16 Student Leaders as Agents of Change

Kadian M. Callahan, Kaylla Williams, and Scott Reese

1 Background

Student difficulty with learning experiences in undergraduate STEM courses have influenced their decisions to switch out of a STEM degree program (e.g., President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, 2012; Seymour & Hewitt, 1997); however, programmatic structures, policies, and practices also create barriers to academic achievement and retaining students, especially women and students from racial/ethnic minority groups that are traditionally underserved in STEM (Seymour & Hewitt, 1997; Seymour et al., 2019). Thus, approaches that extend beyond the classroom are needed to improve success in undergraduate STEM education.

Student Leaders (SLs; e.g., learning assistants, teaching assistants, or peer mentors) are often involved in course-related efforts to enhance teaching and learning in STEM. Interactions with more advanced peers can enhance thinking within the zone of proximal development so that students are able to move beyond what they would have been able to do on their own (Vygotsky, 1978) and bolsters academic outcomes for a diversity of undergraduate STEM students (Bowling, 2015; Tien et al., 2002). In addition to their ability to enhance students’ learning experiences in course-related contexts, SLs have the potential to improve success in STEM more broadly. Breslin et al. (2018) assert that by valuing the expertise of SLs’ ideas and lived experiences, institutions can become more student-centered. They argue that SLs should be fully engaged “not just in the delivery of services to students, but also in program development, assessment and evaluation, outreach, peer training, and research” (p. 51). Specifically, SLs’ insights can help faculty, staff, and administrators understand challenges that students face and can offer suggestions for how to reshape structures, policies, and practices (Healey et al., 2010; Tien et al., 2002) in ways that may make a difference in students’ decisions to persist in STEM programs (Bowling, 2015). This grass-roots approach to fostering change in undergraduate STEM involves altering the mindsets and perspectives of faculty, staff, and administrators and may be a powerful way to create and sustain change (see Klein et al, this volume).

Although existing research suggests that SLs can improve undergraduate STEM education both in and outside of course-related contexts, research is very limited on the extent of SLs’ involvement in leading change, particularly in making improvements to programmatic structures, policies, and practices. Our study represents an effort to expand understandings of how SLs can serve as change agents for making broad improvements to undergraduate STEM education with an eye on influencing students’ decisions to continue to pursue STEM degrees. The specific research question was: How do Student Leaders influence efforts to improve success in undergraduate STEM education in course-related and non-course-related contexts?

2 Theoretical Framework

Improving undergraduate STEM education most often involves training faculty to use new curriculum tools or pedagogical strategies, working to develop faculty into reflective practitioners, or enacting policies to influence change (Borrego & Henderson, 2014). While there is some evidence of success with individual instructors and courses, approaches that apply multiple levers can counteract forces that work against change (Miller & Fairweather, 2016). Henderson and colleagues (e.g., Henderson et al., 2011; Henderson et al., 2010) evaluated a wide range of STEM improvement projects and categorized them into four change strategies based on two criteria. The first focuses on the aspect of the system that is to be changed: individuals, institutions, environments, or structures. The second focuses on the outcomes of the change strategy and whether it is intended to be prescribed or emergent. The four change strategies that resulted from using these criteria were:

a) Disseminating curriculum and pedagogy,
b) Developing reflective practitioners,
c) Enacting policies to influence change, and
d) Developing a shared vision.

Although applied less often, developing a shared vision is a change strategy that works to develop new knowledge and perspectives from within the organization—often by disrupting organizational patterns (Borrego & Henderson, 2014). While SLs’ involvement in course-related contexts contributes to developing reflective practitioners, inserting student voices into spaces that have traditionally only involved faculty or administrators was used as a strategy to disrupt existing tendencies and catalyze change that is more emergent and authentically addresses the needs of a diversity of learners. For this study, SLs were included to stimulate new conversations focused on improving teaching and learning in courses and changing programmatic structures and policies to support success and retention in STEM for a broader diversity of students.

3 Setting and Context

This study was conducted at a mostly undergraduate, regional institution in the southeastern United States with over 35,000 students. The diverse student body is comprised of approximately 21% African Americans and 10% Hispanics, and 19% of undergraduate students are over 24 years old. While the university retains ~75% of students from the first year to the second, the STEM programs retain only ~69% and only ~64% of students from traditionally underserved populations. Participants in this study (SLs, faculty, staff, and administrators) were situated in the STEM College that is responsible for early science and mathematics courses taken by both STEM and non-STEM majors. Most of the SLs have a major in that STEM College and a majority are members of traditionally underserved groups. They are involved in supporting student learning during class, serve on different College committees (e.g., inclusion and diversity, curriculum alignment, grade appeals), and work as undergraduate researchers involved in examining the impact of STEM improvement efforts. Additionally, SLs have been involved in workshops designed to expand faculty and administrators’ awareness of the student experience and deepen understanding of inclusive practices.

4 Methods

The primary data for this qualitative study was gathered through individual interviews with four faculty members and two SLs, and focus group interviews with seven administrators, six faculty members, two staff members, and four SLs working in the same STEM College. Each interview was conducted by one or two researchers using the same semi-structured interview protocols, which asked participants how SLs are influencing perspectives on teaching, learning, or the student experience relative to programmatic structures, policies, and practices. Interviews were audio recorded and the researchers’ written notes were digitally recorded. Artifacts from committee meetings and instructional episodes served as a secondary data source to provide additional context for interview data.

Data analysis involved open coding with constant comparison (Corbin & Strauss, 2008). Each of the three researchers, the authors, independently reviewed data collected from the interviews and then coded and recoded the data to identify emergent themes reflected across the data corpus with a particular focus on SLs’ influence on structures, policies, and practices. After discussing the proposed themes and supporting data, the researchers refined and came to consensus on three overarching themes:

a) Student Leaders build a sense of community
b) Student Leaders communicate information between students and faculty
c) Faculty and administrators see Student Leaders’ input as advisory

These themes and illustrative data are shared in the section that follows.

5 Results

5.1 Student Leaders Build a Sense of Community

Study participants recognized the important role that SLs have in building a sense of community among students. They referenced SLs’ ability to connect with students’ experiences, build students’ confidence and motivation, give students advice, and serve as role models. These comments were consistent across course-related and non-course-related contexts. When describing SLs who support her course, Cindy [Chemistry faculty] noted, “It is very important for the students to have someone they can go to who is more on their level … able to explain things to them in a different way … and to have that role model—this person succeeded so I can do it too. I can learn what they did or how they did it.” This quote speaks to the way that SLs can influence success in a course by helping students learn challenging material and demonstrate that it is possible for students to successfully progress through their programs—particularly important for traditionally underserved populations (Seymour & Hewitt, 1997).

SLs’ expression of care about students was also reflected outside of the classroom. After speaking with SLs about the challenges students face and witnessing their interactions with students, Chyna [associate dean] stated, “it changed me and helped me a lot to understand the student experience … how much they care about their peers, … [and] how much they enjoy being in community with each other.” Noel [dean] added, “I tend to be more purposeful in seeking student voice in terms of what is going on and chatting with them in [in]formal settings.” And, when reflecting on her involvement with the College, Neda [SL] said,

I joined the [inclusion and diversity committee] in hopes that maybe inclusivity—I feel like our classes are not targeted for every student. I am doing observations for laboratories and math classes in hopes that that will help the research people … understand what changes we can make so students can grasp the knowledge better or be better engaged during class.

Through fostering connections among peers both in and outside of class, SLs increase students’ academic and social integration and their involvement in the academic experience—important for increasing students’ retention and persistence (Callahan, 2009; Milem & Berger, 1997). Moreover, by making faculty, staff, and administrators aware of students’ need for community, they can influence opportunities provided for students in both contexts.

5.2 Student Leaders Communicate Information between Students and Faculty

SLs played a particularly important role in course-related contexts by sharing information between faculty and students, which shaped students’ learning experiences and influenced instructional practices. One barrier to students’ academic success in STEM is the need to move beyond memorization and algorithmic thinking toward analysis and synthesis—moving from lower to higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy (Krathwohl, 2002). Faculty consistently described SLs as helpful to students, providing information about what content to focus on, how to study, and encouraging them to attend office hours and help sessions. Moreover, SLs helped students make connections with the content in ways that are familiar to students, addressed learning challenges, and built students’ self-efficacy. Saundra [SL] stated, “when [students] feel really confident in mathematics, their odds of staying in STEM increases.” She recognized the importance of SLs helping to build students’ skills and their beliefs about their ability to be successful.

Faculty noted that SLs also provided them with information about how students were learning that they could use to make instructional changes. Xavier [Physics faculty] appreciated SLs sharing information when students were working hard to understand the material. Willette [Mathematics faculty] indicated that her SLs ask questions that remind her to readjust her instructional practices to address students’ needs as novice learners. And, when describing his SLs, Barker [Chemistry faculty] stated, “They have a more first-hand experience of the struggles that these students might face, so talking to [SLs] certainly allows for changing things on the fly.”

Outside of course related contexts, SLs communicated information to help shape structures and policies. During a focus group, an administrator noted that SLs share “great ideas that can enhance what we do for the students.” This included suggestions about improving processes for connecting students to help, creating meaningful off-ramps for challenging programs, and offering a minor that was of interest; these were areas where student voices were seriously considered. At times, SLs also communicated information to students that was gained from interacting with faculty and administrators. For example, Neda [SL] felt that it was important to share some of the information that she was learning from serving on the Inclusion and Diversity Committee, “I just tell [students] to be aware that not everybody has the same situation as them … If someone doesn’t do their part or if they are a little behind on their part, they should not automatically think this person is lazy.” In this and other ways, SLs were conveying messages that were central to the College’s efforts to improve success in undergraduate STEM education.

5.3 Faculty and Administrators See Student Leaders’ Input as Advisory

Unfortunately, many faculty, staff, and administrators did not value SLs as experts of the student experience. They appreciated SLs sharing their ideas to shape course learning opportunities; however, they responded with reluctance when taking actions in response to those ideas to adjust broader structures, policies, and practices. The primary role of SLs in course-related contexts is to assist with fostering student learning. They are not given authoritative or evaluative responsibility; thus, SLs are positioned in an advisory capacity. Cindy [Chemistry faculty] recognized the value of SLs’ advice when she explained that SLs provide information that she can use to determine if she needs to spend more time on a topic and that helps her to anticipate questions students might ask, but ultimately, she decides whether there was a need to adjust her instructional practices. Thus, she was open to making minor changes to her practice, but hesitant about giving up authority on what was best for her students.

When SLs shared ideas with faculty and administrators informally or formally on committees, the resistance to those ideas heightened. For example, Noel [dean] said, “I am not going to change the way instructors are doing their testing or things like that, but there are some very good suggestions.” Also, when an SL made a suggestion about what aspects of diversity the committee should work to expand, faculty on the Inclusion and Diversity Committee ended up explaining why they were focusing on the aspects that they were focused on rather than trying to find ways to incorporate the SLs’ ideas into their work. Thus, there was a dynamic when SLs shared their perspectives about ways to improve structures, policies, and practices that minimized the consideration of those ideas—limiting the College’s ability to shift away from traditional approaches.

6 Discussion

The role of change agents in undergraduate STEM improvement efforts can be complex. Some are identified as change agents without intending to serve in such a role, with no training to enact change, and needing to negotiate change within the constraints of existing systems (McGrath et al., 2016). This was largely the case for the SLs in the present study. Although SLs working in course-related contexts received pedagogical training, they were not trained on how to press faculty to rethink teaching and learning structures. Thus, faculty looked to SLs for information about their students’ needs and received it as advice to consider. Faculty did not see SLs as experts for transforming their course to intentionally address students’ needs. Kim et al. (2019) recognized the importance of SLs working with faculty to transform teaching and learning experiences in STEM classrooms and have seen promise in SLs serving as learning researchers—former learning assistants who support faculty in improving STEM courses by providing detailed weekly reports of student learning, including specific recommendations for improvement. Although faculty initially received the information with a focus on students’ understanding, over time they became more reflective and open to using the feedback to change their instructional practices.

While making course adjustments in response to advice shared by SLs is helpful, improving success in undergraduate STEM requires broader changes and greater consideration of students’ needs and interests. The SLs in this study who served on College committees were positioned to help identify opportunities for improvement that may have been missed because of faculty, staff, and administrators’ expert blind spot (Catrambone, 2011). Unfortunately, the study participant (including SLs themselves) saw SLs as unidirectional conduits of information from the College to students. Thus, SLs’ improvement ideas became more of an opportunity to educate them on why structures, policies, and practices are and should remain in place.

7 Recommendations

Students Leaders play an important role in improving undergraduate STEM education through academic-centered peer interactions that foster student learning during class (e.g., Callahan, 2016; Chan & Bauer, 2015) and create community among students outside of class (Treisman, 1992). Nevertheless, the challenge that institutions face is not finding ways to help students navigate through the current state of STEM, it is with enacting new structures, policies, and practices that transform undergraduate STEM education so that a broader diversity of students will be attracted to, retained in, and complete STEM degrees. One way to achieve this goal is to apply an additional change lever (see Halasek et al., this volume) of recognizing SLs as experts of the student experience and incorporate their ideas into decisions related to improving programmatic structures, policies, and practices. We suggest that institutions provide structured opportunities for guided exploration of topics moderated by change leaders where SLs are presented as experts on the student experience. This will explicitly challenge faculty and administrators to listen to the student voice as authoritative and elicit the necessary disruption to the status quo that can support institutional change, especially as they work together to foster equity and inclusion in STEM (see Cook-Sather et al., this volume).

Much more information is needed on how to position and support SLs to effectively serve as change agents, particularly given their limited decision-making authority in traditional STEM contexts. Studies also need to examine approaches for helping faculty, staff, and administrations receive SLs’ ideas and perspectives with more than just interest, but rather from a curious stance where they are open to change and improvement possibilities. As this body of research expands, it is our hope that those working to foster change in undergraduate STEM education will develop a better understanding of how to leverage SLs’ ideas to broaden student success and retention in STEM and continually revise efforts to improve over time. We invite others interested in this work to join us in this endeavor.

8 About the Authors

Kadian M. Callahan is the Assistant Dean for Faculty and Student Success in the College of Science and Mathematics at Kennesaw State University.

Kaylla Williams is a undergraduate research assistant for the College of Science and Mathematics at Kennesaw State University.

Scott Reese is the Assistant Dean for Curriculum in the College of Science and Mathematics at Kennesaw State University.

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