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Sibling rivalry fuels research initiatives

  |   Kathryn Kao   |   Permalink   |   Alumni,   Research,   Service and Community,   Spotlight,   Students and Faculty

Sibling rivalry inspires competition in everything from games and grades to sports and scholarship. When siblings compete, they try to cross the finish line first. However, brother and sister pair Michael Cook and Jennifer Cook Edwards view sibling rivalry a little differently. For them, having a sibling by their side meant having an extra layer of support while they crossed the line together.

In addition to graduating from the same EdD program offered by the University of Georgia College of Education this past fall, the pair also received the same master's degree from Shorter College and currently work as business management instructors at Southern Crescent Technical College in Griffin, Ga.

In 2013, Cook and Edwards joined the first cohort of prospective EdD students in workforce education at UGA's Griffin Campus. While the location was a huge convenience for the two full-time instructors, the program's blended face-to-face and online instructional format ultimately convinced the two to pursue another advanced degree together.

"I wouldn't have made it without her because I wanted to quit numerous times," said Cook. "We both work in the technical college profession and so the program was the perfect fit. After all, our mission is to train work-ready students for the workforce."

Only five years apart, the two siblings started their educational journey in 2005 when they received their MBA together from Shorter College. It was then that they realized how having one another throughout the educational process made the overall experience more enjoyable. Plus, their competitive nature, while comforting, also fueled their desire to be successful.

Despite sharing a similar passion for technical education, Cook and Edwards concentrated their research on very different topics that not only applied directly to their individual careers, but also allowed them to improve their teaching methods at the same time. With around 130 students each, the two instructors teach the largest standalone program at Southern Crescent.

"The whole concept of action research, which is fairly new, is that it's a practice form of research where you're actually involved," said Cook. "You're making changes to the process while the study is being conducted to improve results."

"That was really another reason why this College was so supportive," added Edwards. "Because it was about the improvement of our profession."

As technical instructors, one major concern they wanted to address was the poor graduation and retention rates of technical students. To shine more light on an often overlooked issue, Cook decided to study the effects of peer-to-peer mentoring in technical college education on academic confidence, student engagement and institutional satisfaction. According to research, these three factors have the biggest influence on student success.

To analyze this theory, Cook paired his students with a mentor nearing graduation. During the mentoring process, he measured results and made changes at different sections of the research cycle to improve the three variables. At the end of the study, Cook discovered that student engagement and academic confidence all improved with the presence of a mentor. However, institutional satisfaction did not.

"And that's why I wrote it's important to get the student started off on the right foot," said Cook. "If the student had a bad experience with an instructor or the services at the college, the presence of a mentor did not change the negative feelings the student had towards the institution."

Since around 60 percent of her students currently take an online course, Edwards wanted to research the effects of different online teaching methods on student achievement. "I saw this growing area in online learning, so it was really important for me to maintain the quality so that our program could continue to grow."

By designing and delivering course content to meet a variety of different learning styles— from self-directed and visual to reflective and active— Edwards could examine how student academic performance changed depending on which learning style was offered.

Overall, when course content was delivered with no consideration to learning style, academic performance remained average. However, achievement scores improved among all learner groups when instructional content was designed and delivered to meet learning styles. Significant improvements in course satisfaction were also noted when individual learning styles were met or when the course was delivered in an attempt to meet all learning styles.

"I was mostly focused on meeting those learning styles and keeping them engaged because we have so many students who just fall off," said Edwards. "You don't know where they go, they just quit participating. If we can keep the dropout rate down, it would make a big difference in our enrollment here."

Along with his sister, Cook credits his success in the program to associate professors Elaine Adams and Myra Womble. "Without these people, I wouldn't have made it," he said. "They were fair and firm, but they were also encouraging. And it's true, once you finish, you are totally different. Your brain has been reorganized for the better. The way I look at data and the way I look at the student is different now."

Similarly, Edwards attributes her success in the program to professor Jay Rojewski, who helped her stay on task. While researching and writing her dissertation was tough, she said her professors and advisors made the whole experience both pleasant and educational.

Since both siblings were working full-time during the research cycle, they could immediately apply what they were learning to the workplace. They gained a deeper understanding of who their students were and how they could improve their students' graduation rates.

Together, the two hope they can provide future researchers with more information about who the average technical college student is and how implementing different learning styles can enhance academic performance and improve student retention rates.

"I feel like our research is identifying who technical college students are in relation to traditional four-year students because we can't approach our students like UGA would with their students," said Cook. "There are major differences. I know I scoured the literature looking for references to technical education to no avail. After getting through it, the thing that's most satisfying to me is to be able to provide information to address these poor retention and graduation rates. We're really going to have to consider doing things differently versus viewing education as a one size fits all."

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