Hogans, heroes: Faculty couple wed to student success

Kelly Hogan, who is the senior STEM lecturer in the biology department, has seen a switch in her teaching style dramatically reduce or close the achievement gap in her classes.

The Hogan family near the ocean.
Kelly and Brian Hogan pose with their children Jake and Lexi. Kelly, the director of instructional innovation for the College of Arts and Sciences, will be the featured speaker at Carolina’s 2015 December Commencement on Dec. 13.

Kelly Hogan prowls the aisles of her Biology 101 class, watching her students discuss microbiomes. Her eyes scan the 400-seat auditorium, looking for someone to call on. No sleeping in this early morning class, even on a Friday. Too much is happening.

As director of instructional innovation for the College of Arts and Sciences, Kelly is at the forefront of a movement to make large introductory science classes more structured and interactive, a model that encourages class participation, improves study habits and allows instructors to measure student learning and address concerns in real time.

Kelly, who is the senior STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) lecturer in the biology department, has seen the switch in her teaching style dramatically reduce or close the achievement gap in her classes.

Over the course of 50 minutes, Kelly asks them questions about the guided reading they did the night before. Using classroom software called Learning Catalytics, she sees how many of the students have the right answer and shares the percentage with the class.

She has them draw graphs and identify icons using their laptops, notepads or smartphones. She gets them to make predictions about how an experiment will turn out, then persuade their neighbors that they are right.

She wants to make sure her students fully grasp what they are studying, not just memorize facts for an exam.

That’s why her students have a chance to think alone and work together before she calls on anyone for an answer.

“I sure hope she doesn’t say, ‘You, in the white shirt!’” a student wearing a white shirt whispers to her neighbors.

On the other side of the room, Hogan turns her gaze on a group of students about halfway up the stairs. “You in the pink shirt,” she says. “What did your group come up with?”

He can relate

Student academic success is the overriding priority for Kelly’s husband, Brian Hogan, as well.

As Carolina Covenant faculty academic coordinator and the former academic director for the Scholars Latino Initiative, Brian focuses on support. He pairs each scholar with a faculty mentor and helps students find their way, steering them to the resources they need.

In his job, he has to understand why a student is struggling in class because of a problem outside of it.

“It might be because they are commuting 30 minutes to school each day or that they have to work three jobs,” he said.

He wages a constant battle to convince these students who have achieved so much despite poverty and discrimination that they do, in fact, truly belong here. And he knows firsthand what many of them are going through, he said.

After his parents’ divorce, he became angry and resentful. His attitude resulted, in part, in his attending three different high schools. As a young adult, he struggled with what he called “imposter syndrome,” a problem he revealed in his 2015 Carolina Chiron Award speech in which he discussed the failures that shaped him.

“There’s this idea among students that you can go from A to B by following this prescribed path,” he said. “I’m living proof that you can go from there to here by making every wrong choice.”

An overlapping mission

For the Hogans, the mission they share overlaps their work and spills into their lives that they often chat about with students.

When they talk about what Kelly is binge-watching on Netflix or what their children Jake and Lexi are up to, they are not trying to win a popularity contest with students. They are trying to be less intimidating so students won’t be afraid to ask questions in class or come to office hours.

Both are Tanner Award-winning teachers and are on the teaching faculty career path. Following Kelly’s lead, Brian has made his chemistry classes more interactive. Both have been mentors to Carolina Covenant and Col. Robinson scholars and are asked to write so many recommendation letters for students that they have special request forms on their websites.

Both are good enough teachers to know they must never stop learning themselves.

Four years ago, for instance, Kelly taught her biology classes the traditional way. She lectured, watched her students take notes, answered questions from the eager ones in the front and didn’t see who was learning what until she graded the first exam.

Then a colleague in the Center for Faculty Excellence shared data showing that a high number of black students were getting Ds and Fs in her classes.

Faced with this data, the scientist proceeded to make radical changes. She embraced the “growth mindset,” the idea that a student’s ability to learn is not fixed but can grow with the proper instruction and reinforcement.

She took a summer to revamp her lecture classes to the structured model. Her published results showed that the achievement gap completely closed for first-generation college students and was cut in half and continues to decrease for black students. The participation gap for black students has also closed.

“The goal of leveling the playing field is working,” Kelly said. “What’s rewarding to me is to have that work replicated by other instructors. The grade distribution shifts over, and everybody’s doing better.”

Brian also changed his teaching style after seeing data that even his honors students didn’t understand some of the basics he thought he had “nailed” in his lectures.

“We’ve changed a lot of things about our teaching, but one thing that we’ve never changed is what our expectations are,” Brian said. “Nobody rises to low expectations. We’ve always kept our expectations high. The difference is that there’s no longer any guesswork between the student’s expectations and the faculty member’s expectations.”

Every person matters

Covenant Scholar Erick Sanchez was an A student in high school, but had his confidence shattered by his first grades in college. Even though he’s a junior now, majoring in exercise and sports science, he’s still susceptible to feelings of inadequacy.

“Less than two months ago, one of my professors told me, ‘You’re not performing the way you should be.’ It put my self-esteem really low. I kept questioning whether I should be here or not,” Sanchez said.

A few talks with Brian Hogan restored his confidence. “It’s always good to have someone who cares. He’s not giving me the ‘everything is wonderful’ talk. There’s an aspect of realism in what he says. It’s not babied down.”

The Hogans have mentored senior Sarah McShane, a Col. Robinson scholar, for four years now. “They are the most well-known couple on campus, and that’s because they are really here for the students,” she said.

McShane benefited from both Hogans, in different ways. She started as chemistry major, but was so inspired by Kelly’s biology class that biology is now her primary major, doubled with chemistry. She wants to become a doctor specializing in child and maternal health.

“She taught me study skills that I used through all my classes,” she said. “I always tell students, no matter what they’re majoring in, to take her Biology 101 class because it will make you better students.”

She also bonded with Brian during a semester abroad in Grenoble, France. “I had gone through a lot of big personal things with my family, and he was very good at helping me navigate the university system,” she said. “I think he cares very deeply about students.”

The couple’s family life has followed a similar pattern — caring that leads to helping. In 2006, the couple adopted baby Lexi from Guatemala. Later they sponsored a Guatemalan boy to attend St. Thomas More School in Chapel Hill.

In 2011, Brian used his Chapman Family Scholarship money to build a new school in the remote village of Nueva Esperanza and to provide books translated into the villagers’ native language, Q’eqchi.

Just this year, the couple inaugurated the Hogan Book Award for First Generation College Students in STEM. The award provides introductory science textbooks – among the most expensive – to a selected group of first-generation college students.

They created the award, in partnership with Pearson Education, to reduce this financial burden on in need students.

To illustrate the Hogans’ philosophy about student success, Brian tells the story of a boy walking on a beach who throws each starfish he finds there back into the ocean. A man watching him at this task wonders why he keeps doing this, since there are so many starfish being washed ashore around the world. “What difference will it make?” he asks the boy.

The boy tosses another stranded starfish back into the sea and replies, “It made a difference to that one, didn’t it?”

“Every student matters,” Brian Hogan said. “I’m not going to be able to get to every single student, but I’m going to touch as many as I can.”