Author Archives: Chris Gasser

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.