UAE university turns to ASU to improve focus on first-year students

Article Published: Dec. 29, 2011 | Modified: Dec. 29, 2011

It’s a concern many universities deal with: first year students who aren’t quite ready for the academic rigors of college.

It’s an international concern, too. United Arab Emirates University in Al Ain, Abu Dhabi, has turned to Appalachian State University for help spurred by Appalachian’s successful track record with its First Year Seminar program.

Appalachian and United Arab Emirates University (UAEU) share a similar focus on undergraduate education, enroll about the same number of students and both are moving to a higher research profile. Both universities also have undergone massive changes in their general education curriculum.

“UAEU faculty and administrators were finding that their students weren’t prepared – not that they weren’t bright, motivated and eager,” said Dr. Michael L. Krenn, faculty coordinator for Appalachian’s First Year Seminar. “They just didn’t have the critical thinking, creative thinking and communication skills needed at the university level.

“They were looking for some sort of introductory course to address those weaknesses and hit upon Appalachian and our program, which is considered a model by other universities.”

Krenn was invited to spend a week at UAEU presenting workshops on design, delivery and assessment of programs for first-year students.

They had planned a pilot program that was set up as two eight-week-long, inquiry-based learning seminars. After learning of Appalachian’s semester-long program, university officials decided to change their plans and implement a similar length program.

Krenn shared how Appalachian’s program has evolved from a general introduction to the academic environment to a more rigorous program in which freshmen write research papers their first semester. He also talked about challenges at Appalachian related to finding classroom space for the classes as well as faculty willing to teach in the program.

Program successes in terms of retention and student learning also were discussed. “We have 95 percent (of freshmen) saying they are doing a research paper their first semester at the university. That’s encouraging since that is what they are going to be doing the next four years,” he said of Appalachian.

“They have a lot of challenges we don’t face,” Krenn said of those teaching at UAEU. “All their courses are segregated. The men and women aren’t taught together.”

Also, courses are taught in English, which is now required in elementary and secondary schools, but not all students have a mastery of the language for use at the college level.

Mandatory public education was implemented as part of the United Arab Emirates constitution in the early 1970s. UAEU, considered the Emirates’ flagship institution of higher education, was founded in 1976 and is the nation’s oldest university. Its mission includes a focus on teaching and research.

The country now has about 50 universities located within its borders from military and police universities to private, technical and religious universities.

UAE nationals can attend a government institution of higher education free of charge. According to online sources, 95 percent of all females and 80 percent of all males who are enrolled in the final year of secondary school apply to a higher education institution in the UAE or study abroad.

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