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A aerial shot of UC Santa Cruz's campus next to a headshot image of Jody Greene

University of Santa Cruz/Jody Greene

The Voices of Student Success podcast series is a companion to the Student Success news hub and subsection of The Key, Inside Higher Ed’s news and analysis podcast.

Over the course of six episodes, host Ashley Mowreader and her guests are discussing solutions and innovations in higher education designed to promote persistence, engagement and graduation among today’s learners. Listeners will learn from a variety of leaders at institutions of different sizes and locations about how they’re working to improve their students’ lives in college and beyond.

This week’s episode features Jody Greene, associate campus provost for academic success at the University of California, Santa Cruz, on the relationship between faculty and student success, how UCSC is empowering faculty to practice equitable course design and the future of academic success.

An edited version of the conversation follows.

Inside Higher Ed: Can you talk a little about your role at University of California, Santa Cruz? What’s in your purview and why was this new role created?

Greene: I came out of the faculty after about 20 years to found the campus teaching center. And in the process of doing that, it really became clear that, with the student success movement, with our becoming a Hispanic-serving institution and an AANAPISI [Asian American, Native American and Pacific Islander–serving institution], and just in general with the movement for educational equity and public higher ed, that we needed someone to sit at the juncture of student success and faculty success.

My current role is the associate campus provost for academic success. It’s a pure strategy role, so I don’t have a division. I don’t have direct reports. And I work with the provost, and to some degree with the chancellor, to really think about what it means to be a world-class research university that is also a minority-serving institution that is student centered.

Q: The term “academic success” in your title is interesting, like you mentioned, because it encompasses faculty and student success. Can you talk a little bit about that relationship and how they are hinged on one another?

A: I think for a long time, the student success movement—this is an overstatement, but not a wild overstatement—has occurred a little bit outside of the purview of the faculty. We’ve had this idea that we could bring on student-facing programs and expand our student affairs, student engagement, student success divisions. But really, at most—at least, research universities—that movement has bypassed the faculty.

And on the faculty side, the faculty has not shown significant interest in this movement. I think this is the moment in the University of California, in particular—because of an agreement that recently has occurred between our governor and the president of the UC system that really binds us to eliminating equity gaps and improving our graduation rates for both transfer and frosh admits—that’s something that we cannot do without the faculty, because it involves the design of courses and curricula, which, of course, is exclusively within the purview of the faculty.

My job kind of has two parts. One part is to engage the faculty in the part of student success that is exclusively within their sphere of influence. That’s really teaching course design, curriculum design and mentoring. So that’s kind of half of it. And then the other half, that’s what I call the nonadditive model of student success, where we’re really thinking about how to do deep transformation. And then on the other side is the faculty success side, which is—we haven’t really had a sustainable approach to student success at most of our institutions of higher education.

The question is, what needs to change about the distribution of faculty labor in order to make being a minority-serving, student-centered university sustainable and feasible? Because you cannot simply leave everything else in place and then tell the faculty to transform the institution on the educational side. That’s not a sustainable approach.

Q: In the past couple of years, since the pandemic, the role of the faculty member has changed quite a bit regarding what’s been expected of the faculty member or how we see faculty contributing to student success. Can you talk a little bit about that paradigm shift and how you are challenging that by saying this is not an additive model?

A: I think the big historic transformation is the notion that faculty bear some responsibility for the success of students. And that might seem like a really wild thing to say, like, “What do you mean, the faculty didn’t think they bore any responsibility for student success?”

But I can tell you that in my 20 years of teaching, I never went back and looked at longitudinal student outcomes in my courses. The idea was, I brought the course and the teaching, the students brought their diligence and interest, and they could be as successful as they wanted to be in this static space called my course.

I think what we have now is much more of a notion of shared responsibility, that the faculty member bears some responsibility for designing a course for learning and with equity in mind, and that the students still has the responsibility to bring all of their diligence and attention to their courses.

Another piece of this post-pandemic has to do with the turn to what some people call flexibility, [which] other people think of as a kind of ethic of care for students. I think what’s happening right now is that we’re really trying to find a balance and to find some boundaries, because infinite flexibility is not good for learning and no flexibility is not good for learning. But we don’t have a lot of guidance around what is the sweet spot of flexibility.

It’s important to remember that at an institution like mine, where a lot of courses are lecture courses, to give individual students flexibility is an enormous burden on the time of the faculty if you don’t design for flexibility in advance. So one of the things that we’re trying to do is teach instructors how to design in advance for flexibility.

I think the final thing I would say to your question about the shift around the faculty role is just this notion of whether our public institutions are prepared for the students that we’re admitting, as opposed to “Are the students prepared for the institution?” Because basically, by admitting you, we have told you that you’re prepared. And so we need to change, as institutions, to meet the students that we’re admitting and not expect the students to enter our institutions and then, on some level, have to qualify to be here.

Q: Even with different pedagogies or different classrooms, setups can impact equity when it comes to grade distribution, which obviously is not an indicator of academic success but grades. But I was wondering what your thoughts are when it comes to redesigning classrooms and looking at equity gaps. What are you seeing, what’s in the growing field of research that you’re looking at?

A: Mostly, it’s just to recenter our attention on student learning. You know, everybody says it over and over again: college professors were not taught to teach. And that is true; we mostly replicate the way that we were taught, and we designed courses that look like the courses that we took.

On my campus, what we’ve done is to pretty quickly stand up a sizable teaching center that is a very instructor-focused teaching center. So it’s not a corrective teaching center; it wants to provide support or resources and advocacy for graduate students, lecturers and tenure-track faculty who are teaching. And what we try to do is to take a design focus so that we teach people what is good course design for learning. We’re hardly alone in this—every institution in the country is engaged in this activity. But we really try to think about how to design well, because one of the things that we know is that a well-designed course taught poorly yields a lot more learning than a poorly designed course taught well.

So focusing our attention on, what are the learning goals of this course? What are the activities that we’re doing that build toward those goals? How are we assessing whether people are making progress toward those goals? How are we responding when it turns out that some people may not be progressing toward those goals in the way that we thought they were? It’s much more design focused.

And also monitoring along the way—it’s not just about having one big, high-stakes exam at the end and giving everybody a grade and saying, “Well, if you didn’t do well, it was your responsibility to figure that out early on.” We really are taking responsibility as educators for tracking the progress of our students along the way. So that’s a big part of the equity focus, is just designing in a responsive way to make sure that we’re paying attention when students are falling behind or not able to grasp the material, and we’re putting supports in place to make sure that they can keep progressing if they want to and if they’re willing to apply themselves to do so.

Q: You mentioned looking at benchmarks rather than just a final exam or cumulative. I wonder how data is incorporated into your work or into faculty work in general at UCSC?

A: We have a couple of different ways. At the individual instructor level, we have a lot more tools available to us through learning management systems that can quickly tell us.

Let’s say you’ve got a class of 400 students. You’ve got eight or 10 teaching assistants; you can very quickly generate a list of the students who did not pass the first midterm and do outreach to them. There’s an ease of gathering that information that maybe we didn’t quite have in the past.

But well beyond the first course level, we have dashboards that are at the individual level, the course level, the major level, the department level and the institutional level. And we are all looking at those outcomes data constantly to make sure that we know, OK, where are the places where we have high failure rates? Can we design a better course? When we have high failure rates, when we redesign a course—and this part is really critical in order to keep trust with my colleagues—when we redesign a course and students do better in that course, it’s possible that we just rigged it so that the students would do better—we, quote, “lowered our standards.”

And so we’re constantly pulling in data from the downstream courses, the courses that students take next and after that in the sequence to make sure that [they] are redesigned, set them up better or [for] learning downstream than the old version of the course. There’s a lot of looking at these data in a sophisticated way that sort of blocks the exits on gaming the system.

The other thing that I would say is, as important as outcomes data are, that’s not the only question that we ask. Student success is not just retention and time to degree. We need to also have an expanded notion of student success. So are they career ready? Are they life ready? Are they world ready? Are they thriving? You know, in an ideal world, do they feel a sense of belonging? Do they feel a sense of disciplinary identity? And not only can we survey to find out the answers to some of those questions, but we can also design courses in ways that promote belonging and in ways that prohibit belonging. So we try to take a design approach, even to those more psycho-social measures, such as identity and belonging.

Q: Can you expand on that a little bit? What are some different ways that belonging can be incorporated into a course?

A: Much of it has to do with just how you communicate. I definitely—to open my shame briefcase, as Torgny Roxå says, this great educational developer in Sweden—I definitely was the person who walked in on the first day and told you all the rules that we’re going to obtain in my classroom. And I tried to convey that this was because I wanted you to learn, and I didn’t want you to be able to coast on your prior educational privilege. But there is no doubt that I came in the door going, “thou shalt not” and “this is what’s going to happen if you do.”

And so that did not necessarily create a space for students to feel that this was affirmative as a learning environment. It basically communicated to them that I had already thought about all the ways they were not going to live up to my expectations and how I was going to punish them for that.

A huge amount of it just has to do with how you communicate. Do you come in on the first day and say, “Every student in this room can pass this class, and I am personally committed, if you make the effort, to ensuring that you can pass this class”? That means a huge amount to students.

For folks who themselves may be first generation, they can say, “Hey, I was a first-generation college student, and here are some hacks,” just to use the language of “This is what it takes to succeed in the course. I’m going to give you the secret codes; I’m going to tell you what success looks like.”

Ideally, and I used to do this in my courses, too, in my sort of notoriously more difficult courses, like courses in literary theory. I would have the students from the prior year write a letter to the students in the next class about how to succeed, because I can tell you that, I can stand up there and say, “If you want to succeed in this class, you’ve got to do the reading.” And it just sounds like the parents in Charlie Brown—wah, wah, wah, womp, womp, womp, womp, right?

Whereas, if they see a student who succeeded in the class and said, “You know, I really would [do] this, I really struggled with this class. But I did the reading, and I went to office hours, and I kept up with the writing. And I sought help when I needed it. And I managed to prevail. And I know that it’s going to seem like a hard class, because it’s all this weird philosophy stuff. But you know, this class is set up for you to be able to succeed”—that makes a huge difference to students.

Q: That’s awesome. I’m gonna ask you kind of a silly question to round things off. If you had to look into your crystal ball for 2024, what trends in academic success or student success do you anticipate?

A: I do think there’s going to be a lot more conversation about that sweet spot that I talked about, where, you know, setting healthy boundaries, which is something that we, as faculty members, can actually learn from people on the student-facing side. They have a whole literature on when students benefit from boundaries and when they benefit from flexibility. So I think there’s going to be a lot more attention to setting some boundaries for our students so that they can learn and succeed.

We’re going to continue to have conversations about modality. And I just think that that is going to continue to be a big challenge. The students have spoken—they want a certain amount of their coursework to be able to be done without leaving the house. How we respond to that, as a design challenge, is going to really determine whether or not we’re able to retain these students. I think those are probably going to continue to be very hot topics.

And then of course, you know, I would be remiss if I did not say that AI [artificial intelligence] is going to continue to be massive. I actually think it might even be, if not a bigger conversation next year, it’s going to be a more disciplined conversation, because we’ve now had a year … or whatever it is to acknowledge that AI is here to stay. I think we’re going to begin to see, for better or worse, quite a lot of the sort of ed-tech firms popping up to tell us both how to make better use of AI in teaching and learning in higher ed, and also how to control for some of the downsides of AI. I think there’s going to be a certain amount of AI infrastructure outside the bounds of universities that’s going to pop up.

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