Challenged to the Core

Commencement speaker Marissa Nichols embraces the anxiety of public speaking as she accepts her doctoral degree.


BY CATE WEEKS • Read this article at the UNLV News Center

Marissa Nichols, a former UNLV softball star, now coaches student-athletes on reaching their goals. (R. Marsh Starks/UNLV Creative Services)

Marissa Nichols has the kind of persona you’d expect out of a Zig Zigler or Suze Orman: positive, energetic, and up for a challenge. But when she addresses her fellow UNLV graduates as a featured speaker at commencement Saturday, her goal is to motivate them to be quietly reflective.

The former UNLV All-American softball player is adding a Ph.D. in Higher Education to her 2008 bachelor’s and 2010 master’s degrees in education. Under professors Nancy Lough and Alice Corkill, her doctoral research focused on the intersection of student-athlete performance and personal development characteristics among high and low performers.

After commencement, this high performer is heading to Boston University’s athletics department to be its first director of leadership and career development. Here, she shares what drove her into the spotlight.


On the importance of public speaking: I’ve always been inspired by thought leaders who can move others to action, or a new perspective, through their words. I knew that to be as impactful as I could in my professional career, I would need to develop this skill.

From words to action: If we want something, dwelling in the possibility is an important step in making it a reality. That said, it must be coupled with taking actionable steps. Getting to the commencement stage at UNLV started a few years back, when I made a commitment to evolving my public speaking skills.

Becoming a better speaker: Like any other craft, I found out what I needed to do to build those skills. I joined UNLV Toastmasters in 2014, an amazing student organization and group of individuals devoted to developing communication and public speaking skills. I made my first large-scale speech in front of thousands at the inaugural UNLV Creates event, which required massive courage.

Commencement discomfort: Regardless of the comfort level I’ve gained by forcing myself in these situations, public speaking is still anxiety-provoking, and I always have room to grow. This will be my first commencement address, which is an entirely different experience!

The inspiration for her speech: Over the last few years, I’ve faced a series of health setbacks and personal adversities. I’ve been forced to grow in ways that challenged me at the core — from learning how to be patient in dealing with multiple concussions, to embracing every part of my identity and learning to live my life authentically.

The message to graduates: The growth that is experienced in higher education is profound. My call in this speech is for graduates from all walks of life to identify their “growth points.” The term originated from a mentor, Dr. Mark Guadagnoli, who is bringing his approach to student growth to the UNLV Medical School. Growth points can be large or small — from garnering the courage to engage in a new experience that led to developing an untapped passion, to applying for a position that you may be underqualified for but believe you can accomplish, to pursuing a path that may be different than what’s expected. I want everyone to stop and think about their time in higher education differently.

Look within: The magic of growth points is that they’re self-reliant and always in relation to ourselves. In a culture where external validation is emphasized, the focus shifts to within — and looking within requires vulnerability and awareness, two guiding values in my life.

Making growth a habit: I chart out my growth points each morning as a part of a daily ritual. This process creates awareness and helps me be accountable. It also inspires momentum forward and confidence to continue building on these moments in the days ahead.

A day of thanks: I’m grateful to have nearly 30 family members and many friends joining me to celebrate this momentous occasion. My immediate family knows about the commencement speech, but we thought it would be a fun surprise for the rest of the family on commencement day. I’m also thankful for the time I’ve had to develop the speech with speaking expert Daniel Coyle of the UNLV Honors College; he is fantastic at his craft, an asset to UNLV, and an all-around great person.

More about Marissa

Nichols’ doctoral research has been accepted for presentations at the national level, including an NCAA-sponsored convention this summer. She has served as a teaching assistant in education and spent six years developing, implementing, and assessing the REBS Life Skills program for 450 UNLV student-athletes. She is the president of UNLV Toastmasters, an organization devoted to developing public speaking and leadership skills.

Data-Driven Student Success

UNLV mines its own grade books to ensure students aren’t weeded out of STEM classes.

BY BRIAN SODOMA • Read this article at the UNLV News Center

A high school student explores a project at the 2017 Beal Bank USA Southern Nevada Regional Science and Engineering Fair co-sponsored by the UNLV College of Sciences. (R. Marsh Starks/UNLV Creative Services)

For the past decade, high schoolers across the United States have heard the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) career pitch. It’s an enticing one: Get a STEM degree. Get a higher-paying jobs. You’ll outearn other grads by $15,500 on average, according to a 2014 Department of Education report.

In Southern Nevada, officials are making that pitch in the hopes that developing the STEM workforce will spur economic development. Las Vegas is ranked 97th (among 100 metropolitan areas evaluated) in terms of employees in STEM-related fields, with 3.6 percent of the workforce compared with an 8.7 percent national average.

But once they enter college, though, students face a harsh reality check. Training for STEM fields is academically rigorous and demands study skills that many students did not acquire in high school. As a result, roughly 40 percent of those entering college as a STEM major end up either switching to a non-STEM field or not completing a degree at all. This reality is further compounded for first generation college students, who have less exposure to mentors who can help them navigate college. Unsurprisingly, they switch their majors at even greater rates.

In 2014, Matthew Bernacki, assistant professor of educational psychology and higher education, felt UNLV was in a position to change this trend.

“Prior research shows that students often abandon STEM majors after poor performance in early coursework,” he said. “That experience leaves students feeling they lack ability in the STEM disciplines, when in fact they may only lack some specific learning skills.”

Bernacki believed the key was to identify struggling students long before their grades revealed they were having trouble and to provide learning support. He wanted to dive into the student activity data in UNLV’s WebCampus learning management system for the answers.

In 2014, the National Science Foundation awarded him a three-year grant to test his strategies. Today, as the project nears completion, his results are encouraging. More of UNLV’s STEM majors his project targeted moved forward in their degree programs, achievement has improved in critical courses in math and science, and work is underway to make permanent the efforts that are producing these results.

A Three-Step Approach

The project involved partnerships with instructors of four entry-level courses: human anatomy and physiology, college algebra, calculus, and an introductory engineering course. These large lecture courses have often been called “weed-out classes.”

“That trial-by-fire mentality was all wrong,” said Carl Reiber, senior vice provost. “We’re here to teach students, not weed them out of their futures. It’s an approach that’s been proven harmful to first-generation students and underrepresented minorities in particular.”

About 40 percent of students entering college as a STEM major end up either switching fields or not completing a degree at all. But a new algorithm from the UNLV College of Education is predicting which students will struggle and then getting them on the path to success. Life sciences professor Jenifer Utz, saw immediate benefits in her anatomy classes. (R. Marsh Starks/UNLV Creative Services)
Jenifer Utz, a professor in the School of Life Sciences, teaches freshman anatomy and physiology courses. “Some students do not achieve at their potential simply because they’re not equipped with appropriate study skills and strategies,” she said. “They’re completely capable of being successful in the course — and ultimately in the field — if they can just get past those early hurdles.”

Bernacki’s project was conducted in three phases. In the first year, he met with each instructor before the start of the semester to review the learning objectives for each class and the resources provided to students on the WebCampus course site.

Civil engineering professor Donald Hayes hadn’t thought about his introduction to engineering course from this perspective. “This opened my eyes to educational research and how it can be really helpful to us. I’ve learned a lot from him about how to organize a class,” Hayes said.

Utz adjusted her materials too, adding practice quizzes for each individual chapter. The students who regularly used the quizzes to study scored 12 percent higher on the final exam than non-users. Differences were even larger among students who entered the course with minimal prior biology knowledge. “To simply say ‘Here are some practice tests to see if you’re on track’ and then see someone’s grade suddenly jump 10 percent was impressive,” she said.

Bernacki also used that first year to observe students’ behavior in the WebCampus environments for each course. He collected data about which resources students accessed — or ignored — and when. Then he observed how students’ behaviors correlated with their grades. This would be critical information for the third year of the study.

Learning to Learn

In the second year, Bernacki studied whether a program called “The Science of Learning to Learn” could be delivered in WebCampus to improve performance. It first acknowledges the challenges students face when transitioning to college coursework. It then introduces important learning priniciples — like “retrieval practice” to improve factual information and “self-explanation strategies” to break down complex concepts — and helps students select the most appropriate strategy for their course. It trains them on behavioral strategies for managing a college lifestyle.

“It’s one thing to study, but it’s another to be aware of the correct objectives to study and to keep track that the knowledge is being learned and retained,” said one engineering student who provided anonymous feedback. “Sounds simple, but it’s something I never thought about.”

First-generation and underrepresented minority students who used the “Science Learning to Learn” tools in entry-level biology saw markedly higher scores on exams compared to peers who did not.

In the initial study with anatomy and physiology students, those who completed “Learning to Learn” modules after their first unit exam outperformed a control group on the next two exams. The pattern of results was replicated the next semester when students completed the modules in the first weeks of the course. A third run of the study showed similar results in math courses. College algebra students who completed the training outperformed peers (who spent equivalent time solving algebra problems) on the next two course exams.

Power of Prediction

After gathering data about students’ online behavior for the first two years, Bernacki created an algorithm to predict performance. “We’re at a point where after four weeks into the biology, three weeks into the calculus, or five weeks into the engineering course, we can identify which students are going to earn that poor outcome about 80 percent of the time,” he said.

Students typically need to pass with a B or a C in these initial courses to advance in their STEM coursework. Without prediction modeling, students may not know if they are on track to make that grade until after their first exam.

“That’s a problem because when a poor first exam grade arrives — often as late as mid-semester — it means the time available to adjust learning methods is short,” Bernacki said. “What’s worse, the first chance to perform well in the course has now been missed, which raises the stakes of the remaining exams.”

Utz added, “It can become mathematically impossible to recover a passing grade.”

Bernacki and his team created an early alert system so students know they need to change study habits. A week before their first exam, a message from their instructor reminded students about the upcoming test and proposed they use some powerful learning methods — things that had worked for students in past semesters.

They were directed to an advice page authored by real UNLV students and faculty and hosted on WebCampus. Students also were encouraged to use the “Learning to Learn” modules.

In spring 2016, more than 300 anatomy and physiology students identified as likely to struggle received the message; more than one-third beat projections and earned A’s or B’s in their course. Follow-up studies showed similar improvements in the biology course. And when applied to calculus, messaged students outperformed others predicted to struggle by nine to 15 points on all five exams.

“So far, those who get the message and take us up on the offer [of learning support] ultimately outperform those who don’t get a message,” Bernacki added. “I was pleasantly surprised that when students did what we’d hoped they would do they were as successful as we thought they could be.”


The Clicks of Academic Success

Cam Johnson can get roped into a lot of interesting projects, but the operations manager in UNLV’s office of information technology, didn’t see this one coming. In 2014, backed by a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, Matthew Bernacki approached Johnson. The education professor wanted to collect student data from UNLV’s WebCampus course management system to create an early warning system for student success.

“We do work with faculty on occasion, maybe just to mentor a group or speak to a class, but we’ve never done something like this with hands-on research,” Johnson said.

His team had been working with Splunk, a system used by Fortune 100 companies to collect data and effectively organize it for searches.

“It allows us to collect data from disparate sources and make it searchable,” Johnson said — a powerful tool for organizations where systems tend to be developed over time for specific functions. These systems don’t always “talk” to each other. “First we had to answer the questions, ‘Do we have the data he needs?’ and ‘Can we curate it in a way to support his research?’” he said.

The project’s novel use of the data — it was the first time Splunk was applied to faculty research — garnered a 2016 Splunk Public Service Innovation Award. Johnson’s team developed a data modeling solution that recorded clicks within the WebCampus system. Their solution allowed Bernacki to see exactly what students are — or are not — clicking on for a course and what kinds of learning resources they accessed. They then created a model that aggregates and mines these data in order to predict each student’s success.

“One of the things we’re trying to deal with now is how to scale this out, help students graduate, and do things we know are predictive of them doing well at the university,” Johnson said. Bernacki is working to apply what he has learned to other STEM classes on campus and he hopes other institutions will learn from UNLV’s success.

“[Bernacki] saw data and found a way to interact with it,” Johnson noted. “We built a solution I wouldn’t describe as an enterprise solution, but it was a challenge and it was fascinating.”

Most important: It worked.

Celebrating Excellence: College of Education Faculty Honored with Prestigious Awards & Appointments

The College of Education is proud to recognize outstanding faculty who have made significant contributions in the areas of scholarship, research and service to the community in their careers.

Michelle Cumming • Council for Exceptional Children Student Award
Through its student research awards program, the CEC Division for Research recognizes high-quality research conducted by students in the course of their undergraduate or graduate special education training program. CEC-DR invites nominations for research in the following categories: qualitative, quantitative, single subject, and mixed methods design. For 2017, CEC-DR is pleased to make awards in two categories:  quantitative and single subject designs.

Denise DávilaNational Council of Teachers of English Alan C. Purves Award
The Purves Award is presented annually to the author(s) of the Research in the Teaching of English article from the previous year’s volume judged as likely to have the greatest impact on educational practice.

Gwen Marchand  President, Southwest Consortium for Innovative Psychology in Education 
SCIPIE is professional organization devoted to the study of psychology in education.  At the core of SCIPIE are devoted consortium members who maintain leadership roles in educational research around the country.  SCIPIE hosts a biennial conference where researchers develop innovative approaches to research.

E. Michael NussbaumPresident, Division 15 American Psychology Association
APA is the leading scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States, with more than 115,700 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students as its members.

Harsha Perera AERA Division E Outstanding Dissertation Award
The American Educational Research Association awards special recognition to an outstanding dissertation or doctoral thesis written in English that contributes important knowledge to the study of doctoral education is given biennially.

Jenna Weglarz-WardCouncil for Exceptional Children Division for Early Childhood J. David Sexton Award
The J. David Sexton Doctoral Student Award is given to a DEC member and doctoral-level student who has made contributions to young children with special needs and their families through their efforts in research, higher education, publications, policy, and information dissemination.

Peter WeinsAERA SIG 54 Best Paper
The American Educational Research Association Special Interest Group on International Studies seeks to provide a forum for the exchange of information among educators involved in research, planning, development, implementation, and evaluation of international studies.

Chris WoodAmerican Counseling Association Fellow Award
The ACA Fellow Award is bestowed upon members of professional distinction who have been recognized for significant and unique contributions to the counseling profession through professional practice, scientific achievement, leadership and governance, and/or teaching and training. This honor is presented to less than 1 percent of the more than 56,000 ACA members.


UNLV Awards

Jaymes Aimetti • Outstanding Teaching by Part-Time Faculty Award

Matthew BernackiScholarship of Teaching and Learning Award

Alice CorkillIndividual Assessment Faculty Award

Connie Malin • Outstanding Teaching by Part-Time Faculty Award

Sarah Murphy • Outstanding Graduate Student Teaching Award

Conrad Oh-YoungOutstanding Dissertation Award