Friday, November 11, 2011


Friday Fragments

At dinner last night, TW saw a ladybug crawling on the wall. I was drafted to catch it and set it loose outside, but it fell to the floor and scurried under the rug. As I sat back down, I broke into song, to the tune of “Ladies’ Night.”

Oh it’s a ladybug
and it’s in the rug
Oh it’s a ladybug
Oh, what a bug
(lower) Oh, what a bug...


The Boy (deadpan): That was unnecessary.


A window into my world: let’s say you have a proposal for x dollars to increase the available hours for tutoring in the tutoring center, another proposal for x dollars to add supplemental instructors to some new courses, and yet another proposal for x dollars for the library. And you have 1x dollars to spend. On what basis do you make the decision?

This is where “evidence-based” or “data-driven” decisions are tough. I don’t know how to measure the bang for the buck of a few more tutors as opposed to more coverage at the reference desk as opposed to some more supplemental instructors. There’s no obvious value-added metric. And when the funding available is enough to do some but not all, then you have to base the decision on something.

On what basis would you make the call?


Note to Zooey Deschanel: there’s such a thing as too much mugging. I’m just sayin’.


Note to my fellow bloggers: the Penn State scandal is the kind of thing that brings out the worst in many bloggers. While some of the larger issues are clear -- most notably around the dangers of excessive inbreeding and length of service -- many of the particulars are still murky. It may be worth getting some clarity before writing things that won’t help.


At dinner last night, TB and TG drew up a crossword puzzle. TG did an “across” with six letters, and the clue was “tonight I’m gonna get …” The answer was “funky,” spelled “funccy.”

Bless her, that was how she thought that sentence ended. And well it should. Even if they don’t like my rendition of the ladybug song...

And you have 1x dollars to spend. On what basis do you make the decision?

Why can't those functions be combined? Librarians are tutors and tutors aresupplemental instructors. Just sayin'.
You can only make a data-driven decision if you have been collecting and processing data for those impacts for as long as possible. That is what makes an institution "data driven". You just ask and the data are already there.

We measure the effect of tutors, although to be precise, we only measure the effect of students using the center, not individual tutors.

I've never seen a CC class so big that you had "supplemental" instructors in the room, like with a 60 student lab that has one instructor plus a lot of helpers. But if we did, we would definitely have data comparing those to other sections just like we do for classes that make scheduled use of the tutoring center.

We started collecting those data when we first piloted the tutoring center.

PS on Penn State -

Much of the poorly informed discussion has been because the journalism has been so poor on that story. It was not "a student" who reported witnessing one incident, it was a GA coach. It did not happen in "a locker room", it happened in the team locker room, one used exclusively by the football team. And the first investigation was not shut down by the university, it was shut down by the local DA. Read the indictment.
Why can't those functions be combined? Librarians are tutors and tutors are supplemental instructors. Just sayin'.

While we're at it, why not make librarians professors, professors tutors, and tutors librarians? If you rig it correctly, you can have staff numbers in the single digits.

Snarkiness aside, this is a major problem with hiring. At first you think you're solving multiple problems at once by doubling up on roles, but really you're causing more headaches down the road. Think about what happens when you have to cut positions. If the librarian is also the tutor, how do you scale back tutoring without affecting the library?

I do think this is an interesting problem with evidence- and data-based management. What happens when the data is either sparse or extremely difficult to acquire? Or just plain sucks?
On what basis would you make the call?

You reference your strategic plan. Every college and department should have one. It gives you a framework within which to start making plans and some previously agreed upon goals to reference back to if people ask why you did what you did.

With regard to those three specific things:

I would evaluate the possiblility of getting grants to fund the supplemental instructors based on increased student success. The tutoring center could be part of that as well. If a good faith effort is made to get grant funds and they are not received, then I would consider using college funds on a short term basis to get prelim data showing that this program deserves grant funds (and then try again) If the library cost is one-time, I would consider floating it as long as it fits within the long term plan you have for library services. But if it represents an on-going expense, I would first ask the library what adjustments they have considered to try to make do with existing resources.

You are not Santa. People need to understand that when they come to you with a request, they are more likely to be funded if what they are asking for fits with a collectively developed long term plan for the college or meets a need they have made an effort to meet through grant funds without success. It also wouldn't hurt if they considered working with the development office (especially the library) so that the college can diversify the different funding streams coming in.
Regarding where to spend money, you have to look at demand. Are there long waits to see a librarian at the reference desk? Have students complained about not being able to get tutoring at the times they need it?
Listen to what there are requests from students from, and that will indicate which area needs more resources.
The two questions to consider are 1) where is the need greatest, and 2) where will the money make the biggest difference.

I don't think complicated data analysis is the right way to answer these questions, although looking at some numbers may help. Based on your blog it sounds like you have spent a lot of time at your college and take your job very seriously. You probably have some level of personal familiarity with each of the three sub-institutions involved. If I was in your position I would compose paragraph answers (maybe only mentally, or maybe actually write it down) to the two questions at the beginning of my comment, and then just pick. Of course it always helps to talk something like this out, either with a colleague, a friend, your wife, etc. if that's an option.

Also I don't know what the process requirements are for your job -- maybe you're forced to justify yourself more quantitatively. But if that's the case I think it's a mistake. I would always prefer to rely on the judgment of a thoughtful person who has the best interests of the college in mind.
Regarding the x dollars problem, we don’t know whether the x dollar budget increase is for one year only, or if it is permanent. This will affect your answer.

If it is for one year only, arguably your best shot at increasing student success over time is to give the money to the library, with the stipulation that they spend it on books supporting Comp I assignments.

Comp I research paper topics often encompass a wide spectrum of the social sciences, so the books that the library buys for Comp I students can also be used by students in psychology, sociology, economics, government (political science), or history.

Spending the money for a one-year-only increase in part-time tutors, SI, or a part-time reference librarian will solve your problem for exactly one year. If you spend on books, though, remember that the sorts of books that the library will be buying often retain their usefulness for at least a few years, which increases the number of students able to use them.

Although it’s not easy to prove that any single thing you do will have a predictable, positive effect on student success, you’ll have to look pretty hard to find someone on campus who doesn’t think that students would benefit from increased access to books.

I think you might be misunderstanding what DD means by "supplemental instructors." A supplemental instruction program is similar to a recitation section. Supplemental instruction leaders, who are students that have (ideally) received training, lead a sort of cross between a mass tutoring session and a study group.
Having been a student recently, I say spend the money on tutors. The supplemental instructors may be good or not. You can have library use tutors, science lab tutors, writing tutors. . .many kinds of tutors who can work with individual students or groups of 3 or 4.

My decision would be to build a strong basic foundation for preparing students with their basics. Work on basic foundations any year you can, and let the other extras come after them.

Always strengthen and build a foundation for anything. . . houses, math learning, tree plantings, last coat of paint, basic vocabulary of any language, etc.
Oops. I misread the signature info again. My last comment was directed to Mike @12:47pm.
Well, it would have been, if the comment hadn't been lost in the aether. My observation to Mike was that this is a problem when terminology is specific to a particular institution or region.

At my CC, that sort of program is part of the regular duties of student tutors and adjuncts who also work as tutors at our center, including (but not limited to) when classes meet at the tutoring center. I don't see it as a separate choice.
This comment has been removed by the author.

Agreed. I had never heard of "Supplemental Instruction" until I moved to my current institution 3 years ago.

Although, it apparently is a reasonably widespread program. I know of at least one that isn't on this map:
SI's are available only to the students in that one section of that class. Tutors are available to all students taking that class (until their availability is booked, of course). I go in favor of the tutors.

But it also depends on your campus culture. On mine, at best about 5% of students in a class with SI actually attend. Since most classes are capped at 50 or less, that means we're helping about 5 students per SI, per semester. Not excellent numbers. Our tutors routinely see many more students. If SI is more widely utilized on your campus, then things might be different. You probably have this data at your disposal since most SI programs require SIs to track number of students in attendance (some also track whether they are new attendees or repeat visitors, which also plays into calculation of total # of students taking advantage of the assistance)
I see. "SI" is available only to specific sections of the class rather than to everyone in a class, the way we do it. But we track more than numbers present.

As I mentioned in the aether-eaten post (in reply to Math Postdoc), statistical analysis of good data can offer amazing insights. Our students sign in to participate in a particular tutoring center activity, so we can correlate use of the facility with grades and grad rates.
I know this is going to come across as naive but here goes:

I think it's wrong to fixate too much on grades and grad rates. Let me try to draw a parallel with teaching, because that is where I have direct experience.

When I teach I am concerned with how much of the material my students are absorbing, and how many problems they are getting right on their homework and tests. I am also concerned with the evaluations I get at the end of the semester. But there is more to teaching than that -- I want to impart a sense of wonder and excitement about the material, I want to be mentor and a role model (as much as that is possible). I think having students is a little bit like having kids, and you want the best for them more generally.

So I go on tangents in class to make connections with other disciplines, and when a student is struggling I try to get a sense of what is going on in their life (a little bit -- of course I don't pry) enough to give specific, personal advice about what to do differently.

What I'm advocating is a personal approach. Don't just crunch numbers until an answer pops out and you're absolved of the responsibility of making a choice. When you teach, ask yourself what is best for the students ("best" in the same way you would ask what is best for your kids), and when you administrate ask yourself what is best for all the people affected by the decision you are making.

Of course it's unrealistic to devote the same energy and attention to teaching or administrating as to parenting, but that's the ideal to keep in mind.
Not naive, just not relevant to the question of how to allocate x00,000 dollars of (one time?) college-wide funds.

But you also beg the question of how you (or your Dean) might go about discovering how much material your students are absorbing or whether you created a sense of interest in the material. Is it enough to see what grade they got on your tests, or even specific sub-problems from a test? Or would you like to know if your students had a better chance of passing the NEXT class they take than those who had another instructor?

I'll just observe that such "longitudinal" data can be REALLY interesting, and much more concrete than anecdotal comments from former students or the one student that actually changes majors after taking a gen-ed class.
Don't be dissin' Zooey. What, you think Whitney is better?
I'm trying to make the case not to overdo the emphasis on “evidence-based” and “data-driven”. I measure student achievement partly by homework and test scores and grades, but also I try to gauge interest and enthusiasm by talking to the students -- not just asking them directly, but noticing when and on what topics they ask questions, and what the questions are, whether they seem to be doing reading outside of class or not, etc.

In the example of the original question, I think Dean Dad should take into account not only statistics about the effect on grades and grad rates of each of these changes. Also ask: if the library is open more hours, will that make students more inclined to spend time on campus outside of class, perhaps becoming more immersed in their studies? Is buying new books a long overdue investment, because the collection is becoming obsolete? Is more money needed to hire a more highly qualified librarian or to update the training of the people already there?

You can use numbers and data to answer any of these questions, but to weigh the priorities against each other requires a fuzzier kind of judgment. I think Dean Dad has enough accumulated wisdom and experience with his specific college to answer the questions concretely and ad hoc, and get a better answer than could be spat out by any formula.
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