My research agenda centers on college student success and the factors that influence the likelihood that a student will persist through graduation with particular interest on how this varies by student sub-populations. With 6-year graduation rates below 65% nationally, we know that the current way we “do college” is not working. Considering that graduation rates are considerably lower for student subpopulations identified as “at risk”, we must hold ourselves accountable to enact change.
Given that I work on the front lines with students every day, my research is framed through the lens of the practitioner and begins with the simple question of what’s working (or not working) with students and why. Every service offered through my area (Academic Support Programs) is thoroughly evaluated annually to ensure student learning outcomes are being met. This evaluation includes the analysis of student transcript data, survey responses, focus groups, and one-on-one interviews. Gathering feedback through varied modalities provides true opportunities to pinpoint areas for improvement.
The primary focus of my work is program enhancement for improved student outcomes. Knowing that data can be a powerful tool, I use it to not only inform practice, but to enact policy change when needed. While “data driven decision making” is a common catch phrase in higher education related to program evaluation and assessment, it is not necessarily carried out effectively. The insight we have gleaned as a result of the statistical modeling I have used in my data analysis related to student success has informed how we guide students at Eastern Michigan University (EMU).
In addition to program assessment and evaluation, my current projects are driven by my curiosity related to college teaching and learning related to student success. It is common knowledge that the number of college students placing into developmental courses is on the rise. Data suggests that by and large, these courses are not working. Graduation rates of students placing into developmental courses is dismal. The question of why we in higher education cannot seem to move the needle on this issue is perplexing. In 2016, EMU joined a project facilitated by the John Gardner Foundation with funding from the Kresge Foundation – Gateways to Completion. I am a senior liaison on this project which has brought together faculty from several gateway STEM courses to evaluate and assess what happens in their gateway courses. When we began the project, faculty were shocked to discover that fail rates for first year students in some of their gateway courses was over 50%. When, as a project team, we discovered that fail rates in these courses for certain subpopulations was as high as 80%, we realized that this goes beyond student success and is truly a social justice issue.
While course committees spent an entire semester on gateway course analysis, my team focused on building on the work of Carol Dweck and Sandra McGuire to infuse growth mindset, metacognition, and learning to learn frameworks into all of our academic support programs. By modifying the role of supplemental instructors (SI’s) in our gateway courses, we helped project faculty build engaging pedagogies into their classes. After a single semester of the classes being taught in the new format, fail rates dropped as much as 20% in some classes. In addition to supporting changes in gateway classrooms, we updated to curriculum in our first-year transition course to include learning to learn tools and practice using those tools in the classroom. We also added a series of learning to learn workshops to support the gateway courses providing an opportunity for students to practice utilizing learning to learn tools on their gateway coursework.
My work adds to the field of student success in a few ways. First, it is adding to the current body of work examining the relevance of teaching and learning at the college level and the critical role it plays in student success for our most at-risk populations. While the scholarship of teaching and learning (SOTL) has been a cornerstone of K-12 research, it has not been broadly studied in higher education. Heightening the awareness of higher education decision makers to this issue may bring about change in the way we prepare faculty for the classroom and support them in their teaching. Ultimately, it is my hope that my work serves to help practitioners create better pathways through college for students, eliminating academic preparedness as a barrier to degree attainment.