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Some people find it harder to learn than others. But it doesn’t have to be that way, according to Dr. Susan Hibbard, M.S.Ed.’05, and she wants to spread that good news.

“We often feel like other people are just faster learners or they’re smarter,” she said. “But there really are clear strategies that that you can learn. I want everyone to know what these strategies are and how to use them so they can achieve their goals.”

Dr. Hibbard discovered the techniques that make learning more efficient while she was at Duke University. As director of assessment and evaluation, she helped students in the university’s physician assistant program increase their academic performance.

Her students were both struggling learners who had the academic qualifications to get into the competitive program but were not able to keep up with their studies once there, and high-performing students who were looking for tips to improve.

In order to find out how she could help both kinds of learners, Dr. Hibbard reached out to her former professor, Dr. Paul Vermette, a longtime faculty member in Niagara University’s College of Education, to share her ideas with him and gain insight in what was vital for learners to succeed.  

Their weekly meetings, which she affectionately calls her “Fridays with Paul” after the book by Mitch Albom, helped her develop an academic wellness model that enabled her to pinpoint the areas students need to focus on and what competency areas they have already mastered so she could create individualized study plans.

Dr. Hibbard first met Dr. Vermette in the second semester of her graduate studies at Niagara when she took his teaching methods course. The course, and Dr. Vermette, exposed her to the field of educational research, an area she never knew existed. That, coupled with a student teaching placement at Clarence High School, where a data warehouse had been started to collect and analyze student academic data as it pertained to their performance on Regents exams, piqued her interest.

“I thought, this was so cool, but what do these numbers mean?” she said. “Does that mean that they have a competency in a certain area or they have mastered something?”

As she began considering the opportunities and possibilities the data could provide, she realized she was interested in studying more about educational research. So, after earning her master’s degree in education with a certification in chemistry from Niagara in 2005, she accepted a graduate assistantship in the University of South Florida’s measurement and research program, where she earned her Ph.D.

Her first job was as a member of the faculty in research and evaluation at Florida Gulf Coast University. Four years later, she moved into administrative work when she joined Florida SouthWestern State College as director of effectiveness and accountability and helped to build an assessment system for the college. In 2017, she moved to North Carolina to work at Duke University as its director of assessment and evaluation, a role that combined her science background with her passion for educational research.

For nearly six years, she worked with the students in Duke’s physician assistant program. Part of her work involved analyzing the data on her learners to identify those at risk or points in time when they might fall behind so that she could intervene to ensure they continued to be successful at their studies.

This work showed her that there were clear strategies to studying, but that these strategies go against our natural intuition.

“It’s a struggle,” she admits, “because of our beliefs of what we think works. If you’ve made it to a certain point, you think what you have been doing is good enough.”

For example, one of the hardest things to get people to change is the idea of rereading to memorize information, she said, explaining that reading helps you learn about something you don’t know anything about, but rereading will not help you to remember it. Instead, it’s all about being able to recall something at will.

“Practicing recall, even if it’s a failed retrieval, is the main thing to help you get that information in your long-term memory,” she said. “You have to practice trying to pull it back out of your head.

“0ur natural tendency is to do passive things and not get into these very active cognitive activities, but that’s what all learning is,” she continued, noting that data, cognitive psychology research, and the use of fMRIs that show how the brain grows in response to different stimuli provide validation of the techniques she is advocating.

Dr. Hibbard is now applying what she has learned about what works, under which conditions, for whom, and why as senior director of learning science and psychometrics at Blueprint, one of the leading test prep and professional training companies in the nation. While she no longer works directly with students, she is now using data to enhance the personalized learning experience of those preparing for the MCAT and LSAT.

She is also participating in the Learning Analytics in STEM Education Research (LASER) Institute’s 2022-2023 program. Founded by the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation and funded by the National Science Foundation, the LASER Institute is a professional development program that helps researchers understand and improve STEM learning through the use of new sources of data and application of analytical approaches such as machine learning, text mining, and social network analysis. Dr. Hibbard is hoping to use information from the data she has on learners who are preparing for medical school to develop opportunities that encourage individuals to consider careers in STEM.

Dr. Hibbard credits her Niagara experience and her professors with starting her on this path, which she has found to be both rewarding and exciting.

“Going to Niagara, I wasn’t sure yet what I wanted to do,” she said. “I was exposed to so many great things, and that really was the launching pad to getting to where I am now.”

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