Framing the Student Learning Story

carolyn thomas seated at a table with six undergraduate students

Remarks from the UC Systemwide Conference on Undergraduate Education

by Carolyn Thomas, Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Education

January 6, 2017

About a year and a half ago, I had the opportunity to drive to Lake Tahoe with our admissions director, Walter Robinson, to explore a possible partnership with a regional community college. I took as much away from the car ride and the conversation as I did from the formal meetings we attended. This was because of two things: first, getting to the meeting required a two-hour ride in each direction, and that provided quite a bit of time for Walter and me to share ideas. And second, if you haven’t had a chance to talk with Walter, he is one of those rare individuals who explains things in a way that helps you understand an issue both intellectually and emotionally. Time with Walter is just deeper time. By using that time the way he can, Walter helped me see that I had a job to do—probably the most important job I was going to do in my career—and that I hadn’t realized it yet.

We got to talking about what we love about our jobs. I shared how, as a faculty administrator, it was satisfying to come to work every day focusing on how students can succeed academically. This had always been important to me in my classrooms, but now, in working with our amazing, experienced and wise professional staff, I had learned tools that improve students’ success; and I could encourage other faculty to learn about these things, and try to create rewards that made that work easier to do. Instead of helping one hundred students learn, I had the opportunity for more exponential impacts on students—even though I was not in the classroom as often.

The passion that Walter shared was access—supporting an admissions team and process that brought in the best and the brightest students from all areas of the state and beyond. Walter was talking about the best students as those who had, within their local contexts across the state, risen to the top by excelling academically beyond many of their peers.

By the time I got home from that car ride with Walter, I remember realizing that the way I had been thinking about student learning had to change. At UC Davis we are admitting students for the potential of what they will know and do as a result of spending four years on our campus. We are not admitting them because of what they know and have mastered at the point of entry. We are admitting them because of the exceptional learning, within their communities, they have accomplished—evidence of their tremendous capacity for the kind of academic excellence that can change the world. From this point of view, all of our students are ready to excel at UC Davis. What they may not be ready for is us: the assumptions we have about what they “should know” and how they “should learn,” assumptions that can make it very difficult for many of these amazing students to succeed once they become Aggies.

Around this same time I had been working with our team in the Center for Educational Effectiveness. Marco Molinaro, our director, had been teaching me about an experiment conducted in our introductory biology series. Through a relatively simple set of interventions, the faculty and their teaching assistants had created a learning environment in which students earned, on average, a half grade higher than those in similar courses without such interventions. Particularly interesting were the significant gains made by lower socio-economic status and underrepresented minority students.

When you boiled it down, the changes required were fairly simple—things many faculty could do without help even, if they just knew they should. They used online (and low cost) preparatory tools like ALEKS for chemistry that helped students master things they might have forgotten or not understood sufficiently in high school so they could be ready for new challenges in class. They gave mini-quizzes or used clickers to determine what foundational learning the students were failing to understand, and reviewed this material in class before adding new learning in class. They asked multiple students the same question, encouraging them to refine the answer, and then provided a final correct answer while asking each of the answerers to again state the correct answer to reinforce the right material. None of these took a ton of time or money to implement. And students did better.

I realized that these kinds of interventions offered the bridge required for students to cross between the promise they exhibit upon admission and the academic outcome of their time on campus. This is not to say there would not be struggles for some students, but there did not need to be a permanent “deficit” carried, because our teachers could use techniques that invited students to build stronger foundations, even as we added to those foundations with increased complexity through our degree programs.

Nearly two years later, much has changed. We have studies on preparation “gaps” and working groups on our campus to address them. There are books, speakers, and conferences on the topic. This year at UC Davis, equity in education is the theme for campus-hosted conferences for faculty, advisors, and administrators. And in the UC system, it’s an active area of engagement for our provosts, chancellors, system-wide president, and even our governor. Along with this awareness many of us have, there are the techniques to address these gaps. As this conference reveals, from e-coaching to ALEKS to co-classes and summer bridge, to new tools for informing faculty about who their students are, we now have numerous ways of improving learning outcomes in the classroom for our “new majority” students.

Each of us here has the opportunity to tell this story on our campuses, and it is a story each of us must tell as often as we can.

Imagine, for a second, if we applied Randy’s message yesterday about the difference a frame can make, to the story of teaching our students. In his example we go from talking about online courses being valuable because with them we can lower construction costs and more efficiently use classroom space on our campuses. Who wants to put time into changing their classroom approach to reach that goal? Instead, what if one approached online education as a means to help faculty do what they most want to do: to have transformational teaching contact with interested students? If some of the material is taught online at the lower division through proven learning platforms, courses at the upper division can have much more close contact between faculty and students: the questions asked can be more challenging and the work more engaging. If this is presented as a choice, far more faculty will be interested than they would if the goals we are pursuing are saved classroom spaces and lower instructional costs.

Think of how we might do this same thing with the story we are telling on our campuses about preparedness. We can shift our stories from a “deficit” model to one of talent cultivation, offering compelling reasons for change: We are leveling the playing field for our students—in spite of inequities in K-12 preparation in our state—and we are creating the next generation’s problem solvers. We can follow up this statement with data on the preparation gaps, or a presentation of tools that can easily enable learning gains for students. What the framing does is explain the reasons for change in the language of excellence and impact. It inspires. It creates a mindset change, and that has to come first before the pedagogy changes.

Of course there are structural issues that are key if we really want to provide support to faculty to make changes to teaching that enable equitable learning to occur. We need learning center support, we need rewards that recognize faculty as effective teachers embedded in the merit and promotion process, and we need department chairs who support their students through teaching innovation, to name just a few. Yet sometimes we work so hard to address these structural issues, focusing on the nuts and bolts of teaching tools and data on student success and changes we want to see to orientation that we lose sight of our power over the story. We who work in learning centers, with first year seminars, in collaboration with the senate, within institutional analysis, from the perspective of admissions, deep in the heart of student success centers—all of us gathered here—we are the people who come to work every day to make the university a place where our diverse students succeed academically. We have so many opportunities to tell this story. Let’s take those opportunities. And let’s make more of them.

I do believe we will succeed at creating learning centered classrooms on behalf of our students. Especially now, as California defines its principles and practices on a state and local level as based on inclusion, in anticipation of an administration that may not. I am probably not alone in waking up after the election and wanting to do something, to take some sort of action, to work for equity and justice. And then I remembered that I get to go to work. All of us, as educators, have the opportunity through our work to change lives and open up new ways of seeing the world for the next generation. And not only are we at a moment when fairness and equity have taken on a special resonance within the nation. We are also, on our own campuses, joined by a new generation of diverse faculty who are far more likely to have grown up speaking a language other than English at home or be the first in their families to attend college than were their predecessors. Together, we in the UC are uniquely prepared to make a real contribution to inclusion through the ways we engage our students.

We must give faculty the simple tools and strategies they need to achieve equitable learning gains, and support their adoption. And this conference says we are ready. At the same time, let’s leave here committed to telling the story of why we should use these tools and make these changes. Let’s tell this story in a way that our provosts, chancellors, and president can echo, as a story of inclusion, fairness, justice, and creative possibility.

This is not a small message. Once you hear you it changes you, and your sense of mission and purpose. Once you believe it you realize perhaps, as I have, that turning this story into a reality is the single most important accomplishment you can achieve in your lifetime. How exciting it is that the story is ours to tell.