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Episode 40

transformed: Refreshing Student Engagement Post-COVID.

In this episode, Ann Marie VanDerZanden – Associate Provost for Academic Programs at Iowa State University – describes how a special task force is helping her institution to refresh student engagement post-COVID.

Joe Gottlieb: (00:01)

Welcome to Transformed a Higher Digital podcast focused on the new why’s, the new what’s, and the new how’s in higher ed. In each episode, you will experience hosts and guests pulling for the resurgence of higher ed, while identifying and discussing the best practices needed to accomplish that resurgence. Culture, strategy, and tactics, planning and execution, people, process, and technology. It’s all on the menu because that’s what’s required to truly transform. Hello, welcome and thanks for joining us for another episode of Transformed. My name is Joe Gottlieb, President, and CTO of Higher Digital, and today I am joined by Ann Marie VanDerZanden,  Associate Provost for Academic Programs at Iowa State University. Ann Marie, welcome to Transformed


Ann Marie VanDerZanden: (00:55)

Thanks, Joe. Happy to be here. What do you wanna talk about? 


Joe Gottlieb: (01:00)

Well, I’m glad you asked. I really wanna talk about your efforts there at Iowa State to refresh student engagement post covid. But first, tell me a bit about your personal journey and how it shaped your perspective and passion for the work you do in higher ed. 


Ann Marie VanDerZanden: (01:16)

Sure, I’m happy to. So, I’ve been a faculty member for almost 30 years and really have had the wonderful opportunity to work with thousands of students over that time. I’ve seen students come to campus that are excited to be there, others that are very, um, nervous to be there, and others that know clearly what they wanna do and, and how they wanna get through their college experience. But I think that, you know, my interest in higher ed, uh, really started when I was a a kid. Um, I remember my dad going to summer school, um, during the, uh, when I was a child, and he was working on his master’s degree, uh, in order to become a principal. So I remember very vividly he had leave on Sunday night and drive four hours to the university. You’d be there all week and then come home, be home on the weekends. 


Ann Marie VanDerZanden: (02:07)

And that went on a number of times. But as a result of that, he earned his, uh, master’s degree and then was able to be a, uh, a middle school principal for almost 30 years. And so I saw firsthand the value of that dedication, what higher ed can do, and how that, you know, really impacted us as a family because of, of what he was able to do for his career. So, um, I think that’s part of why I’ve continued in higher ed and why I really see such a value for, for anyone who wants to pursue it. 


Joe Gottlieb: (02:36)

Great, great story. So you, you know, I, as we talked about, what, what, So you br you’re bringing that passion to a post covid challenge that every institution finds itself coping with, right? You, no one has been insulated from this pandemic in terms of its impact on not only students, but also staff and the way organizations are grappling with these challenges. And so, I know the reason why we got to talking was you literally, you commissioned a task force to figure out how to refresh student engagement. But before we, we dive into the task force, cuz I wanna talk of course a lot about that. But what, maybe we can dive into some of the details of what you were specifically seeing that that caused you to, to commission the task force. I mean, that’s a big effort and it takes resources and time, but you were seeing things that, uh, I think were troubling you. So tell me a bit about that. 


Ann Marie VanDerZanden: (03:34)

I think at our institution, you know, we, we certainly were aware that things were going to be different, um, post covid as we came back onto campus more fully, uh, students started, you know, taking on those more typical types of things that they had done previous, uh, to the pandemic. And so there were lots of conversations, uh, going on, on campus and small, you know, pockets. And, um, I think some of the key themes that we really started to see was that our first and second year students, those that had been most impacted by the disruption of the end of their high school experience, didn’t really know how to do college anymore. And I know that’s kind of a, a funny phrase, but so much of what we took for granted as an institution, those informal networks of undergraduate students interacting with the upperclassmen and seeing them going to the different club activities or, you know, running into them in the hallway or hanging out in the departmental study room, or not a lot of studying happens, but those networks certainly are created. 


Ann Marie VanDerZanden: (04:44)

Um, those students didn’t see that. They didn’t understand the value of that and why that was really, uh, important to their success once they, you know, moved through their college experience. I think the other thing we noticed was, um, that the freshmen were more vulnerable in how they were coming into campus. Um, they had such a disruption for those last two years of, uh, their high school experience. Those, um, networks that they normally had when they would come in were impacted in one way or another. Either a parents had lost their job or, you know, many of them experienced loss of somebody who died. So from a vulnerability standpoint, many of them were already, uh, experiencing that before they came to campus. And so I think as an institution, we tried to think about, you know, what were some of these examples that we then might be able to do, you know, some work around, it’s one thing to notice these things in kind of anecdotal observations, but, um, then we really looked at a little bit more specific. 


Ann Marie VanDerZanden: (05:52)

And one of ’em was academic performance. That’s something that we, you know, track on a regular basis based on our support systems that we have. And, and we saw students having a, a lower academic performance than what traditionally we have seen in that, that first semester we noticed, um, the faculty advisors, people who were interacting with our students were noting that there was a change in their social skills and kind of how they interacted with their peers. So much of that we, again, they would’ve done in those last couple of years in high school, which just didn’t happen the same way. So they didn’t have that chance to build those skills and build that experience before they came to college. Um, and I think that kind of ties in with the other thing that we observed, which was less participation in our co-curricular activities, our on campus events, we have almost 900 clubs that our students can get involved in. 


Ann Marie VanDerZanden: (06:52)

And so there’s something for everybody to find. And, uh, we just saw lower overall attendance and, um, and not wanting to get engaged. And then I think the most telling, and this really comes from our colleagues in the student health area, where they were able to, to note the significant increases in the number of requests for mental health services from, um, ongoing counseling to, uh, available resources online to, to all of those things. So, you know, it kind of started at that high level around engagement, but then we really did identify some of those key key more definable issues that were, were clear to, 


Joe Gottlieb: (07:35)

Well, I have to say that I’ve talked to a lot of institutions, a lot of people at institutions, uh, institutions don’t talk about this topic. And I can’t say I’ve heard a more simple and coherent analysis of this root cause issue. And, and, and so, and let me repeat it back to see if I got it right, Right. So a first and second year students come in not knowing how to do college. Great way to sum that up, right? Because of what had just happened to them during, at that point, the most important years of their life. And, and for there’s a while there where every year’s the most important of life in terms of your formation, but oh my goodness, those students, I had one, you know, I have one, I I have, my youngest is a sophomore, and so ground zero for impact on high school, you know, literally the, the, I think the, uh, well, you know how it all went down, right? 


Joe Gottlieb: (08:36)

So a impacted by that not knowing how to do college b being more vulnerable in general for, for that same reason, right? So, so, so, and well that was, that was being more vulnerable as a parallel at the same time as not knowing how to do college, right? Not being able to see not being in a position to do that. And then, and then relating then not just performance as a, as a measurable outcome, but that engagement would be the root cause, right? That, that, okay, everyone has issues with performance, but it’s engagement and it’s for these reasons that we need to understand. And then wrapping it all up then with the, the awareness that mental illness needs or, or, or incidents is gonna be higher. Um, you know, and it’s always a spectrum, but that’s, that’s what’s so important, right? That it’s that you’re gonna experience more general load because there’s more, more severe cases, but also so many more borderline or just cases that are making it harder for students. And maybe that’s even harder for the institution, right? Because they don’t drop out, but they struggle the borderline cases. That is, I mean, I’m not, I’m speaking very bluntly about numbers, right? But, but anyway. So a quick question about this then is do you find, I mean, amongst your peers, do you find that your peers or people you talk to at other institutions have this clear understanding of, of what has been going on? 


Ann Marie VanDerZanden: (10:09)

I, I do think on, on some level or another, uh, there’s an organization that I’m part of that I have to say was just a fantastic resource as we navigated through the, uh, academic year 2020 and, and 2021, um, at other institutions they were dealing with similar types of things. It was a chance for us as leaders at the institution to share, you know, in a nonjudgmental way, just what are you seeing are, are you seeing an increase in, um, you know, from an academic performance students? Do you, do you have more students who are being, you know, on probation or potentially moving to dismissal or, um, you know, what type of an uptick are you seeing in your student health services? Are more students coming in for a, a one time meeting or are they needing continual support? And we really, I think, got to some problem solving points where it was, well, how are you dealing with it? 


Ann Marie VanDerZanden: (11:09)

You know, what resources are you putting together? Are you bringing together more people? Have you, uh, been able to allocate additional funding to help, um, the health services place or the academic success center or, or whatever it is on your institution? Uh, so I think we all at different times were looking at these various things. I think they showed up in slightly different ways at different institutions, kind of based on the type of institution they are. Iowa State is a very proud land grant institution. And accessibility and affordability is one of the things we really pride ourselves on. And we think that every student who’s admitted to our institution has every opportunity to be successful, and we then want to do what we can to ensure that, that they’re able to do that. 


Joe Gottlieb: (11:57)

I’m so glad you pointed out the, the ability to lean on benchmarking with peers at other, other institutions in this, in this case, because I have heard that, that the, the, the, the best practices that I’ve, I’ve, I’ve heard about involved some, some organizations that met, let’s say quarterly or monthly, were literally meeting weekly. So they could compare notes and pinch themselves and, and double check and say, Yeah, this is a, this is a big thing. We, we gotta keep understanding what to do about this. And because, because change is hard, right? And, and you, you get a recipe rolling and, and it’s hard to change that. It’s a complex organizational structure that’s fueling and driving each of these institutions. Um, and so peer peer benchmarking is, is a great resource. Glad you mentioned it. So now, before we go into the, what the task force has come up with so far, um, let’s talk a little bit about who you involved and why, and how you, how you set the task force goals and, and and the, the, the design of the task force itself. 


Ann Marie VanDerZanden: (13:06)

So the task force really came out of an existing group that we have on campus. Uh, the, our, um, faculty Senate Student Affairs Committee, which is a component of our, uh, faculty senate organization, uh, on campus. It has great representation of faculty, staff, undergraduate students, graduate students, uh, representatives from both the academic affairs area of the institution, as well as our student affairs area. And some of the conversations that that committee had been having during the previous eight to 10 months really kind of led to, you know, we’re talking about these things. What more can we do with an institution? How can we leverage us as a group to do something about that? And so, um, it was through a conversation with the chair of that committee that we established a task force added in some additional people who work in different areas, uh, on campus supporting students. 


Ann Marie VanDerZanden: (14:07)

So, for example, our learning communities, uh, our student health area, we wanted to make sure they were at the table, um, as well. And then, um, you know, I, I gave a charge to the group to develop a set of actionable recommendations. Um, and these needed to be things that a range of units on campus could be involved in. They didn’t have to be really big things because sometimes we get caught into big and we can’t address the small items. Um, and it was really intentional in having it be things that everybody on campus could see that they had a role to play. It wasn’t just the academic performance and how a student was doing in a class and should a faculty member do something different in their CL class. It wasn’t just the mental health support that we know students were seeking out. It was that whole coordinated care, if you will, that a student has at our institution in order to be successful. And so, so that was really the, the gist of the task force. It was also time constrained. We were getting to the end of the spring semester and, um, I asked them to have this done in about a five week period. So that was really how we ended up with kind of the four different areas that they focused on. Um, and were, I think, really able to narrow, narrow in their recommendations around that. 


Joe Gottlieb: (15:33)

I love the design of the, the task force of just listening you to you describe it because you, you, you tackled head on the potential to let it be dominated, um, and or inappropriately scapegoated into one part of the institution. Instead you’re like, we, we have a holistic student engagement problem and opportunity, right? And then so you thought hard about, okay, let’s think holistically about who to involve so that we can really treat this as a whole whole scenario for the student. And you mentioned, uh, not only academic, but mental services on campus services, et cetera. I love the fact that that came from there. And, but yet then by constraining it to a timeframe that was tight, it seems to me that you really forced a lot of people on that cross-functional team, let’s face it, that aren’t in their daily jobs, is not to be extremely decisive. 


Joe Gottlieb: (16:38)

Uh, you know, leadership and administration are in roles where every day they’re challenged and that muscle gets, gets refined and built and developed and maintained. Decisiveness can be very hard for folks that, um, are, are in a different kind of job. And so by, by, by setting a time constraint, you really help them to, to act on the fly a little bit. And it also, I love the fact that you, you encouraged small and large ideas, right? Because that, that kind of freed them up probably and probably made it easier for them to come up with, with not just ideas in general, but then also things that could, could really be actionable and get you some quick wins. Cuz it’s so important with any program like this to, uh, to not some quick wins and, and start to develop the momentum that’s necessary to tackle some of the bigger stuff and to make room for the bigger stuff. 


Joe Gottlieb: (17:34)

Really, really interesting. And I think effective design, and I would say that’s a, for our listeners, that’s a good thing to, to to hear, right? That, that, by the way, this could be any, this could be any challenging problem, right? The way, the way one confront way an organization confronts pressing issues, whether they’re losing a bunch of students in their recruiting program to, uh, in a, you know, a nearby school, there’s a bit of a r or something like this or something like, um, the way that they’re reframing aid, like, and you name it. Like there’s, we, we’ve tackled these things often and, and how we tackle them has a lot to do with then how successful we can be. So, 


Ann Marie VanDerZanden: (18:17)

And I would, Joe, I would just add, I think the other thing that was really important in this case, because we are a big institution, we got a lot of students, we have a lot of faculty and staff and everybody on that task force sits in a different position within the institution, and they have a lens that they can bring to an issue, a, a problem, if you will, that is unique to them. And I just felt it was really important for all of those to be able to be shared so they could see maybe this isn’t something that could be done, you know, campus wide to address an issue, but boy, this is a, this is an impact I can have in my department or in my college or or wherever that was. And I, I think that also helped with the richness and the robustness of those recommendations that people came forward with. 


Joe Gottlieb: (19:08)

Great point of emphasis, right? So another thing you did there was that you, you really created a platform for self-awareness. And self-awareness is, as you point out, it, is, it, it, it’s not the, it’s not just a singular answer. Like, like a DNA code that maybe feels like it’s something that is very standardized, right? It it is in its glory. It is, there are nuances that could be tiny and could be in small pockets of the organization, the institution, and yet important to people and in, in what they do in their daily life, right? The way they serve in the institution’s capac their capacity. And so, so by, by creating that platform, you not only became more aware of all the things, all the possibilities and all the forms of this challenge and the potential solutions, you, you, you armed, you enabled the organization to make tiny steps in their own ways, right? Which I think is really, really important. So let’s, let’s dive into the recommendations themselves. Um, tell me a bit about, well, you, you, you, you frame it. What did the task force come up with? 


Ann Marie VanDerZanden: (20:26)

So, um, I’m, they came up with four main areas that they created. Uh, then a subset of recommendations around, and it really ties in with some of the themes we talked about at the beginning of this conversation. One of them was related to the classroom engagement and performance. Um, we know that when students are engaged in the, the classroom, when they have that meaningful connection to their professor or a TA or something like that, they’re more likely to be engaged. So classroom engagement and performance was one area. The second area was around student organizations. The third area was the mental health, um, and wellbeing. And then the fourth area that they focused on was on retention, which ultimately when you take numbers one, two, and three together, and if those things are going well and we’re addressing those issues as a university, then our retention is going to to follow in a positive way. 


Joe Gottlieb: (21:26)

Got it. So that traces back to the way you were thinking about this problem in, in, in total, right? So you’ve got the teaching and learning stuff, of course you have the extracurricular angle, which as you pointed out from the very beginning, back to being able to know how to do college, not just well by observing upperclassmen doing the things that are available on campus. So that was an area of focus, obviously tackling mental health, well, health and wellbeing head on and the existing programs, but also their utilization, um, rounds that out. And then I imagine with retention, you wanted to link it all together with what your existing process for retention, the way you pay attention to retention, to, you know, already normally, naturally in the past, traditionally, right? You wanted to stoke those coals a bit to see how, how was that a, you know, needing to evolve or was it being confronted by, you know, nuances that weren’t clear. Um, so if you don’t mind, maybe you can give our listeners some examples of some of the recommendations in these areas. I love the fact that they were framed in this way and in particular, I’d love to get a feel for that range of scope that, that exist, you know, big and small. 


Ann Marie VanDerZanden: (22:50)

Sure. Let me, let me start with the classroom engagement and, um, academic performance recommendations. And I would say that this really, this set of, of recommendations really centers on, um, empowering our faculty to understand what a role they really have in a student’s success. I think sometimes as faculty we forget how powerful our interaction with a student can be and that, um, that acknowledgement of, um, seeing where they are as a student and understanding that, you know, many students struggle with this particular section in the class because it’s a hard concept. Normalizing that and acknowledging that to the student so they understand that yes, it’s a good idea to go to office hours to do some, um, extra tutoring with the, the TA or something like that. So, you know, working with our faculty, so they could just do just a small addition in their classroom. 


Ann Marie VanDerZanden: (23:48)

Maybe something on their syllabus about, you know, when, uh, the tutoring is available or when supplemental instruction opportunities are available, encouraging them to come to the faculty member’s office hours. That’s an easy thing to do. But to say that, you know, I don’t like to be lonely during my office hours. I’d like you to come to my office hours as a student and I can help you. Um, that helps the students have that welcoming message that step into, you know, I’m here to support you as a faculty member. So that was, that was certainly one way that we worked with the faculty. One of the other things that we did, um, was getting, uh, faculty to be talking about teaching, um, in their local, uh, department. So what are, you know, most departments have regular faculty meetings. So as a group of faculty, talk about what you’re seeing in class. 


Ann Marie VanDerZanden: (24:42)

What types of, um, behaviors are you seeing that are, that are, that are good, that students are responding and, and doing well academically. So talking amongst themselves as peers in how they can start to implement, uh, some of those, uh, activities has been, has been helpful. The other piece has really been on getting a faculty to be thinking more about who’s coming into their classroom. So we have a, an inclusive classroom training that we do here at Iowa State that’s offered by our Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching. And it creates the outline of who the students are that are coming to Iowa State. It’s, you know, the, not only the the profile and the demographics of our students, but talking about creating an inclusive space for all learners, for those that are on the neuro divergent learning spectrum, for those that are coming in, you know, highly prepared, how do we then challenge them to the next level, but ultimately creating a space that welcomes, uh, a variety of learners into the classroom. 


Joe Gottlieb: (25:50)

Interesting. So the point on encouraging, for example, the faculty meetings, uh, to, to adopt this just to, just to reinforce right, that, that, that naturally many of them probably did already, but to, to sort of really to catalyze that as a, as an opportunity, um, to take advantage of an existing organizational structure that might have a unique view and a unique solution, right? And, and so I really like the way that that example articulates the, the, the possibility of turning the organizational complexity of, of a higher education institution into an asset , right? Because usually it’s one of the, it’s a, it’s a, it’s a, it’s a constraint. It’s a, it’s a, it can, it can serve as a liability when you’re trying to get alignment, for example. Or you’re trying to do something all the same. And we don’t wanna, we all wanna be robots, but there are obviously benefits and advantages and, and you know, things like, you know, managing budgets and the, like, where we have to make, make agreements on things. 


Joe Gottlieb: (26:58)

So if I may, I want to, I want to just double click on this a little bit more and, and talk about, uh, well let’s shift, let’s shift into the, the, the, So the next question becomes, and I’ll, I’ll I’ll double click there is, is, see, you have a bunch of recommendations you already have. You’ve already, you’ve set it up so that people can just go ahead and start making their, their adjustments, uh, in their respective areas and domains. And that was part of that design, which is fantastic, but undoubtedly there are some heavy, larger things that you would like to do. And, and my question then back to you is, like any good exercise like this, you don’t want it to be just an exercise. You want it to, you want it to take on a, a bit of a life of its own and fit in organically and, and then, you know, and achieve its, its goals. 


Joe Gottlieb: (27:46)

And so the, the broad question is how do you fit, how do you fit that into the other things that are pressing what in most institutions are, and, and already pretty well taxed set of people, right? Staffs and, and teams and all. And so you’ve got, I know you’ve got a new strategic plan, um, and so you’ve got a new strategic plan, which itself has new strategic objectives, or at least refresh strategic objectives. You have this thing happening, and then of course you’ve got your, what everyone else, you know, we might generally call keeping the lights on, right? You gotta, you gotta continue to do your daily work. So at the highest level, I’d love for you to talk a bit about how your organization grapples with that. 


Ann Marie VanDerZanden: (28:31)

Well, I think that, uh, with our new strategic plan, which, you know, just has, has just been released in the last, uh, few months, um, you know, one of the first, uh, to b statements that we have is to be the most centric leading research university. And that is a, that’s a really broad statement, and there’s a lot of things that can, um, you know, can tie into that in a, in a pretty easy way. So the things that we’re doing on, uh, focusing on retention, on supporting students, on engaging them in, uh, high impact, meaningful educational experiences, all of those things do wrap into that overarching goal from the strategic plans, uh, standpoint. One of the other important, um, elements is that we have a to be statement of being a university that cultivates a diverse, equitable and inclusive environment where students, faculty, and staff flourish. 


Ann Marie VanDerZanden: (29:31)

And again, some of these re recommendations that came from the task force, you know, really nicely map into that. And that worked by the task force was done separately from the strategic plan. So I think if I step all the way back, it shows institutionally we have some real synergy around what is important as an institution, what we value, where we want to put our energy and our effort. It’s going to look different in different areas on campus as, as it should. But I think, um, from a cultural standpoint, um, from our campus, I think that there’s some really good alignment, um, kind of, you know, across the institution, top to bottom, east to west, you know, all, all across, um, you know, and obviously the devils in the details and how do you make things happen. So those overall strategic goals can be achieved, but the task force has a number of those recommendations and we’re seeing that they’re starting to implement those. 


Joe Gottlieb: (30:27)

That’s a great, uh, I think that’s a great way to do it, right? Where, where strategic objective become thematic objectives that do need details. They do need engagement, they need to need people, uh, thinking about problem solving and, and how to, how to refine the organization. And so it’s almost like you’ve got a little bit of a head start on really taking the strategic plan in those areas where there’s incredibly good linkage, uh, and no surprise. Um, and, and, and rolling through and what does it mean, What we, you know, how do we, how do we take action? How do we get, how do we get rolling with these things? Uh, fantastic. And I know that just by looking at your website, you have made great strides in being so not just student centric, but then also very thoughtful about how all of your, the team members, you know, faculty, staff, are also able to get what they need to serve the student. And that’s, that’s, that’s user or almost employee centric. Uh, it’s great, great stuff. So, alright, let’s bring this to a close. How, how would, let’s summarize for our listeners how best to refresh student engagement post Covid based upon what you’ve learned here. 


Ann Marie VanDerZanden: (31:39)

I think there’s, uh, I would say three takeaways from the work that, that we’ve done. I think the first is, uh, you need to ask your students what they need. Um, it becomes the institutional leader’s responsibility determine how to meet those needs. But if we don’t ask our students what they need, uh, then we won’t be able to, to give them, um, those opportunities to be, to be successful. I think the other thing, and I think we all have experienced this is what worked in the past may not work. Now, you know, we’ve all been through this unprecedented experience as a collective. Our students, our faculty, our staff, our institution as a whole. Um, and just as a result of that, we are going to be different and we need to figure out how that we move forward. And it may need to look different than, than what we’ve done in the past. 


Ann Marie VanDerZanden: (32:31)

You know, And I think the third thing is that if I step back even further and just look at higher ed as a whole, I think we’re at, at a really critical juncture. Um, the changing demographics of our incoming students, uh, across the us uh, evolving technologies, which we learned a lot about during Covid and are using in different ways, uh, affordability, all of that continues to be, uh, things that are going to be essential if higher ed’s going to continue to evolve and be nimble, uh, and adapt to, to the future. So I think that, I think that all of three of those things, all the way from the students to the institutions of higher ed as a whole, um, need to be addressed in one way or another. 


Joe Gottlieb: (33:14)

Great summary. I I, I, I really, really appreciate you sharing. This is a, this is a challenging problem. You’ve taken a very, very, I think what feels like a very smart, thoughtful approach and, and set it up in a way that you can be, you can be nimble and start to make progress while thinking about, uh, bigger things as they fit into your overall strategic trajectory. And Marie, thank you so much for joining me today. 


Ann Marie VanDerZanden: (33:41)

Great. Well, thanks so much for having me. It’s been a lot of fun. 


Joe Gottlieb: (33:45)

And thanks to our guests for joining us as well. Have a great day and we’ll look forward to hosting you again on the next episode of Transformed.

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As president of Higher Digital, Joe supports customers with strategy development, change management, and strategic operations. He is energized by the complex challenges and profound opportunities facing higher education and is motivated to have and share discussions around these topics.

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