The Five Cs of Success: Implementing a Required, Online Cornerstone Course for New Adult Learners

Concurrent Session 5
Streamed Session

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Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Confidence. Courage. Curiosity. Comfort. Community. Adult, degree-completion students who start with the Cornerstone experience better outcomes in their first course and beyond. This session examines the implementation, five Cs design, and impact of the Cornerstone and provides key takeaways for creating an online first-year experience seminar.


Mary Berkery is a Faculty Program Director for the BA/BS in History at Excelsior College. She has a BA in History from Union College and an MA and PhD in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality History from Binghamton University. She is interested in game-based learning, new technologies for online course development, and student and faculty engagement. She teaches courses in women's history, immigration, and the modern United States.

Extended Abstract

First-year students at Excelsior College are atypical -- with an average age of 36 and up to 113 prior credits. Excelsior's courses are also asynchronous and online. How, then, can a required first-year seminar be adapted to meet their unique needs? How can we ensure a smart start for students who have sometimes previously tried and failed at college? Because of the unique student population, before 2020 Excelsior did not require a first-year seminar. However, the adult students -- many of whom had been out of college for years and were juggling competing priorities -- struggled with the transition to the college and online learning.

The Cornerstone course, which began in 2020, is oriented around the success goals known as the 5 Cs: comfort, confidence, curiosity, courage, and community. This presentation will highlight the development and design of the course, including its unique content designed for a diverse audience of adult learners. While it teaches the fundamentals of a first-year seminar like success strategies, goal setting, and career exploration, it also examines critical subjects for twenty-first century learners like critical thinking, argumentative reasoning, metacognition, diversity and inclusion, and the future of "fake news" in our society. Finally, the course refreshes students' skills in research, writing, and citation. Much of the course revolves around a custom created webtext from Soomo learning, designed for adult learners specifically. The webtext allows students to engage frequently with the text and audio-visual content, which provides support for all elements of the course throughout each week. It also allows busy adult learners the ability to work offline via an app and in small windows of time during the week. Finally, the webtext also provides analytics for instructors on student scores and time on task to allow instructors to intervene and aid struggling students.

In addition, this presentation will highlight the impact of the Cornerstone on students who have been it through survey, grade distribution, and student evaluation data. For example, when compared to non-Cornerstone students, Cornerstone students have a greater sense of belonging to the college, feel more confident, are more aware of the college's support resources, and feel more prepared in college-level research and writing. Cornerstone students are likewise more likely to succeed in their first course with an A, B, or C grade than non-Cornerstone students, and more likely to succeed in the most frequently-taken next course, English Composition. Finally, the presentation will examine student self-reflection on the 5 Cs to show how their confidence, comfort, courage, curiosity, and sense of community changed over the term.

This presentation will also provide key takeaways for other institutions moving their first-year seminars online in the era of COVID, and those looking to best serve and support the increasing numbers of non-traditional adults students entering their institutions.