Student Success and Stan Lee

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a huge comic book nerd. I grew up finding inspiration in the pages of Marvel and DC comics. As a kid, I wanted to be Spider-man, the Hulk or Mr. Fantastic. I hoped that some radioactive spider or a dose of gamma radiation would morph me into some superhuman hero.

It was with great sadness that read about Stan Lee’s passing yesterday. He was the visionary behind almost all of my favorite comics. As I’ve watched the tributes on television and online, I’ve seen celebrities credit Stan Lee with tackling difficult topics like racism, drug abuse, and gang violence in the pages of his comics. I really appreciate that Stan Lee was motivated to tackle difficult societal issues but, from my perspective, his greatest contribution was the superhero team. While DC’s Justice League of America appeared years before the Fantastic Four, the Avengers or the X-Men, Stan Lee redefined the genre. He made the superhero team more than just an assembly of individuals. In Stan Lee’s world, each team was a unified group that worked together to a common end.  Reading Marvel comics, I never got the sense that Mr. Fantastic, Thor or Wolverine could defeat the bad guy without the help of their respective teammates. To succeed, they needed their team. In Stan Lee’s world, problems were always complex enough that they required an “all hands on deck” solution. No Superman was going to be able to save the day on his own.

While Stan Lee’s death dug up these memories, I’ve been thinking about the power of teams a lot lately. I was recently invited to join a campus “Student Success and Retention” initiative. The working group is investigating different ways to help students be more successful at our university and graduate. A lot of institutions are having similar discussions and working to develop new strategies to support students. The challenge, however, is that student success is a complex problem that requires lots of complementary solutions. Entities need to work together to support one another. This isn’t a problem that can be solved by a single Superman. We need a team. We need the Avengers.

Just to be clear. These aren’t just the thoughts of some comic book fan boy. Others share this vision.  In their article on Collaborative, Faculty-Led Efforts for Sustainable Change, Graham, Ferren and McCambly (2015) write:

“Sustainable change in higher education must be built on meaningful, collaborative projects that fosters a common language and a shared vision for student learning through repeated, intentional, formal and informal interactions. This collaboration among faculty and professional staff creates lasting communication channels and interpersonal trust, and builds expertise transparency. Without trust and collaborative work that crosses departments, divisions, and institutions, new initiatives will not take hold.”

Later in the article, the authors write that a “shared sense of purpose makes a group a team as opposed to a collection of individuals.” And that’s what a complex problem like student success requires. We need to find inspiration from Stan Lee and develop a shared purpose and form a cohesive team. But, it also requires all heroes to join the fray and lend their talents to the cause.

Too often, however, student success initiatives focus on supports like advising, mentoring, tutoring and admissions. But, what about teaching faculty? We need to join the team, too. Adding teaching faculty to the student success superhero team means “that institutions would stop tinkering at the margins of institutional educational life and make enhancing student classroom success the linchpin about which they organize their activities” (Hanover Report, 2014). Arguably, teaching faculty play the most critical role in students’ success. We interact with them and communicate the expectations of the university. We support and assess their learning and provide feedback on their development. We have a lot of power in determining student success.  But Stan Lee would say, “with great power comes great responsibility.” We need to take some responsibility for student success.

Imagine the X-Men without Wolverine or the Fantastic Four without the Thing. I know I’m falling pretty far down this comic book rabbit hole, but the student success problem is a complex enough challenge that it requires an “all hands on deck” approach. Stan Lee would expect nothing less.




Fostering Trust

This semester, I’m leading a learning community on campus focused on faculty mentoring. While our university has an informal mentoring process that pairs new faculty with more experienced mentors, we’re examining other mentoring processes we could use to not only support early career faculty but mid-career and late-career ones as well.

Most of our conversations have been guided by the book Faculty Success through Mentoring (Bland et al, 2009). For each meeting, our group reads a few chapters and examines how the concepts would play out on our campus. My hope is that the discussions form the foundation for a more formalized faculty mentoring process down the road.  In preparation for this week’s meeting, the group is reading chapters on phases of effective mentoring and building effective mentoring relationships. Buried in those chapters was a quote that really resonated with me and has me thinking about how we as faculty support each other and our students. On pg 71 of the text, the authors share this quote from Daloz (1999):

Trust is the well from which we draw the courage to let go what we no longer need and receive what we do. Without a reasonably well-established sense of basic trust, it is difficult to move ahead.

While Bland and her colleagues shared the quote to talk about the necessary affective dimensions for effective mentoring, the quote stood out to me because it captured an interaction I had with a struggling teacher candidate recently.

Since it is the mid-point of the semester, many of our teacher candidates have been receiving assessments from their field supervisors. The assessments are designed as formative measures to provide feedback for growth and improvement. When a teacher candidate receives several unsatisfactory marks, a group of faculty will convene to meet with the struggling teacher candidate to discuss ways to improve. A few colleagues and I met with a candidate yesterday and it was clear that trust played a huge role in her struggles as a teacher. But it was also impacting her role as a learner. Let me explain.

In our meeting with the teacher candidate, we discussed the areas where she was struggling. As we talked about the different areas (student engagement, classroom management, attention to student learning), I recognized that many stemmed from the fact that the students didn’t see the teacher candidate as being “on their side.” The field supervisor commented that the teacher candidate seemed disinterested in the class, rarely called students by name and didn’t work to build relationships with the students. Without the teacher candidate working to establish “a sense of basic trust,” it was clear that her students were having trouble “moving ahead.” And that led to the struggles she was experiencing in her classroom.

But trust was also impacting her ability to “move ahead” and develop as a teacher. Throughout our meeting, the other faculty and I came up with a list of different strategies the teacher candidate could incorporate to reach her students. While the other faculty and I communicated our suggestions were intended to help her grow and improve, the teacher candidate kept making excuses and seemed resistant to implement the changes we suggested. I got the sense that she didn’t trust us or our motivations to help her. It was going to be difficult for her to move ahead.

“Trust is the well from which we draw the courage to let go what we no longer need and receive what we do.”

As teachers, as colleagues, and as mentors, we have to dig that well. We have to cultivate trust with one another. I know that can be a difficult task considering the constraints under which we work but it’s the only way we can collectively move ahead.

Bland, C. J., Taylor, A. L., Shollen, S. L., Weber-Main, A. M., & Mulcahy, P. A. (2009). Faculty success through mentoring: A guide for mentors, mentees, and leaders. R&L Education.

Daloz, L. A. (2009). Mentor: Guiding the journey of adult learners. John Wiley & Sons.

A Letter of Encouragement to Future Me

After almost nine years of blogging, my regular readers probably know my writing patterns.  There are those posts that are inspired by my amazing colleagues and those posts that I write about my children. I write some posts because I came across some exciting research study and others because I found some new teaching strategy that I feel deserves larger attention. Some posts just involve me working through my thoughts on something I read or heard. Those posts are the ones where my endings aren’t often where I planned at my start.

I’ve written posts for lots of reasons over these last nine years but I’m going to take a different approach this week. I’m going to write a post to myself. Let me clarify a bit. I’m in the midst of one of those professional rites of passage where the ends are not defined or guaranteed. Right now, I’m rational and logical and I’m thinking of the advice I may need to give to my future self. Here’s what I think I’d say.

Dear Future Ollie,

It’s probably eight or nine months in the future now and you’re looking back here for words of encouragement. You may be working through some difficult emotions but you came back to this blog to read how your less emotional self thought about things. I want you to treat future me/present you like we treat our students and our children. Be positive. Be supportive. Be respectful. But most importantly, remember, the power of yet.

Imagine if you had a student in your class who was struggling with a concept. If they announced “I just can’t get this stuff,” you’d be quick to interject “You just haven’t gotten this stuff yet!” You would explain that learning occurs through fits and starts, through successes and failures. And that each event, positive or negative, is an opportunity to learn. You’d work to develop different teaching techniques because you know they’ll eventually learn it. If you’re back here reading this post, Future Ollie, it’s clear that your learning isn’t done, yet.

Remember when your daughter complained about not being able to ride her bicycle. After falling down quite a few times, she wanted to give up. But you argued that she couldn’t give up because she didn’t know how to ride a bicycle yet. You then worked to figure out a different way to teach her. Treat yourself with the same level of encouragement and positivity that you would with those in your care. You deserve it.

Remember that “the power of yet” embodies growth and development and that we alone control how we react and respond to growing and developing. Work through your emotions, Future Ollie.

Now, let’s get to work. We’re not done yet.


Your past and present self


Sometimes, nature has a way of teaching us as we work to educate others. Last Wednesday, nature handed me two very different student experiences and my reactions are teaching me a lot about myself. Let me explain.

I woke up Wednesday with nervous excitement because my first doctoral student was going to defend his dissertation later in the day. I’ve been working with this student for almost four years and I’ve seen his dissertation grow and evolve through our interaction. I’ve read countless drafts and provided tons of feedback to help him focus and improve his work. It’s been a time consuming and exhausting process. But it’s also been tremendously rewarding. For those readers who may work outside of an institution of higher education, I would imagine that this is a little like training someone to run a marathon and today was the day of the race. I just needed to stand near the finish line and cheer him on.  But, nature had other plans for me first.

As I checked my email that morning, I was confronted by an issue involving another student. Without getting into much detail here, as often happens, an issue had occurred that had ballooned in such a way to involve a few other colleagues. My colleagues and I began emailing and texting each other and trying to figure out our next steps. The afternoon culminated with an impromptu student meeting where I found myself using one of my favorite pieces of advice:

“One ‘Oh, crap!’ can out do the work of a thousand ‘Attaboys!'”

Although I tried to frame my discussion with this student in a positive and supportive manner, he had messed up and I needed to communicate my disappointment and outline a clear path forward for him. After the meeting, I sat in my office and navigated emotions of disappointment, distrust and anger. Despite the fact that the student issue had occurred without my knowledge, I couldn’t help but focus on what I could have done differently. I read (and reread) emails, replayed conversations and reflected on a slew of different interactions. This single student issue totally consumed my energy for the rest of the day.

And that’s the real challenge here. Later in the day, when I attended my doctoral student’s defense, I sadly found myself trying to focus on his presentation. In the back of my head, I kept revisiting the situation with my other student. What should have been a moment of celebration had morphed into a moment of obsessive self-reflection.

As I thought about what I would blog about this week, I came back to these “student bookends.” As teachers, we’re going to be confronted with moments of great joy and times of great stress. In a way, it’s like that Dickens’ quote from A Tale of Two Cities, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The challenge is not letting those “Oh, crap!” moments outweigh those “Attaboys.”

I’ve learned that I still have a ways to go.

The Online Paradox: My Take

In last week’s post, I shared research that presented a confusing and troubling paradox regarding online learning. Across the research, it was clear that online learning provides some educational benefits to students but also creates some challenges.  Here is a summary (be sure to check out last week’s post for links to all of the original research articles):

  • Online learning can increase access to education for some disadvantaged populations.
  • Online classes have an 11-14% lower retention rate than similar face-to-face classes.
  • Students who take some classes online are more likely to complete the community college degree than students who only complete their classes in traditional, face-to-face formats.
  • Students who took some online and face-to-face classes were more likely to be retained than fully online students.
  • Students who took more than 40% of their classes online were less likely to attain their college credentials.

Did you follow all of that? I know it’s confusing and (at times) somewhat contradictory but I think we can draw some conclusions from these data points. Last week, I asked readers to share their take on the research (check out their comments on the post), but what are mine?  Here are some big takeaways.

  1. Online students need to be self-regulated learners. Looking across the research, it is clear that some students are successful as online learners and others have difficulty. Recalling a study shared in a post from a few years ago, Xu and Jaggars (2014) examined performance and retention in online and face-to-face community college classes across Washington State. Comparing the different populations across delivery types, the researchers found that “older students adapted more readily to online courses than younger students” (pg. 23). In addition to taking classes, older students are also more likely to have to manage work and family responsibilities. These constraints create an impetus for older students to self-regulate their learning and manage classroom expectations. I worry, however, that we use this research to say which students can take online classes and which ones cannot. Instead, I argue that online instructors need to develop additional supports that can help students develop self-regulation strategies. (Can anyone say checklists?)
  2. Building a community is key. I’m fascinated by the “tipping point” data that shows that students taking 40% of their classes online is the upper boundary for successful attainment of their degree. But, why does that happen? I believe it’s about connection to a larger community. Students who take more than 40% of their classes online may feel isolated from the campus community. With so many online classes, they may not have as many peers who can provide emotional and academic support. These students also may not be making connections with faculty. As more programs move online, it’s critical that institutions develop supports to help fully online students engage with peers and with faculty. One strategy could be to create cohorts of students who progress through online programs together. This would help the students develop stronger connections with their peers, and in turn, with the institution itself.
  3. We still have more to learn. While the current research gives some information about the impacts of online learning, it raises additional questions. My hope, however, is that we shift the focus away from examining retention and success data and begin to develop a stronger research base for instructional strategies that positively impact student learning online.

Online Learning: A Paradox

Advocates for online learning (myself included) often cite how distance education can provide better access for students and more flexibility for scheduling. When taking online classes, students can also work at their own pace and on their own time, structuring their learning based on what works for their family and work lives as well as their academic needs.

Those are the benefits afforded by online learning, at least conceptually. But, what does the evidence say? Take the research by Johnson, Meija and Cook (2014). Examining data from community colleges across California, the researchers found that online learning had increased for certain populations (minority students, non-traditional students, etc.). The study also cited job schedules and family commitments as large motivators for students enrolling in online classes. At first glance, it seems that online learning is living up to its promise.

But, let’s dig a little deeper and change the focus a bit. Instead of examining enrollment statistics, let’s take a look at other metrics. Maybe we should be asking how effective is online learning in supporting students’ success both in their online classes and beyond? Here, the results get a little muddy. Returning to the study by Johnson, Meija and Cook, when looking at retention rates in online classes, the researchers found “on average, students in online courses are at least 11 percentage points and as much as 14 percentage points less likely to successfully complete an online course than otherwise similar students in traditional format classes” (p. 9). This seems pretty damning and (maybe a little contradictory). While online learning may be providing greater access, it seems to also have a negative impact on retention rates.

But, wait. The evidence gets a little more confusing if you expand the lens a bit more. Take the work by Shea and Bidjerano (2014). In a national study of community college students, the researchers found that students who took some of their courses online were significantly more likely to attain their community college degree than students who completed only face-to-face classes. This suggests that taking online classes has a positive effect on student success.

Following up on this study, however, James, Swan & Dawson (2016) looked at retention and completion rates for 14 different institutions (both community and four-year colleges) and found that students who took a mixture of online and face-to-face courses had up to 1.6 times greater odds of being retained than fully online students. So, taking some online classes seems to have a positive impact, but taking too many has a negative impact. But, how many is too many?

Recently, Shea and Bijerano (2018) examined this tipping point in more detail. Analyzing their sample of community colleges in New York, they found that “taking a load of approximately 40% of coursework is the upper limit for the beneficial effect of online enrollment on degree completion. Beyond that level, students attain college credentials at lower levels than their classroom-only counterparts” (p. 290).

So, this is usually the point of my post where I contextualize all of this in some digestible way. But, what do you think of this? Clearly, there’s a paradox (or several paradoxes) presented by online learning. Online learning increases access but decreases retention. At smaller rates, taking online classes can improve degree completion. At higher rates, however, taking online classes can decrease completion rates. Seeing all of this competing evidence, what’s your take? Feel free to comment below. I’ll follow up next week with my thoughts.

All That Glitters…

Last week, the Chronicle of Higher Education featured a commentary written by Dr. Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of history and education at the University of Pennsylvania. In the commentary, Zimmerman discusses Penn’s new online undergraduate degree and how it is being advertised as “an Ivy League education, without an asterisk.” Zimmerman challenges this slogan from two different perspectives. First, he explains that “the slogan communicates the opposite of what it claims.” Online and face-to-face learning environments are inherently different, Zimmerman argues, and saying there isn’t a difference is a false assumption. His second position, however, is the more damning from my point of view. Zimmerman writes:

Surely there will be some difference between online and regular degrees. We just don’t know what it is, and, worst of all, we don’t want to know.

If I gave that quote to ten colleagues, I bet most would assume that the author was criticizing online learning. Instead, Zimmerman argues that most institutions “have refrained from making a rigorous or sophisticated effort to evaluate classroom instruction” in online or face-to-face environments. Sure, we rely on student evaluations as a measure of teacher effectiveness (albeit, an imperfect one) but few institutions conduct regular observations of teaching or try to capture the impacts of instruction in any systematic way. And from that, it’s hard to say how effective online or face-to-face instruction really is, let alone compare them with one another. To me, this is the start of an important conversation we all need to have on our campuses.

I think a lot of educators assume that face-to-face instruction is the “gold standard” of education. But, how do we know? Better yet, is this position based on evidence? I believe most of us have a tendency to hold traditional practices (e.g. face-to-face instruction) with assumed quality but newer practices (e.g. online instruction) with skepticism. Maybe we think back to our own experiences and remember that engaging professor and the riveting lessons they offered. But I would argue that it’s the standard to which we hold ALL face-to-face learning. We think of the best possibilities and believe it is happening in all face-to-face classrooms.

But most of us don’t have significant experiences with online learning. So, instead of remembering that incredible experience, we think of the worst possibilities that can happen. We think of ineffective learning management systems and unmotivated and disengaged students. We think of static, text-based curricular materials and students who are unable (or unwilling) to meet even the most minimal of expectations. These represent some of the worst possibilities in online education and we extrapolate that to ALL online classes.

But that’s not fair. It’s also not very scientific or scholarly. Zimmerman, however, encourages us to take a different tactic. After discussing how all courses should promote critical thinking, problem solving, and application of knowledge to complex scenarios, he writes

I’m troubled that we don’t seem to be applying these same skills, abilities, and capacities to the question of teaching itself. So we really have no idea whether our online degree will have the same quality as our regular courses. We are all flying by the seat of our pants. That’s also why I find the debate about online learning so dissatisfying. One team says it will make things better, and the other says it will make things worse. But to sustain either claim, you have to know what’s happening now — and in most cases, we don’t.

To get a better sense of what’s happening in our classrooms (both face-to-face and online), we need to do a better job of assessing our effectiveness as teachers. And that’s going to involve confronting our assumptions and biases and developing measures that can distinguish the “gold” from the “pyrite.”