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The Prize Patrol strikes again

Posted on 01 April 2014 Comments (0)


For the last three years, our office has been surprising the recipients of our faculty awards by delivering their award letters in person to their classrooms, offices and meeting rooms. I wish we could claim the idea as our own, but the inspiration came from Ohio State. But whereas former OSU president Gordon Gee traditionally handed apples to the faculty winners, we opted for a flashier display with orange and blue balloons. (And I have to tell you, you will attract a lot of pleasant attention walking across campus with a bunch of balloons.)

Because I have the pleasure of handing the faculty their award plaques at the University Excellence Awards every April, I usually defer to the college deans to have the fun of making these surprise announcements in the weeks leading up to the ceremony. But last week, I went on my very first “prize patrol” for a faculty member that I’ve come to know quite well over the last two years.

Rebekah Smith, associate professor of psychology, is wrapping up her term as chair of the University Senate, and for much of this academic year, I have mentored her through the Leadership UTSA program. What’s particularly noteworthy is that Rebekah received the award for research achievement for her work on advancing the understanding on memory processes. In the past three years, she has been awarded $1 million in funding and published 12 articles in leading journals. That would be an achievement for any faculty member, but to do at the same time you’re running the Faculty Senate is remarkable.

We decided to surprise Rebekah during a meeting of the Faculty Senate’s executive committee, and as you can tell from the photos, she was appropriately flustered. Mission accomplished!

Congratulations to Rebekah and to all our faculty award recipients. And see you at the University Excellence Awards on April 8.


A new school year, but similar challenges

Posted on 09 September 2013 Comments (1)

I have always loved this time of year as the fall semester begins. A new school year offers the opportunity to start fresh, to pursue new goals, and to renew friendships with students and faculty alike. This year is no different.

Yet, despite this sense of renewal, I am nevertheless struck by the persistence of challenges that seem never to be resolved. Among them, I am most concerned about the debate balancing the cost vs. the quality of higher education.

I think most of us in higher education would agree that the cost of tuition at most universities is rapidly making a college education unaffordable for students from poorer families, and this is resulting in diminished access to higher education for just those students who might benefit from it the most. Many universities would justify that increased cost by pointing to the very real ways that the quality of the education they deliver is more rigorous, more oriented toward discovery and scholarship, more career-directed, and more global than it has ever been in the past. And this does not even consider the expense of building better classrooms with technology, residence halls, dining areas, and recreational facilities that are part of almost every university.

All of these developments incur costs that go beyond simple course delivery. So no matter how much I ponder the question, I cannot conjure a magic solution for lowering the cost of a college education. But that exercise is not a fruitless one; indeed, it has caused me to devote some thought toward what it is about a college education that makes it worthwhile.

Our life’s work as educators is about learning: learning through research and discovery, learning through reading, analysis and creative thought, learning through discourse and debate. And through our work at the university, our purpose is to share that learning — and hopefully our love of learning — with students.

But our students also learn from each other. Besides the academic topics that we as scholars find fascinating, students also learn many important life skills in college: they learn about teamwork, leadership, deadlines, communicating clearly, thinking critically, networking with peers, and accepting constructive criticism. They learn how to delve deeply into a subject, become an expert, and synthesize new analyses and perspectives on that subject. All of these skills will serve them the rest of their lives, no matter what academic concentration or career a student might pursue.

The key point is that students pick up these skills, not because they have taken a prescribed number of courses, but because they have undertaken their studies in the college environment. Ideally, they learn these skills as part of the personal development that comes from achieving a partial independence from their families, and engaging in activities that mimic the real world— in an environment where it is (relatively) safe to make mistakes. And, yes, they learn these skills under the guidance of scholars who have themselves made similar mistakes and learned from them.

That is college.

Creating the environment in which such personal development can take place is not easy, and unfortunately it is not inexpensive. And while some aspects of such an environment might be simulated online, I believe that the development of many of the life skills cited above would be significantly limited in a virtual setting.

So, is the quality of a college education worth the amount of money that we charge for tuition and fees? Obviously, that is a question that each student’s family must consider. And I imagine that they will balance that value judgment on the quality of the educational experience and learning environment that we provide, as well as on the enhanced career opportunities that our graduates enjoy.

I leave it to those of us who are part of the university’s community of learners and scholars to consider: what can we do to ensure that the answer is “yes”?

More thoughts on student course evaluations

Posted on 06 September 2013 Comments (0)

The week before the fall semester classes began, I circulated a memo to all faculty regarding student course evaluations. The memo highlighted the work over the summer of a task group, and relayed suggestions of ways to increase overall completion rates of our end-of-semester evaluations.

While there was nothing in particular left unwritten in the memo, I think the topic of increasing student participation in course evaluations is important enough to warrant revisiting and exploring more here.

The memo focused on ways faculty can encourage their students to complete their course evaluations, because based on our own research and anecdotal evidence, we do believe that faculty carry more weight than anything else in inducing students to complete the surveys.

When we first introduced course evaluations online in fall 2010, several instructors took the initiative to offer an extra credit or class participation point as incentive to their students to complete the surveys, and many more have employed that tactic in the semesters since. For faculty who are comfortable doing so, this is probably one of the most effective strategies. A corollary strategy that may also be effective is to offer extra credit to the entire class if the overall participation rate is above a certain percentage.

But faculty who might be reluctant to award credit still can do a lot to encourage students to complete their course evaluations. Including a statement about course evaluations in the course syllabus — akin to statements regarding academic dishonesty or accommodating students with disabilities — sets the tone at the start of the semester that the instructor values student feedback. And as the evaluation period opens later in the semester, making frequent in-class announcements will help remind students to complete the evaluations.

Moreover, talking with students about how you may have used student feedback to improve your course would go a long way to alleviate any cynicism about the evaluation process. This is one of the ways that I used to encourage students to provide feedback when I taught, and I could usually point to several features of the course that had been influenced by student feedback. I believe this also has the effect of steering students toward a constructive model of criticism that helps them understand that course surveys are a platform for civil discourse!

We will continue to look at ways to better advertise course evaluations to students and incentivize them with prize drawings. The task group also suggested incentivizing faculty to encourage student participation by offering travel and/or M&O funds to the departments with the highest response rates or offering choice of class times, when feasible, to the faculty with the highest response rates.

Longer-term possibilities considered by the task group include dedicating time in-class to allow students to complete surveys on their smart phones or laptops, and developing a mobile app that would make the online process even simpler.

The ideas the task group generated should by no means be considered exhaustive, so I continue to welcome ideas from any and all. What should we being doing to increase student response rates? What successful methods have you employed to increase response rates for your courses?

Stories from the stage: A family affair

Posted on 18 June 2012 Comments (0)

Commencement rightly is a family affair, which is why I especially was delighted to be present at the Honors College ceremony last month to witness this moment between new graduate Brianna Roberts and her mom, Kim Kline.


Brianna was one of nearly 3,000 bachelor’s students who graduated this semester, and Kim is both a faculty and staff member at UTSA, serving as associate professor of communication and assistant vice provost for assessment.

It should be noted that sociology professor Derral Cheatwood actually was Brianna’s honors thesis advisor, but he graciously surrendered his final duties to Kim so that she could hood Brianna onstage.

“I’m a proud momma, and also a proud Roadrunner,” says Kim. Indeed she is: Kim always is quick to point out the numerous enrichment opportunities that were available to Brianna as a UTSA student, such as participating in the Archer Fellowship Program and the Summer Law School Preparation Academy.

It also deserves mention that Brianna was among the first graduating class of the university’s new Multidisciplinary Studies degree program. Brianna’s an exceptional representative of the program — a high-achieving student with varied interests.

Five Multidisciplinary Studies graduates walked the stage in May and another eight are set to finish their degrees this summer. It’s wonderful to see how this new program, in only its first year, already is filling an unmet need for our students.

Congratulations, Brianna! (And you, too, Kim!)