A college degree generally results in higher incomes, more pleasant and more stable jobs, greater life satisfaction, and lower unemployment probabilities. Many students that enter college, though, leave without a degree, but with high levels of student debt. In this episode, Dr. Michelle Miller joins us to discuss an innovative program she helped develop at Northern Arizona University in which faculty members work together to discover ways of helping their students successfully complete their educational goals.
Michelle is the Director of the First Year Learning Initiative, Professor of Psychological Sciences, and President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. Dr. Miller’s academic background is in cognitive psychology. Her research interests include memory, attention, and student success in the early college career. She co-created the First Year Learning Initiative at Northern Arizona University and is active in course redesign, serving as a redesign scholar for the National Center for Academic Transformation. She is the author of Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology, and has written about evidence based pedagogy and scholarly as well as general interest publications. She has been working with a Persistence Scholars program at NAU for the past two years.
- First Year Learning Initiative at Northern Arizona University
- Miller, M. D. (2014). Minds online: Teaching Effectively with Technology. Harvard University Press.
- Persistence Scholars program at Northern Arizona University
- John Doherty, Instructional Designer for Northern Arizona University
- Association of College and University Educators (ACUE)
- K. Laurie Dickson, Vice Provost for Teaching, Learning Design, and Assessment, and a Professor of Psychological Sciences at Northern Arizona University
- David Yeager, Faculty Research Associate at the University of Texas at Austin
- Yeager, D. S., Walton, G. M., Brady, S. T., Akcinar, E. N., Paunesku, D., Keane, L., … & Gomez, E. M. (2016). Teaching a lay theory before college narrows achievement gaps at scale. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(24), E3341-E3348.
- Angela Bauer, Professor and Chair of Biology at High Point University
- Angela Bauer (2018) 49. Closing the Performance Gap. Tea for Teaching Podcast, October 3rd.
- Canning, E. A., Muenks, K., Green, D. J., & Murphy, M. C. (2019). STEM faculty who believe ability is fixed have larger racial achievement gaps and inspire less student motivation in their classes. Science advances, 5(2), eaau4734.
- Vincent Tinto, Distinguished University Professor Emeritus at Syracuse University, former chair of the Higher Education Program.
- Nunn, L. M. (2018). 33 Simple Strategies for Faculty: A Week-by-week Resource for Teaching First-year and First-generation Students. Rutgers University Press
- IVR Lab at Northern Arizona University
- Norman Medoff, Professor in the School of Communication at Northern Arizona University.
- Giovanni Castillo, Lecturer, Director of the IVR Lab at Northern Arizona University
- Cody Canning, Director of the First Year Learning Initiative at Northern Arizona University
- West Virginia University Press
- Teaching and Learning in Higher Education series from West Virginia University Press, edited by James Lang.
John: A college degree generally results in higher incomes, more pleasant and more stable jobs, greater life satisfaction, and lower unemployment probabilities. Many students that enter college, though, leave without a degree, but with high levels of student debt. In this episode, we discuss an innovative program in which faculty work together to discover ways of helping their students successfully complete their educational goals.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
John: Our guest today is Dr. Michelle Miller. Michelle is the Director of the First Year Learning Initiative, Professor of Psychological Sciences, and President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. Dr. Miller’s academic background is in cognitive psychology. Her research interests include memory, attention, and student success in the early college career. She co-created the First Year Learning Initiative at Northern Arizona University and is active in course redesign, serving as a redesign scholar for the National Center for Academic Transformation. She is the author of Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology, and has written about evidence based pedagogy and scholarly as well as general interest publications. She has been working with a Persistence Scholars program at NAU for the past two years. Welcome back, Michelle.
Michelle: Hi. Thank you. It’s great to be here.
Rebecca: Today’s teas are… Michelle, are you drinking tea?
Michelle: I sure am. I’ve got a… I think it’s some type of green tea. It’s actually imported from China, so I can’t read the label, but it tastes great. [LAUGHTER]
John: I have Forest Fruits green tea, which I picked up at the OLC conference in Orlando.
Rebecca: And I have vanilla coconut tea.
John: We invited you here to talk about the Persistence Scholars program at Northern Arizona University. Could you tell us about this program?
Michelle: Yeah. So this is a faculty professional development experience that works very much as a blended course, and it’s run for the past few years. And it was something that we developed and designed right in our institution to address, as you can probably guess from the name, student persistence, and broadly speaking, student success. And to do so in ways that would complement programs that we already had in the works, as well as some other more traditional kinds of faculty professional development programs and courses that focused more exclusively on teaching or course design. So, that’s how we brought this into this space. And it’s been a really exciting experience to get to build this from the ground up and to run it with a number of cohorts of our faculty at Northern Arizona.
John: Could you tell us a bit about how the program was structured?
Michelle: Maybe I should back up a little bit and tell you a little bit more about some of the roots of this program and why there was such great support for it from the beginning. This came out of some real brainstorming. I was in a group a few years ago that was charged with just really open ended brainstorming about this topic of student persistence. And as you can imagine that, from an institutional standpoint, that fits into some very important questions, such as retention, especially retention from the first to second year which, those who are in this arena know is a really critical area for ensuring that we keep the students who we recruit to our institution and ensure that students can accomplish the goals they set out to when they sign up with us. So, I was in this group and as I said, we had this very open ended charge of saying “What else could we do to support student persistence?” And because of my background with the First Year Learning Initiative, which is another kind of student success initiative at Northern Arizona, my perspective is always “What about the faculty? What about the academic side of student persistence and engaging faculty in advancing that, and getting excited about that question?” So, together with some of the other folks I was working with, notably John Doherty, who I’ve collaborated with a number of times on student success initiatives, we got to thinking, “Well, how could we reach out?” I had seen quite a number of programs or appeals to faculty, which really came at it from a very emotional, or sort of heart perspective, saying, “You know, really think about your students, have compassion for the backgrounds that many of them come from and the challenges they’re facing.” And I think that’s wonderful. That’s great and conventional wisdom about how to recruit people and get them excited about something. They say “Speak to the emotions, get to why.” Well, I think that’s true. But, faculty are a bit of a special case. I think that we’re wired a little bit differently [LAUGHTER] in some ways. And I think that we have to come at this intellectually as well. So I said, “What if we had some kind of a program that would bring people in and really engage them in this very rich scholarship that’s around, not just teaching and learning, but also everything we’ve come to know about the factors… institutional factors… psychological… social factors… all these things that play into students persisting until they do attain that degree?” So, that was the idea. Now it sort of went down on paper and sort of stayed on ice, stayed in a file drawer for a few years. But then my leadership came back to me and said, in the context of some other things we were doing, they said “Wait a minute, what about this program that we had thought up?” And at that point, we were able to really put it together and make it happen.
Rebecca: What are some of the things that you covered as part of this program that would be different than the first- year program that you’ve ran, or other things that are focused on pedagogy?
Michelle: We tell faculty when we recruit them in that this is not the place to start if you do want that traditional, like, “How can I improve my classroom?” teaching, or “How can I brush up on these skills?” We have lots in place for that. So, what is different about this is that it does focus on the scholarship of persistence. And you know, from my background, I’m a psychologist, I’m a research psychologist by training. So I actually didn’t know, and I started to get into the course design and student success game. I really wasn’t aware of just how much really good quality scholarship has gone into this and how people have thought about and really committed to many books and articles, all this knowledge that they’ve come up with, or what impacts student persistence and what institutions can do, what faculty can do. So, it does have that flavor of a slightly different content area that, again, many of us are just not aware of, even if we care a lot about teaching in our own discipline. And I think what’s also different about it is that it doesn’t take a traditional kind of workshop or book group kind of approach. I think those are really, really great. We all see great examples of those in faculty professional development, but this was structured as a blended course, specifically. So it’s designed with a kickoff workshop that lasts about a day. And then we go online and do just some very structured weekly modules, largely focusing on some readings and discussions and one culminating project. So, I think that, as well, is something that faculty rarely have the opportunity to engage in. I think there’s some national programs out there, for example, ACUE’s program… that’s online, but that’s also a full year. And this is a little bit more compact, and I think it’s designed in a way that’s a little bit more manageable with a typical teaching and research load that faculty have.
John: And you also had people do some visits to various places on campus too, as part of that, I believe.
Michelle: Right. This is the culminating project which we tried in the first few iterations to kind of refine this and I think we ended up with something that’s really a standout and here I have to credit my leadership K. Laurie Dickson. Dr. Dickson is a colleague of mine and part of the upper leadership at Northern Arizona University. This was her idea and she really encouraged me to develop this. We didn’t want to have, as a culminating project, kind of a very typical five paragraph essay or research project or something like that. We wanted to push faculty out into some areas that were particularly new. And we wanted to have them engage in some perspective taking on angles and aspects of the students experience and the university experience that they just normally would never do. So we called this the field project… so, a very generic name, but here’s how this played out. It was up to them to design an experience. It didn’t have to be lengthy… didn’t have to be some gigantic multi-day thing, but just something that they could go and do and experience, and then write about it from a very first person, very subjective perspective. And also, we did ask them to kind of tie it back to some of the readings that we had done and some of the concepts that we had seen over the course of the experience. The examples of what faculty came up with were just… it’s mind boggling, the creativity that people brought to this. Now one of the popular ones was to simply go on a campus tour. Now, how many times do we as faculty ever do that? And I mean, I work in a building where the campus tours originate. So, I see them every single day going and coming, the parents, the students and everybody, the student tour guides. And it’s just never occurred to me to ask, “What are they saying? What’s the little back conversation? What’s the mood like among people who are on these tours? What do we tell students and their parents, as they’re coming into our campuses?” So people could opt to go on one or more of these tours, you could also go on a department specific tour, which is also a fairly popular twist, and then reflect back again on “What does this tell us about what it’s like to be a student here?” and to start taking that perspective as a student and thinking about “What would affect my likelihood of persistence?” So that was one, but we’ve also seen many other options on this as well. One very creative faculty member decided to go out physically to these different student support spaces and organizations. And we all read about those, I know I do, I get the email that says, “Oh, here’s the center that we have for veterans. Here’s the center that we have for Native American students. Here’s where you go, if you need help with writing.” Well, we see those, but what do they look like? What do they feel like? Are students there when you visit, and what sorts of activities are taking place there? And she actually put her reflections together as a photo essay. So, she took pictures of the spaces, she thought about the look and feel of the spaces, and through that she demonstrated that she was taking this new perspective. And this was not an art or design professor, by the way, her specialization is in foundational math, so you can see they’re crossing out into other disciplines. So, even something like observing a class that’s not yours outside of your discipline, you can make that work as well. If you come at it from this perspective, not as like “I’m here to critique the teaching and get ideas for my own teaching,” but “What’s going on in the back row? What’s more clear, what’s less clear, how might the mood or the feel of the classroom change if I come over a couple of different weeks of the semester, and how does that seem to me?” So those are some of the things that faculty actually did to experience some of these things from the other side.
John: How many faculty were part of this program?
Michelle: We usually have run cohorts between about 12 and 20 faculty per semester. And I think we’re about four semesters in, so it’s not an enormous program. But you could see over time with a concerted effort and continued dedication to the program, continued support for it, that we’ve now directly engaged quite a few faculty from around the university. And I should say as well, here’s another little twist that I was not anticipating when we sat down to design this program, is that it’s not entirely all faculty either. We’ve also reached out to staff members, for example, people who work within our advising center or our academic support centers, which function as our tutoring centers on campus. In the first cohort or so I just received a request of somebody’s saying, “Hey, my staff would really benefit from this, do you mind if we have a person or two participate in it?” First I said “Well, okay, I wasn’t planning on that. But I can’t see why not?” Well, I soon learned that having that mix of individuals in the cohort is part of the power of it. Because you think academic disciplines are siloed, we are tremendously siloed in terms of units of student support across campus. To see the interplay in discussions and in meetings between people who work in these more direct student support roles, and people in more traditional faculty roles is really amazing. It really cuts across several of those silos as well just in the participation.
Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about some of the content that participants were surprised by that was counter to what their assumptions were?
Michelle: One of the challenges in pulling the content for this was that I did have to be really, really selective. Being excited about this, of course, I’ve got 100 articles and things that I want to share, and all these concepts to lay on them, and I went with just a very, very few that I felt were the most powerful and the most backed by research. I would say that one of the ones that surprised them, maybe pleasantly so, is some of the academic work around lay theories and belongingness, which is related to mindset. And probably a lot of your listeners are familiar in some way with those. But, in particular, the work of David Yeager, he’s one of the major researchers in this area. His work focuses on how you can communicate to students that things like intelligence and the potential for academic success are not fixed, they’re something that can be built up through effort. A piece of this is normalizing struggle in a way that, just because you get to campus and you feel lonely, and you feel overwhelmed, that a lot of successful people start out that way, so don’t quit. And what’s I think surprising to faculty and definitely was to me as well when I started reading the work is just how powerful some relatively small interventions can be. Just going through, say an online module that exposes students to some of these mindset concepts can result in statistically significant changes to the likelihood of persistence, retention, and things like that later on down the line. So, I think I was surprised, and I think many faculty are surprised by that as well. And that that work is really high quality in terms of the scholarship behind it, the statistical analysis, how the studies are set up. That’s another kind of pleasant surprise too.
John: A while back, we had Angela Bauer on the podcast, who’s now at High Point University. And she had an intervention in the chemistry department there, where just growth mindset messaging that was delivered by slides that were used by all the people in the department eliminated the achievement gap there. So it was a remarkably powerful effect, which is very consistent with what you’re describing there.
Rebecca: Can you talk about a couple of other small interventions that faculty can implement that are really powerful?
Michelle: Another theme that’s come out of the work on this has looked at the effect of structure… increasing course structure so that, for example, instead of the two midterms and a final, we have those distributed smaller assignments over the course of the semester. And that’s one of those things that there’s got to be a dozen good reasons, from the memory research all the way down to mindset, why this is a really good and powerful thing to do. Now, whether that’s a small intervention or not, that could be a matter of perspective, because for some people, if their course is designed in a completely different direction, that could be some major overhaul there. However, I should say that many of the faculty, in fact, most of the faculty who participate in this, are part of our First-Year Learning Initiative already. In fact, that’s kind of why we decided to develop the program as strongly as we did, is we felt it was a really good complement to those courses that were already part of this initiative we have to ensure really best practices in design for key first-year courses. So, many of those courses are already supposed to have that type of design. But this is a way to continue to engage faculty, particularly those who maybe weren’t on the scene when that course was first designed, they show up and they’re saying, “Why do we have all these grading quizzes?” or “How come it’s set up this way?” Well, this gives them some of the backing behind doing that. I think as well, some of the things that we can look at are simply the communications we have with students. So, that’s another area where I think it may be a little bit under the radar, just how important this stuff is for student persistence, that it’s not even the course design or how the course is taught, just the words that get exchanged in, say, office hours, or the tone of the email that you send to a student to respond to them when they write to you with a question. I think that an experience like this gets us to stop and think and say, “How can I tweak my phrasing or bring in some of that good perspective taking to make those communications either more compassionate or gentle?” or to communicate something like a growth mindset that, “Hey, it’s not a matter of whether you got it if you don’t, we’re just going to jump in where you’re at. And with effort, you can succeed at this.” So, I think those are some of the key things that we can bring in as faculty to affect this very big issue of persistence.
Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about things that you do in the kickoff workshop? Can you talk a little bit about some of the things that faculty come in knowing or not knowing or mis-knowing?
John: Mis-knowing, is that a word?
Rebecca: I don’t know, I just invented it. [LAUGHTER]
John: It is now.
Michelle: Yeah. I love that term. So, there’s that kickoff workshop where we most directly start to query people’s assumptions, knowledge, and misconceptions about persistence, and to introduce them to this idea that yeah, this is a serious area of academic inquiry that’s interdisciplinary, and we can all access it for the benefit of our students. And in a blended course, it’s generally a good practice to offer face-to-face bonding and group cohesion experience first, before we all go off to our separate online corners. At this kickoff workshop, there are elements of it that are recognizable to anybody who comes to faculty development workshops, but I think there were some novel components too. I mean, one of the things that we do is, it’s simple, but it’s a really effective kickoff exercise. So, we would have either a sticky wall where people can put ideas, or we’ve sometimes bedded rooms that have whiteboard walls, and we have pens, and I say, “Okay, what are some things you’ve heard about why students don’t persist? Just give me reasons. You don’t have to endorse them. They could also be the things that we do here in the faculty meetings.” So, that’s a nice kind of permission giving, kind of opening, I think, to let people say things that they know that are maybe not backed up or they’re not sure, or they don’t agree with them, but they think they’re important to put and they’re also encouraged to put those ideas in groupings. So, there’ll always be some around economic factors, or psychological and social emotional factors, family support. So, we all write on the walls and have these things in front of us for the rest of the day, statements about what barriers there are… to keep that in the front of our minds of what really is affecting our students. As we engage with this work, there is a presentation component, but I really center that around five key claims. So, I think too, it’s important to come with this not just like, “Well, here’s some tips that you can have and some things that some people believe.” I say, “I am not neutral on this. And here’s my five beliefs and these underlie everything that we’re going to do. And you can agree or disagree with these, but I can back them all up, that this is what drives us” and you know, as faculty I think that’s appealing. We want to know what are those assumptions and just to list them off real quick, there are academic persistence matters, so this is important. There are disparities that both reflect and perpetuate inequalities, ethnic class, economic, that we do know a lot about how persistence works. So, that knowledge base does exist. That there are effective strategies for addressing those disparities, although they’re not easy or cheap, I’m not there to sell faculty on magic bullets or “Hey, if you just tweak with this one thing, everything will be fine,” because we all know that’s not the case. And then lastly that faculty do have the ability to positively affect persistence through their teaching, but also through those interactions that they have informally advocating for certain kinds of policies with the institution. So, I really present that. And then lastly, we have a hands-on data exercise. Now one of the things that I think can be a barrier for faculty as they want to get involved with this is we think, or we really don’t have, access to the information that is specific to our campus. So we also have an exercise where I bring in librarians, this is really great. They’ve supported me a great deal in this and we get people on laptops and say, “Alright, here are some sites to explore, national sites about student persistence, databases, article databases you can look at. Use these to uncover solutions, facts about student persistence right here, right now, just do this right now.” And we also get them access doing some basic working knowledge of our institutional dashboard for looking at things like pass rates or grade breakdowns which you can do, you can do it by course, you can do it by semester, you can do even more fine grained by student characteristics. This is all out there, but the vast majority of faculty just do not either know that or they don’t have that working knowledge. So, what I envision is okay, a faculty member can, if it comes up in their department, “Oh, hey, what can we do about this course that’s maybe a bottleneck or we think we’re ready to redesign this one over here?” They can pull the data for themselves and say, “Well, here’s how things changed when we brought in, say, a courseware system, or here are the students who are having the most difficulty, or if a student passes this course, here’s their likelihood of succeeding in this one down the line.” Faculty love that. And once that power is in their hands, I think that they really can carry that out. That’s all the stuff we do, and the kickoff that we have right there and how we establish that grounding for them.
John: It’s great that you have that data. Many institutions are very protective of data, even though it could be really useful in helping us learn about what works.
Michelle: Then to turn around and say, “Well, faculty are kind of in the way here, faculty are this or that?” Well, yeah, we do have to look at what have we empowered faculty to be able to do reasonably and in ways that are appropriate to their own discipline?
John: What are some of the myths that people come into this with in terms of what leads to students dropping out, or failing, or withdrawing?
Michelle: I don’t know if I’m ready to quite call it a myth, but there is perhaps a sort of counterproductive concept, which is the old “If we would just admit better students” who are, and I’m going to use a terrible phrase, “college material.” I mean, that phrase is awful on many different levels as we look at our students, who are these complex human beings, who’ve come to us willing to step up and try to do these incredibly challenging things to accomplish goals that benefit them and benefit our whole society. There is that. And I think an associated belief is, all of this should just be addressed in K-12. And aside from the practical issues there, especially if you teach at a public institution, which we are, I don’t think that’s right to just say “This has to be sort of repaired as a problem by the time it gets to me, or I can’t… or shouldn’t… do anything.” So that whole complex of beliefs about something didn’t happen before this student graduated from high school therefore kind of what’s the point and if the school wants to retain more students, we need to admit the more academically skilled students from the beginning. I say I’m not ready to call that a myth, that is because, yes, absolutely, things like the accomplishments and achievements, academic experiences you’ve had before you come to college. Yeah, those are all great predictors of retention. It’s not that that doesn’t matter at all. But a great deal of other things do matter. And I think that those are maybe where we want to redirect students. And I think as well among faculty who still have themselves a form of fixed mindset, that is really problematic too. And, you know, this really hit home for me. There’s a recent article by Elizabeth Canning and her colleagues at Indiana University Bloomington, titled “STEM Faculty who Believe Ability is Fixed Have Larger Racial Achievement Gaps.” Wow, just think about that for a second. They were looking at the beliefs that are in the heads of the faculty, not even their teaching or what they selected, or what they said to students overtly, but the beliefs they have about who achieves and why, and whether that capacity, that potential is fixed. That plays out in accentuating the exact types of gaps and disparities that we are here to shrink and get rid of. That is surprising and disturbing. And they also find there’s less student motivation overall in those courses. So, I think that that’s maybe another constellation of very counterproductive problematic beliefs that, “Oh, the students aren’t motivated. They don’t want to do the work, but maybe they can’t do the work, maybe they aren’t cut out for this.” If that’s in my head, that is going to leak out and infuse the teaching that I do. And then we have more of these gaps at the end of the day. Those are some of the beliefs that I think are more of an issue. I think less frequently, we’ll see some version of “Well, we’re maybe trying to come from a place of compassion and look at things like oh, family issues, caregiving responsibilities, jobs that students have to hold down in order to be able to support themselves and their families as they go through their education.” It’s great to acknowledge that, but then I think that sometimes faculty can then have this very kind of dead end view of it and say, “Wow, I don’t know if there’s any way this could work.” And yeah, there are only so many hours in the day and we can’t just say, “Oh, education can happen on the margin, no big deal.” But I think too, what we need to step back and look at those beliefs and say, “Well, what are some institutional policies? or “What are even some things written into my syllabus that accentuate that barriers, or put barriers up for students who have those responsibilities? Do they all have to be there? What can I take away that doesn’t get in the way of what students are accomplishing or what’s expected of them, but simply make some of these much more possible?” So that’s kind of a set of those ideas too.
John: One other point there is that students who are most at risk often end up leaving with a large amount of debt and have the most struggle trying to pay for it, putting them at further disadvantage. So, the more we can help these students to be successful, the better off they’ll be.
Michelle: Right. And so many faculty, I mean the faculty who I’ve talked to, and I’ve talked to many at this point, I really believe that they care. They do care about that issue… that deeply disturbs them and deeply bothers them, the idea of somebody leaving with tremendous amount of debt that’s going to limit their lives, and what if they leave with that debt and without the degree that they came for? That’s a tragedy. And I think that we can take that intention and that reaction and channel that into positive action.
John: What types of incentives were there for faculty to participate in this program?
Michelle: For those of us who do work in this space of faculty professional development, we know that that’s an issue. There’s so many demands on faculty time, and so it’s important to have that. So, quite simply, we have a small honorarium. And in fact, it’s small enough to where at first I thought, “Well, do we really need this?” but the feedback I got from my staff and also from faculty was that yes, this is important, if only as a gesture, that we realize this takes your time. So that was $150, and they came in the form of professional development funds. So it’s just enough to plug in, maybe get some books or help make up a gap in some funding for a conference. Those are some of the typical things that faculty use that for. So we have that, and as a kind of a less tangible, but still very important incentive was, as I said, this is part of the First-Year Learning Initiative. And so courses that want to maintain their presence in that program and kind of stay in good standing have to demonstrate this ongoing engagement. So, especially after the first semester or two, we started to say, “Yeah, this is a powerful program, and we really want to make this First-Year Learning Initiative participation contingent on doing this.” So many of the faculty who are there, they do come in because it’s really required for their participation in this bigger program. But, then we have some who come because they’re simply interested and they’ve heard good things about the program as well. So there’s a spectrum of those incentives, both tangible and intangible.
Rebecca: What are some of the students that are the most at risk for persistence? What students are we really helping by engaging in this literature and these methodologies?
Michelle: I think that for people who have some familiarity with the area of student persistence, no surprises here. It’s students who are first generation, as a large proportion of our students at Northern Arizona are. So there is that, there is kind of a constellation of socio-economic factors which can play out in everything from just simply the financial resources one has to attend college, all the way down to the quality of the schools, and the preparation, the pre-college preparation that you were able to get as part of the education you were provided in K-12. So, there is that. Students of color, students of color definitely are going to have a number of barriers and challenges that are going to play out in terms of persistence. And then there are, within particular disciplines, as many of us are familiar with… in particular disciplines where the gender representation or representation of women is relatively low, there can be some persistence issues there as well. So, in the more traditionally male STEM fields, engineering, mathematics and so on, but really, largely these issues of class, of race, and economic opportunity are what all are coming to a crux when students are in these crucial early semesters of college participation. That’s what we’re seeing.
John: It’s fairly early. You’ve only been doing this program for two years, but do you have any evidence of its success in terms of impacts on students?
Michelle: This is a very faculty- and staff-oriented initiative. And there are so many different factors that impact retention and that all go on at once. And by the way, that’s something that I’ve definitely learned as… when I got into this as well… is that there are just this enormous number of options, and even outside of the classroom. Then you have things like learning communities, residential communities, bridge programs, mentorship opportunities, all of these things are kind of getting into the mix sat once, which is probably not a bad thing to have all of these, but it does make it difficult to tease that apart when you look at something like overall retention rates or persistence rates for an institution. However, we have gathered some really systematic assessment data through our participants specifically. So what we did over the past few semesters is we brought in a kind of a pre-assessment so we could capture some very key things about participants’ knowledge and commitment to and ability to advocate for student persistence at the beginning… at the outset of this… before we did anything, and then at the end, after they’d done this about six to eight week program, and so there we do see some pretty dramatic changes and some really dramatic improvements. So, one in particular that stands out is that we asked participants how capable they feel to discuss and apply concepts from the research literature on persistence. And that is very, very low at the beginning. It’s about two and a half on a scale of one to five. And that went up to a little bit over an average of four on that same scale of five after the program. So, that’s something where faculty said, “Yeah, I feel like I can come into this as an informed advocate.” Knowledge about student persistence, that’s another area where the self-rated capability goes way, way up. And also, another thing we asked them is how capable they feel to identify and dispel some of the major misconceptions about attrition and persistence. So there too, the numbers are very, very similar. So we get positive comments, but I also feel like those quantitative ratings have really targeted what I wanted to change as a function of this program.
Rebecca: We talked a little bit about institutional concerns about retention and persistence. Why should faculty be engaged in this piece? We often think, “Well, that’s not our responsibility.” But, why should it be a faculty responsibility, in part?
Michelle: So here’s the thing. I think that this really fits with my experience over about 10 years of working on this at the institution. I think that so many of the initiatives that institutions spend all this money and their political and social capital on setting up, those live or die in faculty meetings. And I think that there’s very limited realization of that on the part of leadership. And it’s understandable because that’s one place where they don’t get to go. But I’ve sat in many, many, many such a meeting over my career. And here’s the thing, in my experience, it can just take one person who thinks that this initiative is misguided, or they think we ought to just admit better students that that should be fine, or they only care about retention for financial reasons. It only takes one highly vocal person to shut that down in that department and there may be other people who are sitting there who are interested in this… they’re saying, “You know what, I care. I think that social inequality is perpetuated when students don’t persist. I see real disparities, and I’m not comfortable with that. And I think this is a social justice issue.” Well, especially if that person is more junior or is not tenured, and the person who’s highly vocal is senior and is tenured, that initiative is not going anywhere. And I don’t care how much money you put into it, or what kind of big stipend is attached to it, it’s not happening. So that’s where I really had this vision as a designer of this program that I wanted people to be able to kind of raise their hand and say, “Well, actually, there’s some research that shows this”, or “I learned about this one concept,” or “Have you thought about how inequality is perpetuated, and maybe we should care for those reasons.” So, to equip and emboldened people to do that… Now that’s always up to them. They can take persistent scholars and come away with whatever conclusions that they want. I honestly come at it that way, that it is up to them to draw their own conclusions, but I do feel, especially given those things they tell us on our assessments, that we’ve done the best we can to equip them to go in to be those advocates. And it isn’t just teaching too. Don’t forget faculty, even though we can’t always affect things like financial aid or how drop/add policies are handled or any of that, we do have faculty senates, and sometimes we can weigh in on those issues. So, if we can bring pressure to bear in a positive way on our administrations, we usually think about it as “Oh, the administration is kind of leaning on us to support student success,” well that runs the other direction, too. And it can. And how does that happen? When we have the information because, again, faculty, we run on evidence… that’s baked into our culture, and that is who we are. So if you are the person at the meeting, you can say, “Well, I read this entire book by Vincent Tinto, who’s the most respected researcher in this area, I’ve actually read that book. And here’s what I took away from it. And so here’s why we should maybe give this initiative a second thought.” That’s what I think can be very, very powerful for creating change.
John: Faculty are well intentioned, but they don’t always know what they can do to be effective, and it’s really easy to blame the students when students aren’t successful. And we see that in lots of departments and lots of people. Providing them with information, I think, could start to make a big difference.
Rebecca: I think a lot of faculty are overwhelmed. They might be interested in these topics, but don’t have time to dig around and find the research and sort through it. So, having a curated opportunity like this is a good way to engage deeply with some key materials and come out of it with that perspective, which I think is really valuable. And we see that in other areas too, where we want to learn more about memory, or we want to learn more about learning strategies or whatever. If we can curate those things, then it’s often easier for faculty to engage and think about how they can individually commit to those ideas because they don’t have to sort through all of the information. It’s collated for them.
Michelle: And that’s just such a perfectly articulated way of describing what our design philosophy really was. And yeah, to say you can make a website or a giant compendium of “here’s a lot of suggested resources,” but it’s a different challenge to say, “Okay, you can assign three things. You can select three things for us to read over this three-week period. That’s it, what are those three things going to be?” And I did, it really did force me to really focus on quality and what was powerful. Yeah, that belongingness mindset lay theory piece was one, transparency was another that I selected. And really the last iteration to it, I also selected an excerpt from Lisa Nunn’s book, 33 Simple Strategies for Faculty. It is oriented towards first generation, but it really crossed over into so many practical applications of the research we were reading about. So that was a huge hit with the last cohort of participants as well. So being selective, having one targeted experience that you can simply share in a very informal way, rather than sitting down to write the giant literature review, I think that’s the sort of thing that we do need. And we did design it with that blended approach with that idea of maximum flexibility. Every week was its own modular piece where we did the same thing, so there wasn’t a whole lot of thrashing around about “what are the expectations” and so on. Even things like designing it so that it starts up about three weeks or four weeks into the semester and wraps up, like in the fall, we wrap up before Thanksgiving. That’s a big, big deal to faculty. If you coordinate it with the students’ semester, that’s just going to be too much. And you’re going to hit people with way too many demands right at their busiest time. So, that was also really appreciated as a factor that promoted faculty participation.
John: In an email exchange prior to this conversation, you mentioned something about the AR program at NAU that you’ve been working with and some results that were relevant to this discussion. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
Michelle: It’s so funny, this faculty professional development program ended up intersecting with a completely separate piece of my research agenda right now. I’ve been working for the last about two years with our amazing cross disciplinary group here, the Immersive Virtual Reality Laboratory at NAU with Professor Norman Medoff and Professor Giovanni Castillo. They had designed, already, this program for organic chemistry so students get to actually manipulate with molecules and they worked with a chemistry professor to make actual meaningful assignments that would use that program in this really cool way. We even set up kind of a almost experimental study where we did the classic flip a coin and one section has access to the VR and the other section does not… it has a substitute assignment instead. Of course I’m interested in looking at the impact on student success. Well, I got into the data, and I looked at the overall impact and there is, there’s a reasonably consistent trend towards better grades in O-Chem. And also better final exam scores if you have access to this particular technology and way of interacting with the material. But then I started doing the subsidiary analyses and I was really surprised. We broke it out by first-generation status and first-generation college students, which was about half of our participants, in this case, experience improvements, positive impacts of this intervention that were larger and more consistently they were significant. All the measurements that we looked at were consistent in terms of the advantage that they got. And we’re working on writing this up for publication right now, and we did present them at a conference over last summer. And it’s really stretching my mind as well to try to say, “Well, why is that? What does that maybe communicate to students when we offer them this? How might it actually maybe shore up the experiences of students who have not had access to as good of a chemistry education, most likely, before they got to our university, compared to students who come from continuing generation families?” I was so surprised. And now there’s something that once again is telling me persistence has a lot to do with these other factors. Can we control them? Can we address them? Of course we can’t, as faculty, but we can look to discover ways that extend what we’re doing in the classroom or take particular approaches, and like so many of the interventions that we do in course design, this is one that doesn’t bring anybody down. I mean, if I’m from an advantaged background, I’m from a majority group, I’ve had this great background when I come in, I can benefit too, that’s fine, but somebody else is going to experience disproportionate benefits. And it’s maybe in a way, replicating a pattern that we’ve seen time and again with other ways of approaching these challenging foundational level courses.
Rebecca: That sounds really exciting.
Michelle: Thank you.
John: I’m looking forward to reading that.
We always end by asking, “What are you doing next?”
Michelle: Well, I have handed off the Persistence Scholars program. So while I’m still very proud of the work and feel very engaged with it, I have stepped away from the First-Year Learning Initiative, and as part of that the Persistence Scholars program is going to be led by a colleague of mine, Cody Canning at NAU, and I’ve handed off that program before as part of sabbatical and so on. So it is neat to build a program from the beginning that can be taken on and have it structured in depth enough to where you could take it on and then bring your own expertise and particular perspective to it. I’m still very engaged nationally though with spreading out these ideas about student persistence, learning and success in the first year, and looking at how we can take those and develop those in other places and really spread those efforts out, since I know so many of us nationally are just really fired up about this. So that’s where that stands right now. I’m working on a book right now with West Virginia University Press, with a very dynamic editor and a group of writers who are all working right now on writing about different issues in pedagogy in higher education. So that’s an honor, and I’m having a lot of fun with that book. So, memory and technology is what I’m writing about, and that’s something that springboards off a lot of the teaching that I do and some other writing as well. And that is something that I think is an issue that we see recurring now as being a very timely issue for people who are teaching. So that is taking a lot of my intellectual effort right now, and I’m looking at ways to keep engaging people in Minds Online, which, although it does have that specific technology angle, I think does pick up on many of these issues of promoting student success, and reducing disparities, and finding sometimes very surprising things that happen when we start to teach in new ways. So, that book came out around five years ago, it’s hard to believe, but I’m also looking at all the ideas and research that’s come out since then, and new applications that faculty have come up with. So, I’m looking at some new ways to keep that percolating along and kind of harness some of that energy we all have around that topic. So, I would say with that, just stay tuned or contact me to learn more, and we’ll see how that develops over the next year or so.
John: And when is this new book coming out?
Michelle: It’s coming out after I write it. Let’s just say 2021. So it is well, well underway. We’re in striking distance of having that out in 2021.
John: And that’ll be part of the West Virginia University Press series edited by James Lang.
Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us. It’s always a pleasure.
Michelle: Likewise, it’s always great to talk about these issues with both of you.
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Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.