Matthew Mahavongtrakul, PhD, Division of Teaching Excellence and Innovation

I attended the AAC&U 2020 conference this January in Washington, DC, which focused on three topics:

  • Inclusive education using equitable, innovative, and cost-effective models.
  • Public trust in higher education given rising tuition costs
  • Pathways to student success across disciplines at 2- and 4-year institutions

In this post, I highlight what I took away from the conference, focusing on faculty development, undergraduate STEM reform, digital learning for student success, and nudging.

Faculty Development

The main question from these sessions addressed how faculty can participate in closing the equity gap. Successful assessment cultivates faculty ownership, which means faculty are involved in the entire process and assess things that the institution values. An example came from California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB), where they have faculty learning communities and workshops specifically addressing assessment design. To this end, they offered two resources: The Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC) Assessment Leadership Academy (preparing postsecondary professionals to provide leadership in a wide range of assessments of student learning) and the Undergraduate Learning Outcomes (ULO) Scholars Program (CSUMB-specific).

In addition, the Association of College and University Educators (ACUE) has an Effective Practice Framework credential program that focuses on designing an effective course, establishing a productive learning environment, using active learning strategies, promoting higher order thinking, and assessing to inform instruction and promote learning.

Undergraduate STEM Reform

This session focused on the  competitive University of North Carolina at Greensboro Science, Technology and Math Preparation Scholarships (STAMPS) Program, which is funded through the NSF Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (S-STEM) Program. Students in his program receive financial, research, and peer support with the goal of increasing graduation rates and retention in STEM majors. Cohorts of students participate in immersive experiences such as STEM-oriented day trips, extended field trips, and speaker series to help develop scientific identity. Students take two cohort courses about transitioning to college life (Fall) and how to succeed in science (Spring).

Participating in the STAMPS program increases self-efficacy, science identity, and sense of belonging. The major factors contributing to continuing persistence were field trips, interaction with personnel, and faculty mentors. At an institution with low graduation rates (55.6% overall during 2016-17), the STAMPS program saw 100% graduation rate, with 87% of the participants graduating in STEM majors.

Digital Learning for Student Success

This session focused on adaptive courseware and the Every Learner Everywhere network. The idea is to give students multiple paths to success depending on some metrics to personalize the learning experience. This online tool integrates well with different learning management systems (Canvas, Blackboard, etc.) and decreases DFW rates (the rates of “D”, “F”, and “W” grades). In addition, pairing adaptive courseware with learning assistants (see UC Irvine’s Certified Learning Assistants Program for an example) further increases student performance.

The most important aspect to consider before implementation is faculty buy-in. Next, there needs to be leadership in embedding digital learning into the campus community. But this doesn’t mean that if you don’t have institutional support you can’t successfully implement this into your own course. Check out the EdSurge Courseware Product Index to see if there are already existing resources for your course!


Nudging is altering people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options (Thaler and Sunstein, 2009). Essentially, having people opt out of something instead of opting in. One of the main takeaways was that good design anticipates mistakes. An institutional example, although it has caveats, is about scheduling courses. For example, if all freshman seminars are held at the same time, and a student wants to switch from one to another at the beginning of a term, they won’t have have to deal with scheduling conflicts.

A more practical example would be how we as educators can nudge students’ sleeping schedule. If we set submission deadlines to Sunday at 11:59pm, students will likely stay up late on Sunday working on the assignment and not get enough rest for a Monday morning class. But if we change the deadlines to something like Friday at 5pm, students can enjoy their weekend and come back refreshed for the new week. This sort of nudge is also addressing equity. Some students work on weekends and/or have family obligations – what sort of message are we sending them if our assignments are due Sunday night?

A couple of other things I learned from this session include the use of emojis and how they can have an impact on how a message is perceived. There is actually a large body of peer reviewed papers looking at the effects of using emojis in higher education. Turns out that adding a smiley face at the end of a statement like “87% of students found the review video helpful for the midterm 😄” positively engages students. Also, simply asking students something like, “Are you going to study tomorrow” nudges them to study compared to not asking. The key though, is immediacy. If you asked, “Are you going to study next week?”, the effects seems to go away.


As a first time attendee, I learned so much from the AAC&U conference. I really enjoyed how grounded the research presented was, not just in terms of references, but in terms of longevity. Most of the studies presented were conducted over years and had well-established assessment tools. If you’re interested, next year’s conference is in Seattle!