By DAVID DUPONT
BG Independent News
Rachel Vannatta’s “a-ha” moment came when she was pursuing her master’s degree.
At the time she was teaching English in an alternative K-12 school in Minnesota that she helped found with four other teachers.
She had to take statistics, and suddenly certain issues started adding up. “There were so many questions,” Vannatta said. “You’re doing all these innovative things, but not seeing the results you want. But then sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t.”
Now she saw that data could help guide instruction. So she knew she needed to go on and get a doctorate “just because I finally had some tools to address these nagging questions I had about practice: Why some of our instructional techniques or policies were working with some students and not others. Some students just excelled when you had others who failed miserably.”
So she went on to the University of South Dakota to get a PhD in educational methodologies.
Since 1998 she has taught at Bowling Green State University. As a faculty member in the School of Educational Foundations, Leadership and Policy she teaches graduate students statistics and how to applied them.
Earlier this year, the BGSU Board of Trustees approved naming her as a distinguished teaching professor in recognition of her work.
The role of data in education is increasing greatly, though not always for the best.
Students face a barrage of tests in school, so many it’s very difficult for teachers to really mine that data to find out how to improve their teaching, Vannatta said. Instead the data is used largely to evaluate teachers.
“When it comes down to teachers really looking at student progress that’s where it’s most effective,” Vannatta said. “So when not used as evaluative measure for the teacher, but rather to truly measure student progress … that’s when it’s most powerful, and that’s where the boat is missed. They have so many assessments to give, they don’t have time to sit down and look at it.”
Vannatta is recognized for her ability to teach about statistics to those people who will have to put them to use. And often she teaches online to students in different time zones from Europe to Texas.
Many are leery of numbers.
“There’s a good half of them who are scared to death. … Most of my students come into class thinking: ‘I’m bad at math,’” Vannatta said. “‘I’m not a math person, so I can’t do stats.’ My whole goal is we have to turn that around.”
So she has them write a reflection on how they came to believe they aren’t good at math, and she has them watch a TedTalk by Angela Duckworth about grit.
“What the research says is success isn’t built on your ability. Some of the smartest most intelligent minds are not the most successful,” Vannatta said. “It all comes from that persistence and having that grit.”
She’ll even drive that home with a pep talk by Beast Boy from “Teen Titans Go!”
And she’ll talk about her own struggles. “I ran away from first grade three times. There are many points in my life when I struggled as a student.”
She tells them that all the statistics she teaches “I have wrestled with myself.”
Reflecting on how she learned informs how she teaches. “I’m not a genius, and I’m a better teacher for it.”
Vannatta makes extensive use of videos, both during her online and face-to-face teaching.
The value of those videos became apparent when she was teaching a face-to-face course in quantitative methods. Many of the students had taken her statistics course online.
In that course they had the benefit of videos she’d made to teach regression. Now in the face-to-face course, they were struggling to learn multiple regression through lectures.
“‘You need to make video for this, because it’s just too much,” they told her. “‘I felt like when I had a video of you teaching regression I could keep going back to it and rewind, but when I have to just listen to you in a lecture teaching multiple regression,’ which is way more advanced, ‘it’s just hard to get it all.’”
So Vannatta agreed. She went to her home studio, and using the Camtasia suite of software, she created a video.
She takes the production of these videos very seriously, even if the backdrop is a blue fleece blanket and the computer is set up on a Lego box.
A lot of planning goes into the production, she said. She’s now gathering resources to help other BGSU faculty more effectively use technology.
Vannatta does not read off a script. Instead she has a PowerPoint presentation as a prompt. There’s a lot of editing involved. “I say ‘so’ a lot,” she said.
And then one of her children may burst into her home studio. Or the sound of the garage door opening will bleed through.
She also self-published her own textbook “Baby Stats! An Introduction to Statistics in Social Sciences.”
This is her second book. The first was co-authored and went through the traditional publication route. It costs students $175, of which she would get 7.5 percent. Publishing on her own allows her to sell a PDF version for $55.
That’s just one of the many ways she tries to assist her students. They have busy lives. She has as well with five children, from an informally adopted grown adult daughter to grade school aged children.
So Vannatta and her students exchange telephone numbers. She gets calls at baseball games, and in the produce section of Kroger.
Most of the questions can be quickly answered, and she wants students to ask them. “I tell them that if ever this class is moving you to tears, you need to call me. If you’re stuck on problem, working on it for a couple hours, you need to call me because you’re just spinning your wheels, and wasting your time.”
The course schedule is set to help them keep pace. But rather than rush to meet a deadline, she’d rather the student let her know and take more time.
“I would rather have them put forth their best work, then rush to get it done on time.”