Illumination by Modern Campus

Leslie Webb (University of Montana) on the Student-Centered Roadmap to Understanding Modern Learners

April 04, 2024 Modern Campus
Leslie Webb (University of Montana) on the Student-Centered Roadmap to Understanding Modern Learners
Illumination by Modern Campus
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Illumination by Modern Campus
Leslie Webb (University of Montana) on the Student-Centered Roadmap to Understanding Modern Learners
Apr 04, 2024
Modern Campus

On today’s episode of the Illumination by Modern Campus podcast, podcast host Shauna Cox was joined by Leslie Webb to discuss the importance of understanding your learner demographic to meet their needs effectively and the challenges that come with the data around them. 

Show Notes Transcript

On today’s episode of the Illumination by Modern Campus podcast, podcast host Shauna Cox was joined by Leslie Webb to discuss the importance of understanding your learner demographic to meet their needs effectively and the challenges that come with the data around them. 

Shauna Cox (00:02):Leslie, welcome to the Illumination Podcast. It's great to be chatting with you.

Leslie Webb (00:06):I'm so happy to be here. Thanks, Shauna.

Shauna Cox (00:08):Absolutely. So we're looking today at understanding your audience and knowing who they are and just kind of diving into the students themselves, because quite honestly, that's what we're all here for, especially nowadays in higher ed. Correct me if I'm wrong, but demographics are shifting and there seems to be more of a mix of these demographics in the market. So going off our main point here, why is it important for institutions to have a more comprehensive understanding of who exactly they're serving?

Leslie Webb (00:43):Yeah, I think it's such a good question. I think it's really the only way that we will know what possible modifications or interventions are needed with regard to supporting students. I mean, if students spend 150 hours outside the classroom each week, we need to make sure that we are providing support services and opportunities for them to be as healthy and well as they possibly can so they can perform inside the classroom. I think that's one reason. I'd also say that understanding who our students are helps us to inform the necessary composition of our faculty and staff. So students really want to see themselves reflected in the workforce and the place that they are spending four plus years. And then finally, I think that I would say just as important as understanding who we are serving. I think it's really important to know who we're not serving and why, but I know we'll talk about that in a minute.

Shauna Cox (01:37):Yeah, absolutely. So I know that the whole idea of understanding who you're serving is imperative to the work that you do with your institution. And so have you seen any notable shifts or changes in the demographics of students, specifically at the University of Montana? And if you have, how are you guys adapting to their needs?

Leslie Webb (02:01):It's such an important, I mean, all these are such important questions, so thank you. Yeah, and I'm just going to share with you what we've seen, and I've only been here for a year and a half, so I don't have this longitudinal history at the University of Montana. So I'm just going to give you, here's what we've seen recently. We've seen an increase in students who need academic accommodations, a significant increase. We've seen an increase in first generation students, in veteran students, in students who are Pell eligible or have financial need. We've seen an increase in our American Indian, native American tribally enrolled students, and then less specifically related to populations. We've seen an increase in what students are thinking about, for example, what matters with regard to their health and wellbeing. And if you're interested, I can sort of share with you the top five challenges they're facing.

(02:57):Absolutely. The students who are saying that they're struggling with sleeping, procrastination and a significant increase in students who are dealing with anxiety or depression or both. So all of those things that we're learning from our students are informing how we are reframing not just the first experience, but I'm going to focus on the first year experience here because that's a critical year. So all those shifts that I just shared with you are informing our adaptation. We're focused on reframing the first year student experience, so both for the general student body and to ensure we're supporting unique populations in a way that really make the most sense to them. So for us, designing support services, interventions, programs, et cetera for students with students is really, really important. So a couple weeks ago, I sat down with a group of about 50 students and interviewed them about what made their first year memorable and significant, and I'll sort of end my answer with saying students are an expert in their experience, but some of us sometimes don't really think about that and how we might engage them in a conversation to inform what it is that we need to do to better support them.

(04:19):So I'll pause right there, but we can dig deeper if you want.

Shauna Cox (04:22):Yeah. So just a follow-up question I was going to ask you here is what exactly are students expecting of the institution now with those five core challenges that you mentioned? How are they expecting you guys to help them overcome these challenges and provide more of those support services?

Leslie Webb (04:52):I just wanted to grab it so I could actually articulately speak about it. So a couple of things. So here at our students have told us their top five challenges, procrastination, finances, and Shauna. This one took me by surprise, although it also didn't. So I don't know, I can punch against myself with that. A personal appearance is number three. And then after that, academics and after that, the health of someone else. So that's what they're sharing with us in addition to those things that I mentioned around health and wellbeing. And so what we know is not all students want to seek someone like me out, but they're willing to have a conversation with somebody who's also a student. So at the University of Montana, I'm so proud of our Curry Health Center and Wellness department. We have embedded wellbeing coordinators in all the academic colleges and some non-academic throughout the institution. Those embedded wellbeing coordinators are peer level subclinical students who are helping students to normalize anxiety, studying for tests, pick your subclinical topic. So that's one way is we're really trying to increase the amount of peer ambassadors that we have to connect with students because, not that you can see me, but students don't always want to talk to an administrator or someone they perceive to be out of touch. I'm not out of touch, but I work really hard to stay in touch. So does that sort of get

Shauna Cox (06:32):Yeah, absolutely. And I think it's amazing what you guys are doing in terms of the peer-to-peer because like you said, they don't always want to go to the adult even though they are adults. But it gives them someone else that I feel like that it's a less pressure to kind of get in touch with them and actually share what they're feeling and things like that. So it's really amazing at what you guys are doing. And now when it comes to understanding these students, I think you guys have a very good grasp of who your students are, and you have the right things in place to dive deeper into their needs and things like that. For oftentimes for institutions, understanding your students can rely on the data around them, and data isn't always exactly the easiest to access. For some institutions, it really is. And for some institutions they have no idea. So what are some of the challenges that institutions face when it comes to accessing and disaggregating data around those learners that they have?

Leslie Webb (07:36):Great question. So I'd say, and this might not be what is expected, but at face value, sometimes it's just bandwidth, the capacity of the folks who are tasked with the work. So that's the first thing is the number of, I would imagine the number of data requests at an institutional research office is pretty significant. And so how are we supporting and framing the priorities for the institution and the data that we want to see? And I'll give an example maybe of that if we have time for it. But first of all, I'll zoom back out and say, I think that we need one institutional point of truth so we can look at different data sets or even the same data sets and interpret them as we will. So I think it's important to make sure we have one point of truth that includes the context to inform the data.

(08:23):So as an example, we can grab all sorts of data about the student experience, who we're retaining, who we're not, who we might be losing, for example, in the junior year, et cetera. We can look at all those data, and I'm not going to say, but, and we really need to understand the qualitative stuff that surrounds the data. So the stories that investigate, for example, the student experience at a deeper level. So here's an example. We know that students who live off campus in their first year tend to have a less immersive campus experience. We just know that it's harder to connect with their peers. It's harder to juggle the demands of family working and other responsibilities. So what are we doing to better invite commuters into the campus experience in a way that's thoughtful and relevant to their needs and desires? So I think maybe if there were one other thing that I would say is that we should be using, and I'll probably talk a little bit about this more if there's space, but we should be using also the data that we have, and maybe that kind of dovetails into your next question.

Shauna Cox (09:40):Yeah, absolutely. I kind of want to insert a question before we head into that. In terms of the engaging commuters and stuff like that, are you guys specifically, and this might not be your realm of it, it might lie within student affairs or things like that. Are you guys actively engaged with your students in that way? Do you involve student affairs in the process? How are you guys attempting to reach out to them?

Leslie Webb (10:06):Such a good question. I am student affairs, so I have, although my title is VP for Student Success and Campus Life, so I have 25 plus departments, and they are all focused on academic support services. So that might be where we've skewed into the academic realm, but most of them are in the co-curricular student support area. So I have a pretty traditional student affairs portfolio at the university. So side note. So one of the things that we are doing is a pretty deep dive into the student experience and understanding what's working and what's not working. Hence my meeting with 50 incoming student ambassadors to understand their first year experience. But back to sort of the impetus for your question, we are increasingly involving students in the way that we think about the service work, programmatic work that we need to put in place for them uniquely at the University of Montana, we have a residency requirement. So most of our students are living with us in the first year. So the commuter example, not perfectly connected to the University of Montana, but relevant for many, many institutions across the nation, which is why I used it.

Shauna Cox (11:22):Yeah, absolutely. I think that definitely can expand it to many institutions that are facing that kind of experience. So I appreciate you expanding on that. And so that will now dovetail into the best practices portion of what are some of those best practice practices to overcome the challenges relating to the data that's around the students and understanding it, analyzing it, and actually using what you already have.

Leslie Webb (11:51):Yeah, my introduction isn't perfectly aligned with your question, but I think it's important to start there. And it gets back to that notion of how much data are we already collecting and what are we doing with it? I mean, how many binders do people have in their offices with lots of data from a national or from a regional or from a particular niche like the National Collegiate Health Association survey. So how much data do we already have? And I would ask, what data do we have that can inform the problem we're trying to solve? If we're collecting data but it's not connected to a problem, well then we probably ought not to be collecting it or we have to think critically about it. So then I would want to know who are we going to ask? Who are our stakeholders? What do we want to know and why?

(12:38):We need to let them know why we're asking them questions. And then it's important for us to circle back around and say, Hey, thank you so much for sharing your perspectives about our first six weeks of griz programming for you in your first year. Here's what we learned from you. Here's what you told us, and here's what we're doing with your feedback. So that's probably sort of the first thing that I would name just as a philosophical approach. And then I would say if there are common data sets published and accessible, great, but data and its interpretation and use should be really regular points of discussion in the governance frameworks of the institution, faculty, senate staff, student senate cabinet. And the reason I suggest this framework is important because we all want to use data to inform our slice or sliver, and we need to always understand the context and sort of the institute.

(13:37):It just has to be nestled in a larger framework that is clear and concise. And then an example to illuminate, and you asked a little bit about student affairs earlier, so here's a better example perhaps. So the student affairs leadership team that I provide support to, we've been working to align our programs and services to both the strategic priorities of the university, which isn't hard, by the way, because student success is a strategic priority. That's easy. And then to retention metrics and postgraduate outcomes. But in order to really hyperfocus on our progress as a group of 25 relatively disparate units moving toward a common goal together, which is increased retention, increased graduation rates, and postgraduate outcomes, we need to understand where we're falling short with who is not coming back. So right now we're looking at equity gaps and we'll design from there, a new set of interventions and services and programs to serve the unique populations that we are learning are not as likely to return in their second year. Absolutely,

Shauna Cox (14:50):A lot. It's a very well-rounded, I mean, those are some amazing best practices that you're sharing. And we're going to say that people listening have taken these best practices and have applied them at their institution. What impact does that level, you guys have such a deep level of understanding of the specific needs and characteristics of the demographics at your university. So what impact does that have on, as you alluded to there, the student success and retention?

Leslie Webb (15:23):Yeah, I am going to go back to this again. I don't know that I could underscore it enough. When we design with students around their experience, we have a far better likelihood, and I'll give an example. One time I worked with a psychology capstone course and their whole course was focused around designing an assessment. So they designed, well, they came to me and they said, Leslie, what do you want us to study? And I said, I want you to study the rural student experience or students from rural communities and their experience at the institution. So that very exercise for this capstone senior course created a massive and significant awareness in one course. So more than 50 students, it broadened their perspective. We learned about the needs of students from rural communities, and as a result, it spurred outreach support efforts that were tailored and informed by the student experience.

(16:29):When students are part of the solution, you can't hear it in my voice. We have such a better opportunity to impact them personally. So that's one example. And then I think I would say one more thing, and then we can go wherever you desire if anything else, but how are we communicating to and with students? So I'll give you an example. Our career services team here is working on a student focused, what to do in the first year related to career. So students are reviewing these prototypes that the career services team created, and students are sharing feedback about our language use. Does it make sense? What does this mean? Griz career skills? I'm not really sure. What does that mean? And so I think what I'm learning, what I continue to learn in this field is we're using our own vernacular. We're writing through our own lens for ourselves.

(17:22):We use way too many acronyms. Acronyms mean nothing even to a new person on campus. I don't know what all that means. So we really need to think about how accessible we are in our language use. It could be forward facing print materials, web materials, the way we're talking with students in focus groups in the classroom. We just need to be super thoughtful about that. So I think that I would say when we design with students and when we're designing for students, our level of accessibility to their experience and they're informing their experience is a game changer.

Shauna Cox (17:58):Absolutely. Well, Leslie, that's everything I have for you. But is there anywhere you want to dovetail add to advice you want to share when people are starting to understand who their audience is? 

Leslie Webb (18:20):I know. I like it. No, I mean, I think there's so much that, if there were one other thing that I might say is we have to make it palatable. We have to make it digestible, and we need to simplify. We really, really need to simplify both the data and our understanding, and we should never collect data without doing an executive summary and using those for something else. But I digress.

Shauna Cox (18:51):Well, Leslie, that's everything that we have for you. Now, before you go, we have to get your restaurant recommendation. We can't leave the podcast without that. So you are in Missoula, Montana. Where would someone need to go if they're coming to visit?

Leslie Webb (19:08):Oh, I really want to encourage them to go on a tour of the dive bars, but I probably ought not to do that. So I think I'll recommend just a solid standard favorite in our household, which is Zoo Thai

Shauna Cox (19:27):Do you have a favorite dish there? Anything?

Leslie Webb (19:30):Well, I don't eat the meats, so I tend to go for super spicy noodle dishes, but I think that I have yet to have anything on the menu that is not absolutely fantastic.

Shauna Cox (19:42):Amazing. That sounds so great. Well, Leslie, thank you again for joining me today. It was great chatting with you.

Leslie Webb (19:49):Thank you so much, Shana.