The Kennesaw State Advisor Incident

exterior_image2015-03-14_OhNoLogo22-mark3Every once in a while I come across a story that buzzes so close to my job or my values that I feel compelled to talk about it. A few weeks ago articles blaming over-sized administration for tuition increases got me thinking about where that rise might come from. This week, it’s an article about academic advising.

Last week, Kennesaw State student, Kevin Bruce, paid a visit to his advising office and was asked to leave — well, he was actually threatened with campus security. Rather than recap the story, I’ll pause for a minute to give you a chance to read it for yourself here or here. If you want to just skip to the video, see below.

Once this student posts the video, it takes off a little; makes its way onto the Huffington Post and other sites. The twitter-verse bounces it around. This is where I start to lose track of what’s going on. Reading through his twitter feed, the #ItsBiggerThanKSU hashtag gets some steam. Is race a factor here? Given the racism systemic to our nation, race often plays a factor at some level. But it seems to me the point he’s trying to make is that many students at Kennesaw are not graduating in 4 years and he’s implying that student affairs offices are core part of a student’s ability to make that achievement.

I’m with you Kevin, advising is important. And we need more (and apparently better) of it.

If you dig a little — and I mean just a little — you’ll come across very mean words directed at both Abby Dawson and at KSU. Are they are fault here? To some extent, sure. But let’s not forget a few core values of higher education (get ready, I’m going to speak for an entire industry here): learning and development. If every doofus-moment led to fired employees, we’d end up in a world filled with doofuses and nobody actually working. If her supervisor and the human resources department are not in the process of a performance improvement plan with Ms. Dawson, now’s probably a good time to make that happen. If incidents like this continue to happen, it might be time to look into termination of employment.

For anyone who’s not an advisor, the end of the term is when we are bombarded with student questions. This makes sense; courses fill and students need help finding resolved schedules which move them toward graduation. Some students are persistent with their questions. Often, students will reach out their advisor without consulting online documents at all. I hope that this was just a bad day for her. I hope that in the vast majority of her conversations with students, she’s pleasant. I hope. Regardless of whether the criticisms are justified, you can bet she’s had an awful week. Social media leaves little time for due process.

Fellow higher ed professionals, and everyone else, this is a reality of our lives now. In a moment’s notice, someone might be recording us at work. Is this inconvenient? Yes. Let’s try to remember that everyone we’re interacting with is also a person (and that our students are paying thousands to attend our institutions). Even though when we’re having a bad day, we want to ensure everyone around us is also having a bad day, and even though we sometimes try to pretend our busy times are “learning opportunities” for our students, it’s worth taking a second, minding our tone, and saying: “Hey man. I am so sorry, I can’t help you right now. Can you e-mail this to me and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can?”

Zero to Assessment

2015-03-14_OhNoLogo22-mark3As you know, it’s Make Assessment Easy Month here at Oh No. In the Engineering Advising Center, we recently (last year) re-vamped our office assessment(s), and I’ve learned oodles in the process. Whether you’re creating an office-wide strategy, or a strategy to measure the success of a specific program owned by your office, these four steps  (which I picked up from Nacada’s 2014 Assessment Institute) can help you get from nothing to a simple, focused, and effective strategy. Most of the links to which I’m referencing come from NACADA, though the concepts are applicable to more than just advising.

Step 1, Create Learning Outcomes: NACADA recommends that learning outcomes focus on what we want students to know, do, and value (see last paragraph in Concept of Academic Advising). It’s good to keep this list short. We have 8 outcomes we focus on in our office. The longer your list, the longer (and more boring) your report of results. If your colleagues fall asleep while you’re discussing the results, you may have too many outcomes.

Step 2, Opportunities for Students to Achieve Outcome: It’s good to have a plan for when (e.g., workshops, advising appointments, etc.) we want students to achieve our desired outcomes. This portion might include workshops, advising appointments, tutorials, etcetera. In most cases, this is what you’re already doing! Hopefully.

Step 3, By What Time Should Learning Occur? This step helps you indicate when you’d like students to achieve your outcomes. For example, if you’re a career services office and you want students to have created a resume, you probably want that to happen sometime before they’re job searching. We often use student academic years/terms for this. For the resume example, your deadline might be by the end of their first year*.

*Originally I put “junior year” here. Abby’s response gave me the sense that career services folks would riot in the streets if this didn’t happen until the junior year. My sincere apologies! Feel free to pretend this deadline is anytime you see fit…

Step 4, How Will You Know if the Outcome Has Been Met? We use this step to determine when we’re going to make a measurement. It helps to limit yourself to just a few surveys or queries a year — this keeps your process sustainable. Common times to collect data are at the end of orientation, fall, and spring term.

In the end, you will have a table, with the learning outcomes as rows and each step as a column.


This system works whether you’re creating an assessment for the entire office or if you’re just trying to assess one program. I’m using this process to assess our training and development of our orientation leaders this summer.

I hope you found this table useful. As you start to dive into the process of creating an assessment, you will come across questions that the table does not address (e.g., should we use surveys or focus groups or some combination of the two? Is our data valid? etc.). Just remember the KISS rule of thumb: Keep It Simple Steve. You may want to replace “Steve” with your name. The assessment does not have to be perfect. It should be simple enough for you (or someone else) to explain and follow through.

Yik Yak: A Space for Good?

2015-03-14_OhNoLogo22-mark3Finals week just ended for the University of Michigan. Finals is the time of year when student lives seem to pause and much of their attention focuses on exams and grades. With so much of our students’ grades hinging on the last few weeks of the term, this is a period when stress spikes.

Last fall, I learned of a new phone app becoming popular with our students. The app, called Yik Yak, allows users to post short bursts of text. What makes this app unique is that the posts are entirely anonymous. For those of you not familiar with Yik Yak, see the short overview at the very bottom of this post.

In my continuous quest to keep abreast of the lives of our students, I downloaded Yik Yak. I check the app every once in a while. Posts tend to fall into one of a handful of categories before getting buried by other posts and eventually expiring. Students post one-line jokes (often about college life), complaints about their courses or other students, pledges to reach out to their “crush,” even a few offers and requests for sex, etcetera.

Then I stumbled on this conversation — which I’ve included in its entirety at the bottom of this post. Go ahead, if you haven’t already, scroll through the conversation….

I see a variety of things here. I see a student who’s stressed and not sure how to cope. I see a conversation about suicide. I also see a community converging to support someone with whom they have just one thing in common, they’re UofM students.

Yik Yak has seen bad press since its creation. The critics claiming that it’s rife with bullying and a breeding ground for bigotry. Sure, many of the posts on Yik Yak are not contributing to a better world, but I don’t know that the space created by the app makes it a worse place. Whether we like it or not, we (higher ed professionals) have no say in how our students are using the internet. The largest role we can play is to help them make sense of what they see out there.

From what I gather, this student did not follow through with the suicide — though, of course, who knows. The group did gather on the diag.

I’m not sure how to close this post. I wanted to share the example of Yik Yak being used for good, but I don’t know that the experience has changed the way I go about my work. Yik Yak is neither inherently good nor bad, but regardless, social media apps are here to stay. Students are stressed and sometimes that leads to thoughts of suicide.  I’m glad that one person’s cry for help not only led to community support for that individual, but also raised awareness of suicide. I suppose the message is to keep on keeping on, and sometimes… often even… our students will surprise us.

Screenshot_2015-04-26-10-08-18[1] Screenshot_2015-04-26-10-08-26[1] Screenshot_2015-04-26-10-08-41[1] Screenshot_2015-04-26-10-08-47[1] Screenshot_2015-04-26-10-08-54[1] Screenshot_2015-04-26-10-09-00[1] Screenshot_2015-04-26-10-09-06[1] Screenshot_2015-04-26-10-09-12[1] Screenshot_2015-04-26-10-09-17[1] Screenshot_2015-04-26-10-09-23[1] Screenshot_2015-04-26-10-09-29[1] Screenshot_2015-04-26-10-09-35[1] Screenshot_2015-04-26-10-09-41[1] Screenshot_2015-04-26-10-09-52[1] Screenshot_2015-04-26-10-09-59[1] Screenshot_2015-04-26-10-10-04[1] Screenshot_2015-04-26-10-10-09[1] Screenshot_2015-04-26-10-10-15[1] Screenshot_2015-04-26-10-10-21[1] Screenshot_2015-04-26-10-10-27[1] Screenshot_2015-04-26-10-10-33[1] Screenshot_2015-04-26-10-10-39[1] Screenshot_2015-04-26-10-10-45[1] Screenshot_2015-04-26-10-10-51[1] Screenshot_2015-04-26-10-10-57[1] Screenshot_2015-04-26-10-19-21[1]

YIK YAK OVERVIEW: The app works much like twitter, where users post short bursts of text and content is viewed as a list, with the most recent posts at the top — though you are able to reply to posts, thus creating conversations (one of which I’ve shared below). The app only shows “yaks” occurring within a certain radius (a few miles) of you. As a result, communities of Yakkers have popped up around colleges and universities.

The yaks are completely anonymous, though the system randomly assigns a color and symbol to each user in a conversation, allowing you to keep track of who’s saying what within a conversation. In the conversation below, you’ll see a number at the right of the screen. For each post, users can choose to up-vote or down-vote the post. The number shows the count of up-votes (minus down-votes) a post has received. If you’re still confused about Yik Yak, google it — I’m sure many more have explained the app in a far more readable fashion than I just did.

Giggle or Think?

2015-03-14_OhNoLogo22-mark3Friday’s here, which means MORE THAN USUAL FUN!

If you’re looking to giggle, check out this video:

Want to think? Here’s an interesting article:

So, if fake buttons can make people more satisfied crossing the street. Maybe we need a “click here to make assessment more fun” button…

Why College Tuition Continues to Rise

2015-03-14_OhNoLogo22-mark3Have you heard? Tuition is expensive!  College Board (the group behind high school AP courses) reports the average numbers — including tuition, fees, and room and board — for 2013-14: private ($42.4k), public in-state ($18.9k), public 2-year ($11k).

I recently stumbled upon a few articles on the topic. One blames the expansion of administration, especially top-administrator salaries. Another blames… well… the boom of administration. Full disclosure, I’m one of the staff members these folks believe there are too many of. I decided to look into this myself and see what I could find. The content below was originally an e-mail to my fiancee (sorry Kate, I just couldn’t stop). About halfway through I decided to make it into post.

Federal money goes into two main areas: loans/scholarships and research grants. It also appears to be split rather evenly between them (check it out). The research grants do nothing for the price of tuition, as they fund research. The scholarships do nothing to the price of college aside from offering a more accessible way to pay for it.

This leaves the states with the responsibility of keeping their higher ed tuition cheap. But more and more students are going to college, 15 to 20 million from 2000-2012, an increase of about 2.5% per year. And inflation rates have been about 3% per year over the past 10 years. Assuming that schools are not offering more services (thus rising costs), state funding would need to rise about 5.5% annually over that period to keep per-student cost and education quality the same — and I don’t think that’s been happening. If this report is reputable, per the bottom-right-most cell on page 27, it looks like, on average, states spent 23% less per student over the last 5 years — about a 2% decrease each year. All this while colleges are asked, and sometimes required, to provide more support.

Now consider that colleges need to compete for their students. What do students want? High rankings (prestige), sports, and fancy dining halls/gyms/facilities. Nobody is wowed by your tutoring program, your counseling office, or your student conduct office because nobody plans to use them. Strong students want to get into the highest ranked college they can for their program of interest.

So colleges (and their funding sources) need to choose: Do we want to bring in strong students OR focus on access? But hold on, what if our funding is tied to student performance? If so, why would we bring in students who we know are likely to struggle? The best way to bring up retention numbers is to bring in stronger students. How do we bring in stronger students? Sports, fancy buildings, etcetera.

The point? The current funding system makes it difficult for low and mid-level schools to exist. We want more students attending college, but don’t want to fund the support required for those less-talented students. Treating schools as businesses where the (financially) strong thrive and weak fail is a poor strategy for keeping tuition down. I don’t know if there’s a secret model that allows for an inexpensive great education.

The bigger point? For us to move forward, the states and federal government need to sort out a big question: Are we committed to a system that allows a college education for all? Without some sort of consensus, funding correlates strongly with the economy and becomes unpredictable. The strong (i.e., ivies and public flagships) weather the storm and the weak (i.e., community colleges) fail. If we’re not careful, we might end up with… uh oh… For U.S. Universities, the Rich Get Richer Faster

Of course, this is a complicated issue. The rising cost of tuition does not boil down to just one cause. Evident by my choice of profession, I believe in the value of a college education. I think the experience improves who we are as people. More than simply a set of coursework,  it requires students to make decisions about their values and start uncovering their identity. I’m worried that in the search of an efficient education system, we’re squeezing the diversity out of the post-secondary options.

What Should Assessment Measure?

2015-03-14_OhNoLogo22-mark3When starting an assessment — which, to me is the moment you identify learning outcomes — I tend to back my way into the learning outcomes. I ask myself: what do we want students to gain from their whole college experience? I narrow that down to the outcomes we hope our office provides, and on to outcomes for students at this particular time in their college experience, and then to the level of outcomes targeted by a specific effort — that is, what we do in our office.

Often, some lofty outcomes duck and dodge their way through every revision. I’m referring to outcomes along the lines of “student takes responsibility for their education and development.” Is that important? Definitely! …but what the… heck… does it mean? And when have students met this outcome? When they wake up and go to class? Or when they’ve decided on an interest and pursued information about that interest without the prodding of an advisor?

This leads me to the question: What should assessment measure? Do we reach for those lofty outcomes or aim for those more measurable (e.g., student met with advisor*)? I’ve come to a conclusion on this. We need to aim for the measurable ones; then when presenting the data, explain the implications on the lofty outcomes.

Here’s why:

I spent the first two years of my first advising job creating the ultimate assessment tool. A tool that would put Nate Silver’s presidential election result models to shame. The tool featured a set of “indicators” for each outcome. The idea: each outcome is complicated, let’s take several different measurements that, together, would tell us the extent to which student meet the outcomes. I created an MS Word document to lay out the learning outcomes, then another to indicate which indicators told us about which outcomes. Finally, I created a PowerPoint presentation to clarify the overall process and indicate which measurements should be taken when.

Problem 1: Too many pieces! If you’re collecting data from 15 different sources each year (surveys, student data, focus groups, etc.), how will you keep all of that up? As my role within the office developed, I had less time for collecting data.

Problem 2: Try explaining to someone why this group of 7-8 indicators means that students are (or are not) able to assess and improve their study strategies. In time, I had two years of data and could not explain (or understand it) in a way that we could use to improve our office services.

My suggestion to you? Keep it simple.

  1. Limit the number of learning outcomes you create.
  2. Don’t use more than 3 measurements (triangulation) to capture student achievement of an outcome.
  3. Focus on outcomes people (your office, your administration, your students) care about.
  4. Focus on outcomes for which your office is responsible. For example, establishing open communication with your roommate may be a good outcome for a residence life office but probably not for an advising office.

It’s easy to get caught up in the details and for your assessment strategy to become a monster. Just remember, if you’re hit by a bus** you need a system that someone else in your office can pick up relatively easily.

*If you’re thinking “Mark, that’s an action, not a learning outcome,” bottle up that thought, I’m sure we’ll address the makings of a good learning outcome soon. In the meantime, feel free to browse this article from the NACADA website.

**Why is this phrase so popular? Are professionals particularly prone to bus accidents? If so, why is this not in the news?

Why Won’t Students Listen?

2015-03-14_OhNoLogo22-mark3I had a presentation recently in front of a slew of prospective students. They had a variety of questions ranging from “how will my AP credit count” to “what’s the difference between a co-op and an internship?” To be honest, those questions were from the parents. The students were in varied states of sleeping or looking at the floor.

Was the presentation that bad? Are you just so disinterested that you can’t manage to pay attention to a 45-minute long presentation? Wait, is this my fault? Should we change the presentation? Should we have known that students in a group have a limited attention span? Should I have been more engaging in my response to their questions? It’s almost as if they didn’t care about the research opportunities in robotics that we offer!?!

It’s unfortunate that the easiest means of communication are often the least effective. It’s fairly easy to plop down some information in an e-mail or in a presentation and put it out there. But it can be exhausting to pay attention for long periods of time; or short periods of time if the information is boring or repetitive. Raise your hand if you’ve ever ignored the flight safety speech right before takeoff. Bonus points if you held your book or newspaper up as though to say “No. I’m not listening. I’m much more interested in this crossword puzzle.” It’s not that the information is unimportant, it’s that we don’t think we’ll need it.

Think about all of the advice our students get. US News and World Report conveniently ranks institutions and gives median test scores — the students don’t even have to work to find their reaches and their safety schools! Their parents, afraid their student might move back in, are nudging them toward certain job-oriented majors.

Then students get to campus for orientation and we shout at them:


SPEND 30-45 HOURS PER WEEK STUDYING! (more than they spent on any single activity in high school)


Our students don’t need more information. They don’t need automated e-mails with lists of the things they should be thinking about. They need the right information at the right time and they need help processing that information. This is where we come in. Students need help unpacking all of the information sent their way. They need support connecting what we have to offer with what’s right for them.

The support they need is not simple, it’s not easy, and it sure isn’t efficient. If you haven’t picked it up yet, I’m hinting at mentorship; someone who knows a student and can help them craft their college experience. Through these relationships, students build trust with an individual who knows them. Someone who’s not disappointed when they’re not the student body president or not getting straight A’s.

Most of our offices are not set up for mentorship. We have many students to serve and not much time for each one individually. I think the first step toward these relationships is to personalize an interaction whenever possible. Refer to something they said in an e-mail. Use their name frequently in the conversation. Find ways to communicate that they’re not just one of many students you work with. The more students feel like we know them, the more likely they are hear the things we want them to hear.