Author Archives: Chris Gasser

Building a “New Normal” at the Academic Success Center & Writing Center

by Chris Gasser

Grey clouds, early sunsets, drivers cutting each other off at the Harrison Bridge; for the first time in two years, things almost look normal at Oregon State. As we return to campus it is easy to forget that we just spent the last two years in higher ed. surviving, both in a literal and figurative sense. Throughout the emergency measures of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a strong sense (and a lot of anxiety) about what the new normal would look like. At the Academic Success Center & Writing Center, we spent a lot of time thinking about how we could create something new and better, rather than returning to how things were. We heard it a lot, “we can’t go back to the way things were”, and we embraced that.  One overarching question we found helpful was “what have we done differently during the COVID-19 pandemic that was better than what we were doing before?” This question, combined with specific questions focused on important areas of our work, led us to these strategies:

  • Prioritizing health for student staff and participants over service delivery and numbers
    • Do our policies and practices encourage staff to come to work when sick or students to access services when sick? How and where might we change/impact that behavior?
  • Seeking out employee feedback in major (and minor) decisions
    • What decisions are we making about student staff and service delivery? Do people affected by our decisions have an opportunity to inform those decisions? When and how are we inviting feedback from student staff?
  • Delivering clear guidance and processes on valuable resources for our community
    • What information might not be getting to students? How can we use our platforms as supervisors and program leaders to support students in understanding and navigating policies and resources? What messaging can we proactively highlight and signal boost to the benefit of student staff?
  • Focusing on community— building relationships within our teams and with our campus partners
    • What are we doing to foster relationships amongst our team? How do we create a sense of community and belonging across modalities? How often does community building show up as a part of our agendas and structured time?
  • Creating a culture of support where staff and students are encouraged to bring their humanity, with all the messiness that it involves
    • What do we convey to students about the way their lives show up in their work? What space do we make for sharing about their lives outside of work? How do we define professionalism in a way that lets them be autonomous human beings and not robots?

While we don’t suggest that we are perfect, in our return to campus or otherwise, we are excited that our new normal is a more compassionate one. It’s more nuanced, more human. We value flexibility, intentionality, and sometimes saying no when our plates are full. We’ve done a lot of thinking about the new normal we want to create. We share some of that thinking in our annual report, and we invite you to read it here.

Benefits of SI for Students Retaking Courses

by Chris Gasser

As many of you know, Supplemental Instruction (SI) is an academic support program that offers peer-led, collaborative, group, study tables for historically challenging courses. In Fall 2021, SI underwent a significant expansion, which allowed us to do some pretty cool analyses, focusing on students who were retaking courses.

Context

A common criticism of SI data is that the program is based on an opt-in model, which means that our impact data is always subject to self-selection bias. The criticism suggests that it is possible that only the most successful students may opt in to SI, skewing impact data in favor of SI. In an effort to better understand SI’s impact while trying to account for this possibility, I performed an analysis of students retaking courses. By focusing only on a retaking population, I hoped to minimize any effect from the most successful students, assuming that retaking a course demonstrated a certain level of academic difficulty.

Methodology

For all SI supported courses in AY 21-22, I pulled the course grades for all students enrolled in the courses. I then pulled the most recent course grade for anyone who had previously taken the course at OSU and received a course grade. This gave me a list of 1,949 students who were retaking courses that SI supported in AY 21-22. Of those 1949, 1382 had previously earned an A-F course grade, and 567 had previously earned a W grade. I focused on these two populations in the analysis.

Results

Here are a few of the key results from the analysis of students retaking courses.

Among students who previously earned a course grade, students who completed SI earned a higher course grade than students who did not participate in SI.

Line graph showing both groups starting at 0.71 for their previously earned course grade average. Students who completed SI earned a course grade of 2.29, while students who did not participate earned a 1.77 average.

When looking at the first grade that students earned, both students who later completed SI (attended 4+ times) and students who did not use SI earned the same course average of .71 in their previous attempt at the class. This was a good indication that there was similarity between the groups. When looking at their subsequent grades, students who did not participate in SI earned a new average of 1.77. For students who did complete SI, their new average was 2.29—a difference of .52 grade points, or a half of a grade point higher than the average for students who did not participate in SI.

SI made a meaningful impact on the number of students passing the course

While SI helps students earn higher course grades, the boxplots tell an interesting story: in both analyses the SI 4+ 25% quartile ends at 1.7 (C-), which is the mean of the No SI groups. Not only do we see students in SI earning higher average (mean and median) course grades, we also see a much lower number of students below that 1.7 threshold. This provides evidence that SI both helps students earn higher course grades and increases the number of students who pass the class.

Boxplot showing students who participated in SI, and had previously earned a grade A-F, had a higher median course grade and a more narrow distribution most noticeable on the lower tail- suggesting a greater effect at lower course points.   Boxplot showing Si complete students who had previously earned a W, had a higher median course grades and a more narrow distribution most noticeable on the lower tail- suggesting a greater effect at lower course points.

Among students who previously earned a W, students who completed SI earned a higher course grade than students who did not participate in SIBar graph comparing subsequent course grade average for students who previously earned a W.  SI 4+ students earned a course grade average .49 grade points higher than their non-SI peers.

A common idea on campus is that students who earn a W grade should not be included in analyses with students who earn a D/F, because students may withdraw from a course for reasons outside of academic difficulty. Separating this group out, we still see a similar effect in mean course grade: for students who completed SI, an average grade increase of .49 higher than students who did not participate.

Discussion/ Conclusions

Focusing on this narrow population allows us to compare data among students who may have more in common while also avoiding any skewing effect of our highest achieving students. What we see is strong evidence for the efficacy of the SI program, especially for students retaking courses. The effect on students’ course grades was even more pronounced in this analysis than a separate analysis for students not retaking the course, which prompts me to think more about how we get students retaking courses in to SI early. It also makes me wonder if we might better support our students retaking courses through building out a more robust support structure (of which, SI could be a part). There is more to this report than I can share here, and I would love to chat with you in more detail about my process and findings. If you’re interested in hearing more, interested in new ways to assess student success, or interested in thinking about how we better support our retaking students, please reach out. I’d love to chat (chris.gasser@oregonstate.edu).

Top 5 Ways SI Leaders (And You!) Can Help Students Develop a Sense of Belonging

by Chris Gasser, Carl Conner, Quinton Williams, and Ellie Macgregor

After engaging with selections from Dr. Terrell Strayhorn’s book, College Students’ Sense of Belonging: a Key to Educational Success for All Students, the Supplemental Instruction (SI) team established belonging, or “a sense [that]… generally refers to a feeling of connectedness, that one is important or matters to others,” as a program value.  Since then, we have worked hard to cultivate a strong sense of belonging in our collaborative group study tables. Every term, students voluntarily complete an end of term survey, and one question specifically asks about the actions that led to a student’s sense of belonging in SI. Using the term surveys from Fall 2020 and Fall 2021, SI team members Quinton and Ellie read through 698 student responses and identified the top three things that led to students’ sense of belonging in SI. Here’s what SI has found to be effective:

  • The SI Leader knew my name (55.4%): Perhaps unsurprisingly, students feel valued when we know who they are. Ever since the first version of this question, SI has rejected the phrase “I’m not a names person.” The data are clear. Working to know the names of students is the single most profound thing we can do to help students feel they belong. (It’s also the easiest!)
  • The SI leader created a welcoming environment (43.1%): While it may not sound like much, students cited actions like being welcoming when they first arrive, being regularly greeted with warmth, and being friendly as the actions in this category.
  • Group Collaboration (21.9%): Responses in this category showed that students felt like they belonged when other students in the group were friendly towards them. Students also appreciated working in teams and collaborating with each other to complete activities.
  • Questions were encouraged (21.6%): In a close fourth place, the ability to ask and answer questions helped students develop their sense of belonging. In many of these answers, students specifically mention the importance of feeling safe to share ideas, ask question “without feeling stupid,” and not being “demean[ed] [for] wrong answers.”
  • Expressing Appreciation (10%): Finally, students felt a sense of belonging when they felt appreciated, praised for their effort, encouraged to try, or given the chance to share their feelings around the course or a topic.

Though we initially we were in search of the “secret ingredient” for facilitating belonging, we found that basic human kindness expressed amply and consistently is what students seem to be looking for.

On Failing Forward

by Chris Gasser

Nobody likes to fail. It can hurt; it is often embarrassing; and its acceptance has largely been trained out of us. It is also something that I continually encourage in Supplemental Instruction (SI). As a program that cherishes socially constructed knowledge in historically challenging courses, we believe in learning through asking, positing, and attempting to explain. Each of those carries a potential for failure. The dilemma then is that, even in a low stakes environment intentionally created for students to try new things, it can often feel easier to say nothing than to say something wrong, and this fear of failure can be a real problem. Trying to find a solution to this problem led me to failing forward, or, acknowledging failure as an important element of the learning process, which enables us to improve.

In recent professional development meetings, I asked SI Leaders to think about the idea of failing forward. SI Leaders were asked to watch a video from a doctor, an entrepreneur, or a teacher  (some of the most prominent career paths in the SI group) on the topic of failing forward and how it relates to their discipline. They were then asked to debrief the idea of failing forward, how it differs from simply accepting failure, and how we can promote failing forward at our SI tables.

Here a few of the ideas SI Leaders came up with of actions they could take to promote failing forward at study tables:

  • Explain the value of a low-stakes environments and name mistakes as valuable in learning
  • Normalize mistake-making by revealing specific places they’ve struggled with concepts
  • Acknowledging when they make mistakes at study tables
  • Resist shaming themselves for making mistakes
  • Celebrate misunderstandings as valuable contributions to the learning process

And while we often celebrate Edison’s quote of finding 2,000 ways to not create a lightbulb, before ultimately succeeding, SI Leaders raised some really valuable concerns with the idea of failing forward:

  • How much failure is acceptable in the learning process?
  • How do traditional grading concepts challenge the ideas that failure is an acceptable part of the learning process?
  • What privilege is associated with the concept of failing forward? How should students from low-income backgrounds, or students experiencing stereotype threat celebrate failure when it can have drastic implications for their future?

In addition to their questions, I still have my own that I’m grappling with:

  • Knowing that culture starts at the top, how do I show my failures to SI Leaders without undercutting my own ethos?
  • I may be their senior as a Coordinator, but I’m also the most junior SI Leader on the team; how do I share my moments of learning with them?
  • How much am I willing to accept failure as a learning process for SI Leaders? Am I ready to devote the time and energy to a professional development model that views mistakes as an integral part of the learning process?

I think the only conclusion I have come to is that failure is extremely nuanced, and not as clear-cut as I perhaps wanted it to be at one time. While I definitely don’t have complete answers to the questions above, I am finding value in thinking on them. I would certainly welcome your thoughts and ideas!

SI Study Tables: A New Perspective

by Chris Gasser

For the last few years, I have coordinated the Supplemental Instruction (SI) program, which offers group study table for historically challenging courses. Each SI table is led by an SI Leader, a student who has completed the course and is trained to facilitate collaborative learning. Over the years, I have trained SI Leaders, but for the first time this year, I got to practice what I preach. In winter, I expanded my role to SI Coordinator/SI Leader. Despite having a strong conceptual understanding of SI, I had the privilege of practical learning through leading study tables throughout the term. Here are a few of my takeaways.

Tutoring ≠ teaching (& they satisfy very different needs)

I like to think I’m an ok teacher, somewhere between John Keating and Mrs. Puff on the teacher spectrum. Yet, as I led study tables, I realized that my ability to teach isn’t really important; students already have excellent instructors. The value of SI as a program doesn’t come from the tutor’s knowledge. The value comes from the student’s engagement: getting support, seeking clarification, asking questions, offering explanations, and making mistakes, all in a low-stakes and collaborative environment. I think the big takeaway here is that people often think about tutors as mini-teachers, but in this context, that skillset is secondary to strong collaboration skills

Belonging matters

Closely connected with number 1 is the fact that belonging matters, and it is more than just a buzzword. In end of term feedback from students, it’s astounding how many comments highlight the experience of being known, feeling welcome, and creating meaningful connections. The feedback clearly demonstrates that belonging sets a foundation for a positive environment. A positive environment encourages positive engagement, and those two things continually reinforce each other.

Sometimes we have to break the rules

In SI, we use a lot of research and theory to drive our practice. We train on theoretical models, drawing from Vygotsky and constructivists, using Bloom’s Taxonomy, and focusing on the whole person. We also use collaborative strategies like think-pair share and interrogative inquiry. No doubt these are all effective, but I also learned that so too are the intentional decisions that experienced SI Leaders make to at times deviate from these practices. Especially when they are setting their students up for even more effective learning moments. In the past, I’ve treated these moments as missed opportunities to use best practices; I now see how they can also be so much more when done sparingly and intentionally.

Inquiry is often at odds with assessment

In SI, we talk a lot about study skills and learning as an inquiry-based process. We do everything we can to resist binary thought around knowing. Instead, we treat knowledge acquisition as an ongoing and multi-faceted process. Despite this foundation, SI Leaders are always caught between this approach to learning and the question: “will this be on the test?” While I always knew this existed, leading SI tables, this tension feels so much more tangible. At my tables, I found a very real pressure to not approach learning conceptually and instead offer what might most prepare students to pass exams. I can’t help but wonder if many traditional summative assessment practices aren’t hindering the curiosity that precedes conceptual learning.

We can add nuance to language around studying

When asking faculty about the best way to study for class, students are often told: “practice” and “do homework.” When I said those things as a faculty member, I often meant: “apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate every step of your process—until you know what you are doing and why.” SI tables can add nuance to language like “study” and “practice.” By showing the variety of ways to engage with content and naming these as practice and studying, we can help students see how varied and intentional their approaches to learning can be.

While I have ideas on how to address some of these things, both as SI Coordinator and SI Leader, those ideas are by no means complete. I would welcome an invitation to talk with you more about these experiences!

Be well!

Chris

Does SI Improve Student Performance?

by Chris Gasser

Hi Everyone!

Your friendly Supplemental Instruction (SI) Coordinator here to tell you about some awesome findings in the SI world. First, just as a quick reminder, SI offers group study tables for challenging courses at OSU. Spring term registration is open, and we still have plenty of space for students to join remote tables. Now on to the exciting things.

During the past year, SI teamed up with Dr. Nicholas Martens from Institutional Research to answer some tough SI questions: Is there selection bias in SI?  How much does SI actually help students? At what point should we consider a student an SI student? Using the past 4 years of data, including data from BI 21x, BI 23x, BI 33x, CH 23x, MTH 251, and PH 20x, we have answers for you.

In what ways, if any, are SI students different than Non-SI students?

Before we look at the impact of SI, many people ask about selection bias. Are students who elect to participate in SI different from students who don’t participate? Looking at the data, the following differences were found to be significant between the two populations. SI students are disproportionately female, have higher OSU cumulative GPAs and high school GPAs, have lower ALEKS math placement scores, and lower SAT/ACT scores. When it came to ethnic category, international status, first-generation status, age (as a binary of <25 & 25+), and Pell eligibility, there was no practically significant difference. These findings demonstrate that SI is serving many students proportionally across most demographics, while also reminding us that caution is needed when comparing SI to non-SI students.

Do students retaking courses and participating in SI earn higher grades?

One analysis looked at students who retook an SI supported course but who did not complete SI on their first course attempt. This analysis used a matched pair-design, matching by student and sorting into groups based on whether or not the student used SI on their second course attempt. While students typically do better on their second course attempt, this analysis showed that students retaking a class who used SI in their second attempt not only earned higher course grades their second time through, but earned over a half of a course grade higher than students who retook the course without using SI.

A second analysis conducted using linear regression produced a noteworthy inferential finding: the coefficient of impact on student course grade was .09 per SI attendance. In SI, we claim that students who complete SI earn on average 1/3 to ½ a grade point higher than non-SI students. The .09 coefficient x 4 times of SI attendance = .36 average course grade increase, falling right above that 1/3 course grade point and further supporting the claim that participation in SI increases average course grades.

These analyses provide strong evidence that SI really benefits students. Unsurprisingly, the more a student participates in SI, the greater the impact of the program. I’d love to share more of our findings with you, or talk about how we can get more students to experience the benefit of SI. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at chris.gasser@oregonstate.edu.