Rutgers Interview: Stacey Blackwell

interview screenshot of Stacey Blackwell, a white woman with shoulder length blonde hair, seated in and office front of a window and a desk with a pink flower arrangement in the corner


In this interview, we chat with Stacey, the Executive Director of Learning Centers at Rutgers, New Brunswick. Stacey shares insights on various topics relevant to learning support services. She emphasizes the collaborative nature of learning support services and the need to adapt to the evolving needs of students and provides valuable insights into tutor hiring and training strategies.
Featured in this interview:

Stacey's intro

Stacey Blackwell shares her journey into the field of learning support, beginning as an undergraduate working as a writing assistant. She fell in love with co-curricular education and decided against traditional K-12 classroom teaching. After getting her master's at Rutgers, she worked in various roles before becoming the Executive Director of Learning Centers at Rutgers New Brunswick.

Career advice for higher ed professionals

Stacey emphasizes the importance of mentors, both formal and informal, in guiding her career growth. Attending conferences like ICLCA provided invaluable networking opportunities to learn from experienced professionals. Not having a doctorate, she proactively partnered with faculty on research projects, utilizing her strengths in writing and program implementation. She exhibited humility in identifying gaps in her skillset while confidently highlighting her existing capabilities to potential collaborators. Building this combination of humility and confidence allowed her to make consistent professional progress.

Getting by without a Doctorate

Despite not having a doctorate, which is common for her position, Stacey found ways to build her research experience and credibility. She partnered with faculty researchers, offering skills like writing and facilitating data collection through learning center programs. This allowed her to get involved as a co-PI on projects like an NSF grant. Her approach was to identify gaps in her experience/qualifications and proactively find opportunities, even informal ones, to gain those missing skills and competencies.

Overview of Rutgers Learning Centers

The Rutgers Learning Centers offer a range of services including tutoring, writing support, academic coaching, a learning assistant program with study groups, and a robust tutor training program. Under Stacey's leadership, the centers have experienced significant growth over the years, which she attributes to three key factors: campus partnerships, a clear vision and strategic approach, and investment in tutor training and development.

Growing engagement: Partnerships with Faculty

Stacey highlights different types of faculty partnerships that drive growth. The Learning Assistant program embeds students in courses, involving close collaboration on training and mentorship. Grant-funded research projects allow joint pursuit of innovative teaching strategies, with the learning centers providing peer leader support. Other partnerships are more service-oriented, like offering the centers' tutor training program to other units on campus. This exposes more students   to the learning centers' offerings. Simple cross-promotion agreements, where units advertise each other's events, help expand their reach. Overall, cultivating these diverse faculty/staff relationships has been crucial for scaling their impact.

Thoughts on AI in tutoring

While not currently utilizing AI, Stacey and the learning centers are carefully studying its implications. They want to align with the broader institution's stance and ensure proper data security/privacy before endorsing any AI tools for students. However, they engage with AI assignments from faculty when students bring them for tutoring support.

Stacey recognizes AI will inevitably impact academic support, just as technologies like paper and chalkboards transformed education historically. While some students will likely prefer AI tutoring, she believes it offers a reduced version of true academic support. Human tutoring provides crucial social, emotional, and moral development that AI cannot replicate. The centers aim to thoughtfully integrate AI to enhance student abilities, not replace personal support altogether. Stacey remains open-minded about AI's role while prioritizing safeguarding the human dimensions of learning.

Study Groups: Overview

Stacey outlines the structure of Rutgers' study group program, which has evolved from a drop-in format. Groups are now registration-based, capped at 18 students. Study group leaders are part of the Learning Assistant (LA) program - receiving training in pedagogy, lesson planning, and general tutoring methods. Groups meet weekly for 80 minutes with the same students. Leaders facilitate active, collaborative sessions digging deeper into course content rather than re-lecturing material. The goal is for students to engage through activities, muddiest point discussions, and limited direct instruction from the leader. Study groups have grown very popular, often leading to the LA program expanding into the courses' lectures and labs as faculty see the benefits.

Study Groups: Faculty engagement, scalability

While study groups can provide supplemental support without faculty involvement, Stacey has found greater success when integrated with the LA program's faculty partnerships. Students attend better knowing faculty actively work with and endorse the peer leaders. Leaders themselves benefit from the weekly interactions with instructors on content and teaching approaches. Overall, the faculty-integrated model elevates the experience for both students and leaders.

Scalability is a major advantage of the study group format compared to one-on-one tutoring. Each study group leader can support up to 36 students per week across two groups, allowing efficient deployment of staff resources to meet student demand for consistent, community-based academic support.

Study Groups: Why a registration-based model

Stacey transitioned away from a drop-in study group model, which largely duplicated the existing drop-in tutoring services. The registration model with capped group sizes provides structure, consistency, and accountability that many students desire. While ungraded, students risk losing their spot to a waitlist if they have more than two unexcused absences. This expectation incentivizes consistent attendance and engagement.

The registration approach enables study groups to build a stronger sense of community that drop-in models lack. Students can rely on working with the same peers each week, fostering relationships and collaborations deeper than simply getting homework answers. The model strikes a balance between offering flexibility and ensuring commitment.

Tutor training

Stacey outlines Rutgers' comprehensive tutor training program. It begins with "Peer Leader Orientation" covering core tutoring skills through asynchronous online modules and in-person sessions. This baseline training is required for all academic support roles - tutors, learning assistants, writing tutors, peer coaches, etc.

Following orientation, peer leaders complete two professional development experiences per semester. These involve workshops led by learning center staff or faculty partners, sponsored webinars, and opportunities like attending leadership conferences.

For the learning assistant role specifically, students take a 3-credit pedagogy course providing deeper training on instructional strategies. The learning centers also offer customized training support to other campus units by providing access to their online modules, in-person sessions, or both as needed.

Tutor hiring channels (generating applicants)

Faculty recommendations are the prime source for strong tutor applicant pools at Rutgers. For the 400 annual learning assistant hires, they received nearly 1,000 applications largely driven by faculty directly encouraging top students to apply while offering to work with them.

For general tutoring roles, they promote positions through campus job boards like Handshake, in addition to faculty referrals. However, learning assistant alumni still tend to be the strongest applicants having built connections with faculty.

Beyond academic qualifications, Stacey emphasizes intentionally hiring tutors who reflect the diverse demographics of the student body. This ensures students feel welcomed and can relate to some peer leaders. They actively analyze tutor demographics and adjust recruiting approaches for communities that may be underrepresented among applicants.

What's next at the RLCs

Current priorities include enhancing graduate student support offerings now that the learning centers can serve all students, not just undergraduates. They are developing a transitions course focused on effective learning strategies for new students - freshmen, returning adults, etc.

Rutgers recently published an academic master plan emphasizing student success, so the learning centers are evaluating how to evolve and innovate to meet changing needs. This includes increasing support for students with disabilities, ADHD, mental health concerns, and other emerging trends.

The impacts of remote learning during COVID have created new demands. With students' greater comfort with technology, the centers aim to integrate more digital offerings and resources responsibly.

Overall, Stacey sees an opportune period of potential growth driven by the university's strategic vision. The learning centers are actively listening and analyzing how to best desig

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