When choosing a project to work on, students work in groups, pick a goal that interests them (e.g., maternal health or food security), and use the skills they develop during the course to analyze the problem.

Many stakeholders participated in the course redesign. Initially, the Center for Teaching and Learning held interdepartmental meetings to bring together faculty from the math and social science disciplines to discuss the students' experience in the course, to identify and align with common goals across the different disciplines, and to develop relevant activities and assessments.

For example, the adaptive learning technology that UNC Charlotte selected for the new course allows faculty to personalize short, low-stakes quizzes to reflect a particular discipline. In this case, faculty write statistics questions corresponding to social science disciplines and some health disciplines. Faculty from the social sciences and other disciplines produced videos about how statistics can influence their fields; students watched the videos during the course orientation.

By the end of the pilot, the students in Active+Adaptive Statistics I were showing strong academic growth as well as fewer withdrawals and incompletes. Project data indicated that students in the Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 Active+Adaptive Statistics I sections had a stronger growth mindset, a stronger sense of belonging, and a higher level of motivation than their peers in the traditional statistics course. The DFW rate in the redesigned course was 18.2%, compared with the 22.4% DFW rate in the control sections with the traditional design.

Some of the most promising data was the decrease in DFW rates by race and ethnicity. In Fall 2020 and Spring 2021, the Active+Adaptive Statistics I course design decreased DFW rate differential between URM and non-URM students to 4.1% and 2.7%. In Fall 2021, URM students enrolled in STAT 1222 had a DFW rate of 22.3% while non-URM students had a DFW rate of 19.5%, a gap of 2.8 percentage points. As noted above, the average gap in 2015–2018 for this course was 9%.

In qualitative feedback, students appeared to enjoy the subject material more when compared with social science students' response to required math courses in the past. "For the first time in my life, I was excited about mathematical coursework," wrote one student in the pilot sections.

"We had students fall in love with statistics and math in a way we could only dream that they would," said Garvey Pyke, executive director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at UNC Charlotte's School of Professional Studies.

Outcomes and Lessons Learned

Since the pilot, the redesign of Statistics I (STAT 1222) has become the model for a complete transformation of UNC Charlotte's math gateway courses. Active+Adaptive is informing the development of three unique math pathways for students in different areas of study:

  • STATways: a pathway for social science students and some health science majors
  • A2C (Algebra to Calculus): a STEM and business majors pathway that includes college algebra, precalculus mathematics for science and engineering, and calculus
  • QUANTways: a pathway for students in majors such as the humanities (with no specific math requirements outside of general education requirements) that includes introduction to mathematical thinking and the student's choice of introduction to statistics or deductive logic

This model involves redesigning additional gateway courses in algebra, calculus, and quantitative reasoning to incorporate active learning, personalized pedagogy, and adaptive learning and is part of UNC Charlotte's reaccreditation and long-range planning. "Based on the strength of our results, our university leadership marshaled a lot of support across many stakeholders to leverage that success to become our quality enhancement plan," said Pyke. "It's a five-year project we're embarking on that's going to impact about 10,000 student enrollments a year."

The next step after the piloting of Statistics I was redesigning Introduction to Statistics II for social science majors, thus completing the STATways pathway, which was piloted in Spring 2023. Redesigned courses for the A2C and QUANTways pathways are on the schedule for the Fall 2023 semester. "These pathway options allow a more personalized and differentiated approach where students make choices on what kind of program they want to take depending on the discipline and career they want to go into," said Budhrani.

One challenge was that the concept of a learning pathway was new to many faculty. Another was that some faculty struggled with learning the technology necessary to teach a blended adaptive course. Embracing a new kind of teaching was a big cultural shift. Onboarding the faculty who needed help with learning the technology and adjusting to adaptive teaching was necessary for the project's success.

"Adaptive learning is like three-dimensional teaching," explained Budhrani. "You have to teach for your baseline student, but you also always think about the student who can't meet the baseline. They're the ones who want to drop out, because they're struggling. And then you have the students who are advanced. There are layers when you think about teaching in a personalized and adaptive model, and that's not how everybody teaches."

In the end, redesigning so many math courses required a large collaborative effort. "It's an ecosystem," Pyke said. "It takes advising, it takes tutoring, it takes faculty, it takes students, it takes the center for teaching and learning, instructional designers, the assessment office, the office of undergraduate education. There are so many people involved. If efforts aren't integrated across the larger ecosystem, then they'll fail. They can't be standalone efforts."


  1. Andrew K. Koch and Brent M. Drake, "Digging Into the Disciplines I: Accounting for Failure—The Impact of Principles of Accounting Courses on Student Success and Equitable Outcomes," Gardner Institute, November 6, 2018; Robert McGuire, "Why Disaggregated DFWI Rates Matter for Equitable Learning," CourseGateway, January 17, 2023; Jessie Kwak, "Concerned About Equity in Higher Ed? Start with the DFWI Rate," Every Learner Everywhere, November 2020. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
  2. "Appendix B: Math DFW Data 2015 to 2018," NINERways: The Path to Math Success [], University of North Carolina at Charlotte, March 20–23, 2023. NINERways is a quality enhancement plan (QEP) topic identified as part of UNC Charlotte's institution-wide planning and evaluation process, including the university's 2021–2031 strategic plan, Shaping What's Next. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
  3. For this and following statistics for the project, see NINERways: The Path to Math Success []. Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.

Case Study Contributors:

  • Kiran Budhrani is Director of Teaching and Learning Innovation at the Center for Teaching and Learning, School of Professional Studies, UNC Charlotte.
  • J. Garvey Pyke is Executive Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning, School of Professional Studies, UNC Charlotte.

This case study is one in a series being produced by EDUCAUSE Communities and Research. A. J. O'Connell is a writer with McGuire Editorial & Consulting specializing in education technology.

© 2023 EDUCAUSE. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.