Evidence-based Higher Education at UC Davis' iAMSTEM Hub

About an hour ago I attended a talk by Marco Molinaro that was so inspiring I had to share about it right away. Dr. Molinaro is the director of an organization at UC Davis (the iAMSTEM Hub) that uses research and analytics to improve the quality of undergraduate education at the university. You might have read the recent New York Times article on innovation in STEM teaching at Davis–Dr. Molinaro’s shop had a lot to do with that innovation.

The sheer number of initiatives and their measurable success was really impressive. I didn’t take very good notes, but here’s what I remember:

  • They’re using random forest methods to estimate the probability of incoming students’ graduating based their characateristics when they arrive. This allows them to identify students that might benefit from educational intervention (e.g., extra tutoring services) early in their college career. Dr. Molinaro’s goal is to “break the model” by radically increasing the chances of these currently low-performing students finishing school.

  • They’ve developed software (Ribbon FLOW) that visualizes how students enter the university, move between majors, and exit the university. Among other things, departments use the tool to see what fraction of students who initially declare a major actually finish in that major. You can look at all students at once, or focus on a particular sex or ethnic group as well.

  • They’ve developed a tool called GORP that lets observers quickly and objectively measure how “active” a class is using the COPUS model. They have plans to make it more discerning as Dr. Molinaro notes that “active learning is usually good, but it isn’t the same as effective learning.”

  • Both tools are downloadable from their Tools for Evidence-based Action (TEA) site.

  • Dr. Molinaro shares my belief that a lot of what works in K-12 also works in an undergraduate classroom, and he’s learned a lot from Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion. Even though Lemov advocates cold-calling students, I’ve just ordered the book. As an aside, I’m starting to think cold-calling might be effective as long as you’re very careful not to embarrass students when they don’t know the right answer.

  • Since each academic department has a different “personality,” Dr. Molinaro figures out the right way to work with it.

Dr. Molinaro is clearly having a huge impact on UC Davis, but I think he could have an even bigger impact on higher education writ large. He doesn’t have all the answers to improving undergraduate education (no one does), but he’s got a process that all colleges could use to make a lot of progress.