No-credit course creates connections for college major peers

December 12, 2023
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The Navigating Neuro course connects all incoming students enrolled in the undergraduate neuroscience program at DePaul University.

To ensure incoming undergraduates are best prepared for college life, staff in DePaul University’s neuroscience program are piloting an asynchronous course this year, automatically enrolling all new students and providing success resources throughout the first year.

The new initiative, Navigating Neuro, utilizes existing tech resources and relies on near-peer student mentors to provide encouragement and motivation to new learners. It also creates a chance for neuroscience majors to engage with their peers prior to starting the term and stay connected throughout their four years at the institution.

The background: The neuroscience program at DePaul University in Chicago has grown dramatically over the years, from enrolling 90 students in 2019 to around 190 students this fall. In response, the university created an office suite on campus for the program and hired Jaimie Engle, then an academic adviser, to serve as the neuroscience program success coordinator.

“I sit at the front desk of our neuro suite, nice and accessible to any students that come in for quick questions or more intense success coaching interactions,” Engle explains. “It’s an excellent way to pair my previous eight years in advising and my passion for flipped advising approaches and better utilizing university technology while learning new administrative skills and knowledge.”

Engle identified a need to increase support to learners before they even stepped foot on campus, because DePaul is on a quarter system. With shorter terms, more academic content gets presented at a faster pace.

“If [they are] not as prepared, or if they don’t get off to a strong start, students can fall behind academically and not have as much time to catch up, and [they] also risk not building as strong a foundation in their first term,” Engle says.

How it works: Navigating Neuro launched this fall, helping 36 new students.

Prior to the start of the term, staffers wrote letters to incoming students with neuroscience-related stickers enclosed, letting them know they’d be “enrolled” in the no-credit course and how to access the materials. Students received an email a week later as an additional nudge.

The course is hosted on the university’s LMS, D2L, and is broken into modules that open throughout the academic year. The first two modules—Welcome and Overview and Building Community—were accessible as soon as students received their letters, and an additional module, Get Involved, unlocked the first week of classes.

A screenshot of the Navigating Neuro webpage by DePaul University neuroscience staff

Within the Navigating Neuro course site, first-year students can engage with different modules, featuring short videos from near peer mentors and success tips. 

Each module features videos filmed by a diverse group of more experienced neuroscience students, called Neuro Navigators, with tips for wellness, support resources and how to navigate social life, campus and Chicago.

The perks: Many institutions use third-party platforms such as social media channels or Discord to create community spaces for learning and engagement. Using a “course” instead allows for seamless integration into institutional systems and has the added benefit of familiarizing students with the LMS prior to starting classes.

Neuro Navigators are paid to record videos shared in the course, send helpful and encouraging messages, and provide mentoring to newer students—all of which serve as professional development opportunities for them. Engle also learned not all of her student employees knew how to address a letter, so even initial outreach provided a learning opportunity for the navigators.

While hosting the course on the LMS has no additional charge for the university, staff use a $15,000 grant from the university’s Vincentian Endowment Fund to pay for T-shirts, stickers and academic planners to give to learners. Incoming students also attended a welcome event at the beginning of this year, giving them a chance to connect in person.

Looking ahead: After the pilot term, DePaul leaders will evaluate the outcomes of the initiative.

Engle hopes to continue the Navigating Neuro course into a second year for the current cohort, providing information on career and graduate school exploration and how to participate in research. Modules will open in the summer, and one student employee will stay on the payroll to keep students engaged and retained over the break.

How does your institution promote successful onboarding of new students in their academics or campus life? Share here.



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