3: Student success specialists

In this episode, we examine the role that student success specialists may play in helping students develop more effective learning habits. Our guests are Allison Peer and Alicia King, who are both Student Success Specialists at the State University of New York at Oswego.

Show Notes


John:Today, our guests are Allison Peer and Alicia King, student academic success specialists at the State University of New York at Oswego.

Rebecca: Welcome, Allison and Alicia!

Alicia: Thank you for having us.

Allison: Thank you.

Rebecca: Today our teas are:

Alicia: I have Harney and Sons chocolate mint tea. It’s delicious.

Allison: I have Mandarin black pu’erh tea.

John: I have Twinings black currant black tea.

Rebecca: And I have Harney and Son’s Paris tea.

John: Many colleges have begun introducing student academic success specials. It’s a fairly new role. So could you tell us a little bit about what the role of academic success specialist is?

Allison: We see ourselves primarily as academic success coaches. There are a lot of differences between high school and college and we’re here to help students navigate that transition in the areas of time management, for example. So when students are in high school, they often have a lot of adults helping them manage their time for them- like teachers, parents, coaches. When they get here they have a lot more independence and free time and they have to make those decisions on their own, and sometimes they need support in doing that. Another thing we find is even though students may have been successful in high school, the strategies they relied on for success in high school may not be working for them as well in college. So we sometimes need to coach them on specific strategies for effective learning, and then we also have several students who report that they did not have to study in high school. So they, they get here and they first try to rely on, you know, the same methods that they used before, which might have included some cramming but otherwise they might not have had to study very much. And so then they find that they’re not being as successful and so we have to coach them on specific study and learn learning strategies as well.

Rebecca: How does your role complement or supplement the role of faculty members on campus?

Alicia: We have a few different things we use here. We offer to present at first choice courses and we’ll do that for any professor who’s, who would like to and-

Rebecca: What’s a first choice course?

Alicia: So it’s of course for first-year students. It’s usually a subject area of a requirement that they need for their degree program, but it’s also a class where we will teach them study strategies, teach them about the campus resources, they need to know about to be successful during their first year. So only first year students can get into those courses.

Allison: It’s actually SUNY Oswego’s version of a first-year seminar and there’s currently a group of people looking at modifying this a little bit. John you’re on that team, would you like to say a little bit about that?

John: So our Provost has talked a little bit about that. At his prior institution they had introduced a first-year program that were designed to improve student engagement and interest in the coursework. He referred to them as passion courses, where the instructor would find some topic that they were passionate about, the argument is it could help provide students with a much more engaging experience that they’d have a better tie to the community.

Allison: And we in the first choice courses, we also try to help build that tie to the college. One of the options we give to instructors that we can present for the first-choice class is “nailing your first semester,” and it focuses on campus resources to help support student success. There’s a couple other options of courses- or options of first-choice presentations that we offer, one is how to study in college, what to do and what not to do, and also balancing choices priorities and deadlines focuses more on the priority and time management aspect.

Rebecca: Are there other things that you do to support faculty other than just in the first year?

Allison: Yes, so for example we certainly encourage students to visit their faculty’s office hours. One of my students was reporting back to me on a conversation that she had with her professor in office hours he had suggested to her that, in addition to the traditional studying that she was doing for example, reviewing her notes from class he also suggested doing some additional practice problems and then if she experienced any difficulty with those problems or the ones that she struggled with she could bring those back to his office and discuss the solutions with him in office hours. And I could tell that the student really didn’t like the professor’s suggestion from my conversations with her, I know that she believes she needs to learn in certain ways and when someone was suggesting something different, she didn’t think it was going to work for her. So I took that opportunity to talk to her about why he was suggesting it. And I I showed her the book Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, and explained to her that he was suggesting that she use one of the research-based strategies from that book. It’s a strategy that we know works. It’s been proven by research, and so after trying to you know convince her why she should give the the strategy a try we looked at her schedule to see you know where could she fit in some opportunities for this type of practice. So I’m looking forward to hearing back from her, to see how it went when she did some practice problems but she hadn’t gone back to the professor’s office hours yet to discuss those problems. So I’m looking forward to hearing back from her about how that part went.

Rebecca: So it sounds like the opportunities for the one-on-one interactions is really helpful. So that students can maybe start seeing the why. Certainly faculty members, I’m sure often try to indicate why they do things in classes, but maybe they’re not always good at communicating that, so having support outside can be really helpful. Because there’s often reasons why faculty might have certain requirement but you know they might not be so clear to students.

John: And students come in with some serious metacognitive issues in terms of what they find most effective in studying. As she said students generally believe that the most effective studying techniques are repeated rereading and cramming before an exam. And while that works really well and remembering things for a few minutes or a few hours, it really doesn’t do much in terms of long term learning and it’s one of the things but that you know both Make it Stick and the “Small teaching” reading group we’re doing this semester in which you’re both participating that point, out but it’s hard to convince students how successful are you, in general at convincing students a one-on-one approach I think would be much more effective than trying to have a faculty member, well in my case for example, try to convince three hundred and sixty students that they should try these techniques.

Allison: Yes, we definitely enjoy the one-on-one opportunities with students. In some ways students are already primed for new suggestions when we start working with them. We teach an academic success course in addition to seeing students on academic probation in one-on-one conversations. Students who take our academic success course, most of them are choosing to take it, because they know that the strategies that they have been relying on are not working for them. So they are ready to try something new. So we do have some buy-in already. In the past, the people in this position previously experimented with requiring students to take the course and it didn’t work as well, when the students felt like they were being made to take it, as I understand.


John:So extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation.

Allison: So another thing that we, do that kind of helps convince the students to try it, and this is suggested also in Make it Stick, take the time to explain to students how learning works. It’s about them, it’s about how their mind works and usually people are interested in things that relate to them and also that are going to help them improve and something that that they want to accomplish. So we have found a lot of engaging videos that you know help students see how learning works and then also we have videos that help introduce some strategies for effective learning such as spaced practice, retrieval practice, interleaved practice. One of the the video series that we really like is by “The College Info Geek,” Thomas Frank, I don’t know if you guys have seen him on YouTube one of our colleagues in the School of Education, I consider him to be an expert on like brain based learning strategies, he actually uses Thomas Frank with his students, so if he uses it then I feel comfortable relying on Thomas Frank as a resource also. But the videos that Thomas Frank does they are geared towards helping students improve and in all areas academically and otherwise like, for example, he has a video on how to get good sleep and how to take care of your health, so that you can then you know, in turn be more productive and successful with your academics. So, instead of students just having to listen to us the whole time we pull in some videos like that. And after we introduced the strategies to students we also ask them to share out examples of how they may already be using it, so that you know they might hear an idea from a classmate that they might think would work well for them and so then they’re willing to try it out, because they heard it from a peer who they can relate to.

Alicia: And Thomas Frank is young as well, so I think that helped quite a bit that- Allison is giggling because she knows how much I like Thomas Frank.

John: Actually a podcast we recorded just a few days ago and will be coming out probably a week or two before this we talked about a metacognitive cafe online discussion forum, where students look at similar things, but also share the thoughts with each other. So that not only are they thinking about how they’ve applied it- but applying it having hearing from peers about how it can be effective can help. And hearing from someone who’s young on a video, may also work better than hearing from an old professor, and so forth. One of the things that I’ve been really impressed with is all the materials you develop in the handouts that you’ve given out to students – we will include links to some of these in the show notes – could you tell us a little bit about the materials you’ve created and share with students?

Alicia: Sure, so using retrieval practice we understand that textbook reading isn’t always the students favored style of studying, even though to prepare for a test, you’re correct, John they they often will reread the text over and over and over again, so yes reading the text is important but also making connections to the class lectures are also important. So, we created these bookmarks using the retrieval practice strategy that helps them quiz themselves as they’re reading so that they’re pulling more information out of the text, their eyes just aren’t skimming, they’re not flipping pages and not really, they’re not really digesting the information that they’re trying to learn when they do that instead, they’re treating it kind of like a scavenger hunt. They have questions that they need to look for that they’re supposed to get out of that chapter, put it right on the back of the bookmark so they can quiz themselves with questions like what did I just learn or read? What is this mostly about so they can summarize it. Put it into their own words, which is another useful tool questions like how does this relate to what I already know which also helps them build connections so it’s just something handy that they can keep in their textbook to help them.

Allison: And we do have to coach them in how to use the bookmark, so the retrieval practice is only retrieval practice when you are forcing yourself to stop and and answer the question some students need a reminder that you know, you can’t just say “oh yeah I think I know that that’s that makes sense to me that’s easy I’m just going to move on to the next section,” they actually have to to stop and make themselves answer a question about it, put in that effort to do that.

Rebecca: I just had a student this morning that I had that same conversation with, this idea of fluency illusion where she was talking about yeah when you go over in class or we go over in class it makes perfect sense, when I go to try to do it myself like it makes- like I can’t figure it out at all and that’s you know that’s the idea of needing to practice and we were talking I was talking to her about the issue that she had been missing a lot of the review questions that we have at the beginning of class which is built-in practice, so she was missing that opportunity to kind of retrieve on her own she was only hearing like the solutions at the end, so we discussed that but it’s the same idea it’s like yeah sure does make sense to me when someone’s explaining it to me and like holding my hand through it.

Allison: Yeah, when I’m showing them the bookmark in my office, I actually find myself like turning in my chair turning away from the book and looking out of the book and you know like answering the question out of my head and then turning back to the book so they can see- yeah, I actually do need to to look out of the book and rely on my own thoughts to answer the question…

John: your own mental models

Allison: instead of you know, letting myself look back in the book to answer it. And we do tell them after you’ve answered the question for yourself, yes then you can check back in the book and see if there’s anything that you missed or it you know make sure you explain it accurately but do take the time to answer it on your own first. It’s definitely a habit that takes discipline to build.

Alicia: I like telling the students to use Cornell notes while they do it so they actually like in the left-hand column of the Cornell notes they can write a question like the ones on the back of the bookmark and then explain it and then use those notes as part with their lecture notes to study from so they get the most they can from the textbook and the lecture.

Allison: of course in our academic success course we make sure they know when you’re using those questions on the left hand side of the Cornell notes cover up the details on the right and there’s the questions to quiz yourself to do the retrieval practice.

John: Yeah, one of the things I’ve been using in my class is McGraw Hill’s Smart Book, but students have the option of either using a traditional eBook version of it which is just linear, or the smart book option which does exactly this- there’s a section they read and then they’re quizzed on it and then if they do well they can move on, if not it will tell them to go back and re-examine the material and then try it again with some different questions. What I’m finding is that the the stronger students of students who are doing better do that, but the students who are struggling find that very frustrating and they give up and it’s hard to develop a mindset to convince them that practice is really useful instead of focusing on the things that’s easiest, perhaps they need to focus more. What tactics could you use learning is hard work we have to convince some of that because when people come in with a fixed mindset, it’s hard for them to deal with from struggle.

Allison: So, you asked what tactics do we use to get them to understand that they have to practice the hard stuff, instead of going through the stuff that comes easier to them. I’m still working on figuring out the best way to do that with students but one thing that I think is helpful is a lot of students might have had the experience of playing a musical instrument or you know perhaps they took dance lessons and participated in dance recitals or sports yes, so and so if they had a good coach or teacher along the way, hopefully that person was explaining to them look when you’re playing this piece of music we don’t just start at the beginning and run through to the end every time we work on sections at a time and it’s not the section that we play really well that we need to stop and work on it’s the part that we’re struggling on. And so sometimes when we’re practicing it to try and get it better we don’t try to go home full-speed, we slow it down break it up into steps and then gradually build up the speed and work up to our performance level. And if we can relate it back to something like that that they’ve experienced, it may help them you know apply it to a new type of learning. We’re still looking for additional strategies.

Rebecca: After being sort of coached into some of these processes that we know science tells us work, you know how are students responding once they actually try? Are they seeing the effects and then although it’s a struggle they’re they’re doing it or what is your experience been?

Allison: We’ve gotten some good feedback actually we mentioned before that a lot of the students that we’re working with are primed for some change they’re ready to try some new strategies because the strategies they’ve been using have not led to success here in the college setting. So one thing that we do in our academic success course in addition to introducing the strategies with videos we give the students some opportunities to try those strategies out in the classroom on the day that we introduce it- but we also make it homework for a whole week, they have to choose a strategy they want to try out so we give them a handout actually, on the handout we list some strategies from Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, we have self testing or retrieval practice, spaced practice, interleaved practice, we also list Cornell notes on there as a method of using retrieval practice so we have them choose a strategy to try out for the week, they have to write down specifically what they did to make that strategy a reality, write down the result of their actions, and then they also provide a little more detail on what their next steps are going to be. So perhaps they liked that strategy but they want to tweak it a little bit to make it even more effective for them, or perhaps they liked that strategy, found it effective for one course so they’re going to start using it in another course. So we find that when we give the students the time to do it by making an assignment, and we don’t have a lot of assignments in our class we try to make everything that we do beneficial for the students to promote their success, so we don’t feel like we’re over burdening them with work, but we do give them adequate time to try this out and as they’re doing the work for our class they’re also accomplishing work they have to do for another class anyway, so when they take the time to try it out while not being under stress about it we’ve gotten some good feedback, I have some some quotes for some students we have students write about this in their final reflection that they do for the course, they write about you know what worked well for them and kind of what their next steps are going to be as they’re working towards academic success. So for example, when students were trying out interleaving we had a couple students mention that when they were using interleaf practice or varied practice, they didn’t get tired out as fast during their study session because they weren’t studying one thing for a long stretch at a time they weren’t getting bored when they would switch between topics, students also mentioned that it helped them make connections between the things they were learning for example, I actually have an upper-division biology student who came to us because she’s considering medical school in the future and she’s doing well already but she knows medical school is going to be a challenge so she wants to start improving her learning strategies now. So she is taking several upper division biology classes and using interleaving helped her see the different connections between her different biology classes that she was taking. She cited higher grades on her midterm exam, but more importantly to her she said she didn’t feel like she had to rush to feel prepared for her exams. You know in the past she had relied on cramming and she was initially apprehensive about trying something new because she was used to studying in a certain way and she had been successful up to this point but when I shared with her that medical students use these strategies to be successful and even showed her some videos on YouTube that were geared towards medical students using the strategies I think that helped her give strategies a chance, and when she did she saw increased grades because of it, but she also saw a reduced stress because of it. Which is going to be important when she goes to medical school.

John: One thing I’ve been really impressed by talking to you since we started with the reading groups is the focus you placed on evidence-based practices giving students tools that allow them to be successful in any course rather than just focusing on specific short-term problems, and have students generally been buying in in general?

Alicia: We make sure that the students we invite into our class are students who are close to being on academic probation, or like see that they need the help so that the dynamic of the classroom is approachable for everyone.

John: So they’re more receptive.

Alicia: Yeah, and when I have a student add a class late I’m very careful to remind them this is a class full of students that are on academic probation, are close to it, and are very interested and being academically successful, and I think that helps a lot. Starting the class off with that mindset helps quite a bit, makes it a more open atmosphere. We also do some like ice breaking activities to help warm everyone up to let them know that it’s a safe zone for this kind of talk and that helps quite a bit. That seems to be my best strategy as a start.

Rebecca: It seems like you’re meeting them where they’re at, and that’s the whole structure of the course is like the assumption of being in this class is that you’re at a place where things aren’t working, we want to work better and that seems like it’s the key setup to being successful because, you know like that’s where you’re starting, you’re not starting with like well there’s some people were being really successful and some people who aren’t and you don’t have that wide range like there’s a little more focus and sometimes having that more focused group of students can make for maybe a better a better cell because, in John’s example earlier, the really large class he might talk about them maybe about the strategies but, perhaps it’s like group of students who were maybe already going to do fairly well already had that kind of growth mindset might adopt it because they’re willing to try something new, and that group of students who maybe weren’t willing who might not be successful might end up in your group of students but it’s nice that there’s kind of places that the information is getting to people in different places.

Alicia: I think you said it perfectly, we really do need to meet them where they’re at. We admitted them, they’re in the class they’re in there standing for a reason and that’s why Allison and I have jobs is to make sure we come to them.

John: It’s certainly more efficient than just discarding 20 to 40 percent of our students over first couple of years as was a common practice in colleges and universities for decades. You know people are spending a lot to be here and there’s a lot of investment in getting people here and encouraging them to be successful is a good thing.

Allison: Yeah we do find that a lot of students may not have had the opportunity to navigate through academic failure before, and certainly everyone has had struggles but some of the students that we’re seeing now may not have been having that many academic struggles while they were in high school, and you know some of the students we see they aren’t sure how to navigate a failure. So that’s another role that we and the faculty and staff as a team have to help students see those struggles and failures as a learning and growth opportunity rather than an experience that defines them negatively.

John: Going back to the mindset comment, that students with fixed mindsets are not always going to be students who are lower quality students- one of the problems is that when students have been successful but they have this fixed mindset they believe that it’s because they’re talented and the first time they experience failure can often be very disruptive and can lead them to giving up, so that growth mindset is important for all students even those who have been successful as well as those who’ve struggled. Those who’ve struggled regularly often have been forced to adopt a growth mindset because they can see it work but those students who are able to breeze through middle and high school without doing much more when suddenly they’re faced with a challenge often have those sort of troubles.

Allison: Yeah I remember having a conversation with a student like that last semester he had declared a certain major because he had been interested in it and based on his experience with the topic in high school he thought he was good at that subject that was his phrase you know “I thought I was good at it,” and then he got here and took an intro course in the same subject and he didn’t do as well as he had thought, and his comment to me was well I thought I was good at it but I guess I’m just not and you know the student definitely needs some help cultivating a growth mindset. I think it’s a long process for some students because you know their mindsets have been developing since they were young enough to start to understand language based on the types of praise they were hearing from their well-meaning parents-

John: and from some of their teachers along the way because they’ve been praised for being good at this or talented, rather than for their effort.

Allison: Right, so I think it’s something that we all need to be conscious of- the messages we’re sending to students, the way we’re praising them, what we’re praising them for, and also you know some of the feedback that we give that may not be praise but might be taken by the students as as more negative. Of course we have to give constructive criticism but some students-

John: some students just seem to have some problems in recognizing that, we’ve all seen people who say they’re just not good at math or they just can’t write or they just can give public speaking or they can’t draw, and the reason is mostly because they haven’t really tried to do those things and they haven’t put in the effort, and reminding students that they can get better at things by doing it there’s something I think we all need to work on.

Rebecca: I think it’s interesting that sometimes the the lack of a growth mindset is actually pretty prevalent and students who may be traditionally earned A’s and B’s and then those are the students who don’t want to take any risks, right? Which is really what college often is about is taking some risks, and like you know coming up with a hypothesis and finding out if you’re correct or not, you know there’s there’s a chance that you’re not, and so I certainly see this a lot in my classes too, that students you know it might be a student who maybe is a traditionally a C students and they really want to try something new you know and and try to get the most out of this situation so you know there’s there’s a benefit to maybe sharing some of the mindset strategies that maybe some of the students we might label as poor students like actually have that could that everyone else in the room could benefit from, and taking the time and energy to raise awareness about like “oh look at that risk,” you know that was a really interesting choice to make I’d like to see other people make take risks like that it could really be beneficial in helping to switch that mindset I think.

Allison: I think that’s a great suggestion Rebecca, we can’t just stop at telling students to put the time in and try and you’ll see yourself improve. I think we actually need to show them explicit ways that they can do that. So in your graphic design course you’re gonna have specific things that they can do to improve their work whereas in a writing course there’s going to be specific writing strategies students can use to improve their writing, so not only can the professor take the time to show the strategies that students can use, but also give some time to the other students in the class to share the strategies they’ve used I really do think that helps students buy in when the strategies are coming from their peers.

Rebecca: I did want to make sure that we took a little time while we were chatting today to find out like why you got into the roles that you’re in in the first place, because it’s an you know somewhat of an unusual position and I’m just like-

John: well, a new position

Rebecca: yeah, so I’m curious like how did you how did you end up where you’re at?

Alicia: So I went to school and studied finance actually, close to John over here and I started working for the school that I was going to and it helped pay tuition so that was a fantastic benefit and eventually I started academic advising, so I’ve always been an academic advisor of some sort and so advising was really important, to me not so much financial advising I found that that was a little more risky depending on the market and just tended to gravitate towards advising students so I really enjoy that aspect. My previous job here at SUNY Oswego was a Transfer Success Adviser where I helped students transfer from community college to a 4-year institution and there definitely is a gap there that’s very similar to what we experienced with our first year students, so I see that too and this just was like a very gradual happy next step for me.

Allison: I’ve had an interesting pathway to get to this role how much detail would you like?

Alicia: The whole story.

Allison: Okay well I have always been fascinated by how the brain learns and remembers, and when I was much younger I thought I wanted to be a brain surgeon, and everyone that I went to school with thought I was going to become a brain surgeon, and my parents thought I was going to become a brain surgeon, but through some different experiences that I had some before college and and some during college, I learned that physical surgery was not going to be the best way for me to help people personally, but I was still very interested in how the brain works. So I began to think about other ways that I could still learn all I could about how the brain functions and learns and remembers and help people improve their capacity for learning. So as an undergraduate, I took a lot of neuroscience courses in addition to my psychology major, got my Master’s in Education here at Oswego and taught for several years, but I was really missing the one-on-one interaction with students I found that I wasn’t really getting the time to have individual coaching sessions with students on how to improve, and how they could learn better. I had chunks of it here and there but I wanted to be able to focus more time on that, so when this opportunity became available it just seemed like a really good fit for me. So I’m glad I made the change.

Rebecca: So in your roles that you’re currently in, you’ve done so much already but what are you going to do next?

Allison: Well as we alluded to previously, we’re still you know looking for effective strategies to help students develop more of a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset and we know that the research is still taking shape in that area and I know there are some things out there that are already being discussed you know different conferences on student success also listservs it that we subscribe to first-year and transitional type listservs. Unfortunately, we don’t always have the time to digest all of that as its as it’s coming in because we do have so many things going on, but that’s one of our priorities you know I’m one of our slow times to investigate some more strategies to help develop that growth mindset with students.

Rebecca: Sounds like a fantastic plan. I think it you know taking the time to do that it’s gonna be really helpful I think we all probably wish we had a little more time to dig into the research on that topic well we really appreciate both of you joining us today and taking the time to chat with us and sharing what you’ve been up to.

Allison: Thank you.

Alicia: Thank you for having us.

John: Well thank you for being here.