Preventing performance catastrophes in 1st year BSc courses

Posted by Andrea Lombardi, on Oct. 14, 2022, 3:22 p.m.

Andrea Lombardi

Department of Chemistry, Biochemistry and Biotechnology, University of Perugia, Italy


Challenge and goal


  • The composition of student cohorts can variate significantly between academic years. Newly enrolled students are more prone to feel disoriented, getting stuck (eventually burn out).
  • The number of enrolled students can fluctuate strongly, much larger cohorts may come, some lecturers may not be prepared to manage the situation. Overall performances can worsen dramatically ⇒ performance catastrophe (e.g rejection rates > 50% or so).

  • Student performances, in terms, e.g., of rejection rate, are usually a key point in Program evaluation schemes. A significant performance drop may result in loss of students and even the termination of the program itself.    
  • Program directors and boards normally urge lecturers to improve performances.
  • Lecturers may be tempted to lower the level of difficulty of the course: impoverishing learning outcomes, accepting incomplete progression in learning, just to temporarily (and quickly) fix the situation.
  • The damage propagates to subsequent courses and years of the BSc program.


  • Rise awareness active learning and alternative teaching approaches (e.g. constructivist) and metrics.
  • Developing learning progression models for selected 1st year courses to know what to expect about student performances.
  • Defining a list of possible actions to possibly prevent or mitigate the final performance catastrophe.

Topic of the user case

Performance monitoring/prediction; Learning progression models; Inquiry based learning

Local context (specific)

  • The number of newly enrolled students in the BSc program fluctuates significantly (> 100% increase). 
  • Often a concomitant worsening the student performances is observed.
  • Lecturers may not be able to anticipate the situation, which therefore cannot be prevented, and  high rejection rate may occur ( > 50%).
  • Regular student progression in the program and for the remaining BSc years is jeopardized, due to the performance catastrophe. 

Local CPD goals

Establishing a 1st year lecturer board or sort of, with the aim of: 

  • creating a data base with data from previous years to collect meaningful phenomenology 

  • providing learning progression models for at least 1st year/1st semester courses, allowing to assess the probability of performance catastrophes 
  • list of good practices and suggestions (aslso based on the introduction of some elements of inquiry based learning) about the actions to be taken in case of an expected performace worsening


Needs defined in STEM-CPD Roadmap

1 frame the course in the context of the study programme
2 define intended learning outcomes in every course they teach
3 choose an appropriate assessment method for their course
22 use research based teaching methods
23 use project based teaching methods
4 engage students and arouse interest for the discipline in the class
1 be reflective teachers and reflect about their courses / lectures.
11 organize / attend meetings of their own teaching team to discuss / reflect on the teaching methods and on the effect of those on students' learning.
6 use students evaluations and the feedback of students to improve courses.
8 discuss teaching with their colleagues.
2 attending presentations about teaching approaches.
7 attending a summer school on teaching and learning.
13 collaborating on a teaching innovation project.
18 giving workshops to other lecturers.

CPD activities at the local university

  • Stage 1.

Interviews with coworkers about sudden unexpected performance drops occurring in the BSc Chemistry program, survey of opinions.

  • Stage 2.

Meeting with the Dean of the Department and Program Director to make them focus on the problem ad to advice about possible CPD activities to mitigate the bad consequences

  • Stage 3.

Proposing to the Program board to establish a committe to analyse performance data and to propose a number of actions to be taken to monitor and predict expected performances and attenuate performance drops.

  • Stage 4. 

Trial use of Learnig progression models and implementation of the actions to prevent performance drops 

Teaching and learning materials


  • Literature on educational science journals about learning progression models
  • Literature about Inquiry based learning. E.g. see Margus Pedaste, Mario Mäeots, Leo A. Siiman, Ton de Jong, Siswa A.N. van Riesen, Ellen T. Kamp, Constantinos C. Manoli, Zacharias C. Zacharia, Eleftheria Tsourlidaki, Phases of inquiry-based learning: Definitions and the inquiry cycle, Educational Research Review, Volume 14, 2015, Pages 47-61, ISSN 1747-938X,

Sustainable implementation

•The report and the achievements of the 1st year lecturer committee should be discussed in the Program council, leading, initially, to a trial use of learning progression models to monitor performance expectations in 1st year courses. 

•After a period, such monitoring activity should be made permanent.    

Expected impact of the CPD User Case

  • Minimal expectations are: establish a general discussion about the importance of the performance monitoring/prediction.
  • The implementation of the activities should mitigate performance drops, loss of students and burn out situations.

Plans for eventual continuation of the CPD within the same topic

  • The report and the achievements of the 1st year lecturer committee should be discussed in the Program council, leading, initially, to a trial use of learning progression models to monitor performance expectations in 1st year courses. 
  • After a period, a performance monitoring activity should be introduce as permanent in the BSc Programs.     


Constructive alignment, Problem solving (design and teaching), Engagement and motivation, facilitation discipline specific learning (type P1-1, P1-3a, P1-3b)

This CPD scenario describes a User case in which lecturers develop their competence in sound course design and facilitating problem solving and how to engage and motivate students and how to facilitate discipline specific thinking and develop attitudes in reflecting on own teaching practice and practicing teaching and learning in an evidence informed way and knowledge sharing.
The approximate duration of a User case that follows this scenario is several months.
In this CPD scenario the participants professionalize in a close connection to their own teaching practice (at their workplace) and meet in person on location with the training staff and with other participants.

Learning environment
Several months

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