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Interview with Seth Robins, Ed.D. on Completing his Ed.D. Dissertation from the University of West Georgia's School Improvement Program

About Seth Robins, EdD: Seth Robins is a Professor in the Academic Success Department at Brigham Young University-Idaho (BYU-Idaho), where he also serves as Faculty-Director for the English as an International Language Center (EILC). Prior to his role as Faculty-Director of the EILC, Dr. Robins was Faculty-Director of another impactful program, the BYU-Idaho First Year Program, which supports first-year and international students with workshops and resources that emphasize growth mindset, grit, and social belonging to enhance their chances of academic success.

In his work for the EILC, Dr. Robins will continue to expand his efforts in supporting and empowering English Language Learners in higher education settings through similar principles of community support, social belonging, resilience, and a growth mindset approach. As Professor at BYU-Idaho, Dr. Robins also teaches courses on grit and its role in college success, which was the topic of his doctoral dissertation at the University of West Georgia. Dr. Robins has worked at BYU-Idaho for almost ten years, and has worked not only in student success programming but also curriculum development.

In addition to his work at BYU-Idaho, Dr. Robins has served on the American Councils for International Education Critical Language Scholarship Program as an Applicant Selection Panelist. He also served as the Resident Director of the Critical Language Scholarship Program for this organization, a position that involved coordinating between Dōshisha University in Kyōto, Japan; American Councils of International Education leadership; and American students from across the nation.

Interview Questions

[] Before we launch into the main questions, may we have a brief description of your educational and professional background?

[Dr. Seth Robins] I started my education at Ricks College in Rexburg, Idaho and finished an Associate’s Degree in General Studies, after the school transitioned to Brigham Young University-Idaho (AA, ’04). I then studied Japanese at Brigham Young University in Provo and minored in Asian Studies (BA, ’07). Shortly thereafter, I began a Master’s degree in Second Language Acquisition and Teaching (BYU, ’10) and also completed a TESOL graduate certificate (BYU, ’09) along the way. I transitioned to The Ohio State University and completed an additional Master’s in Japanese Language Pedagogy (OSU, ’12).

Finally, I began my doctoral degree at the University of West Georgia in School Improvement (specializing in ESOL) in June of 2019. My dissertation was entitled, “Academic Achievement and Retention Among ESL Learners: A Study of Grit In An Online Context” and was focused on the construct of grit (i.e., passion and perseverance) as a potential antecedent of academic success and achievement among first language Spanish and Brazilian speakers learning English as enrollees in an online American university system.

I am currently working as the faculty-director of the Brigham Young University-Idaho First-Year Program where we specialize in helping new students (especially first generation and international students) deepen their understanding and application of the principles of social belonging, growth mindset, grit, and God’s Grace in successfully utilizing campus resources and individual effort in achieving their goals at university and beyond. In the fall 2022 semester, I am transitioning to become the faculty-director of the English as an International Language Center (EILC) at BYU-Idaho and will direct the center’s mission, course outcomes and curriculum, and employee efforts in empowering and assisting English Language Learners (ELLs) in gaining the socio-linguistic wherewithal, coupled with the afore-mentioned principles of social belonging, growth mindset, grit, God’s Grace and campus resources, in achieving success at BYU-Idaho and beyond.

[] Why did you decide to pursue an EdD in School Improvement from the University of West Georgia? What were your career goals and how did you see the EdD as helping you to achieve these goals?

[Dr. Seth Robins] I had always had a personal goal of completing a doctoral degree. That being said, I was already in my dream job location at BYU-Idaho and did not want to leave to pursue a PhD and lose my employment as well as impoverish my growing family, so I researched online doctoral programs. Among all of these I created several categories in an Excel spreadsheet and weighted them according to personal importance (quality of the institution, cost of tuition, degree length, etc.) and West Georgia topped my personal list after I ranked each institution and averaged scores.

I loved the fact that West Georgia scaffolds students into the dissertation process with 9 credits of dissertation design and methodology coursework, as well as the traditional 9 credits of dissertation credits. It empowered me to make huge gains in my dissertation writing as well as my coursework towards graduation. Furthermore, my committee was on board with my dissertation topic from the beginning and I never changed topics.

When I interviewed with the school before admission, being able to study my chosen dissertation topic from the beginning was one of my top priorities and West Georgia was the institution most amenable to that. In fact, it was the faculty there that empowered me to narrow my focus on my topic and begin the research and writing process with the highest degree of confidence. This, in turn, was what enabled me to defend my dissertation within three years of starting the program—another top goal. I did not want to spend years languishing and dragging my feet with the dissertation and the structure of the program was exactly what helped provide the motivation to reach my personal and program goals for writing my chapters in a timely manner.

This doctoral degree was important to me because I wanted to have the additional credentials to springboard me from an administrative position as a curriculum developer into a faculty role and that’s exactly what it did for me. Furthermore, I am very passionate about language learning, resilience and growth mindset, and international students and my dissertation research gave me further insight and the know-how to tackle perpetual challenges in providing the best educational opportunities to first-year students at our university.

My degree at West Georgia did everything I hoped it would: faculty position in our first-year program (and now our English as an International Language Center) and the skills to appeal to the literature to understand pervasive issues in this field as well as the analytical and research skills to begin to solve these challenges in my daily work.

[] Your dissertation is entitled Academic achievement and retention among ESL learners: A study of grit in an online context. Could you elaborate on how you decided upon this specific topic, and what your central research questions were?

[Dr. Seth Robins] One of the most important things to do in determining your topic is identifying exactly where the niches of unexplored concern are in your chosen field. For me, I was working on a project developing online ESL coursework for an online American university and wanted to know if there were any studies that had focused on grit as an antecedent of success among ESL learners. This was important because we wondered what factors determined success among these learners.

In scouring the literature, I found that there were not any such specific studies. However, there were comparative studies from which I could emulate research design to extrapolate for this new context. This is how you become a doctor. You discover a niche that no one has studied and through the dissertation process, your committee helps you refine questions to be neutral and valid, and then you discover potential responses and solutions to these questions that no one has discovered before and you carve your name into the echelon of doctoral specialists through your budding research skills.

[] Could you take us through the steps of your research process, from the design of the research study to the collection and analysis of qualitative and/or quantitative data? What challenges did you encounter during the research process, and how did you overcome them? How did your committee and dissertation chair support your work?

[Dr. Seth Robins] To begin, I identified my topic from Angela Duckworth’s TED Talk, but I knew virtually nothing more than what it was about from her perspective. Getting into the field of the grit literature presented a lot of different results. One of the main challenges is to begin identifying the early seminal articles to serve as the reference point for both my own topic as well as other important articles in the field. Once I identified these, then it was important to avoid the temptation to read every article about the topic and instead focus on the articles that were most relevant to the characteristics of my study (e.g., higher education, second language learners, online or distance education, academic achievement, retention, etc.). This narrows the scope of the reading and brings greater focus for you to identify the pervasive questions as well as the niche from which you can begin your own study. Initially, this can be overwhelming, but you become more versed in it as you begin seeing the same referenced articles over and over again.

Another challenge is keeping the findings of what you read organized. Some suggested 3×5 cards, but the ESL project I was working on helped me become more fluent in the use of Google sheets and I had the idea for organizing the literature I was reading according to findings, variables, etc. by using Google Sheets. I could then use the sort option in Google Sheets to help me easily compare side-by-side similar articles and their findings. It was imperative for me to stay organized in this way because it effectively eased me into the literature review writing process in a more cohesive and organized manner. It also helped me to stay organized when writing my conclusion chapter because I could easily reference those articles to determine how my results corroborated (or not) previous research. So, finding an effective way to keep the results and variables of the various articles you read organized and easily findable (I may have made this word up, but you get the point) is crucial to your success in finding the gaps in your literature review and conclusion chapters.

Another of the early challenges I faced was becoming an expert in the statistical analyses that were common across the spectrum of literature that focused on my topic. Initially, I was intimidated by the abundance of statistical analyses in my coursework. It was head-spinning, but then I realized that it was not requisite that I become conversant in everything all at once, nor even that I become conversant in everything ever. Instead, I realized that I needed to become an expert in just the most common analyses used in my literature reviews. This narrowed my statistical expertise to a manageable 6-8 statistical analyses. Then I used significant appeals to my statistics textbook, YouTube tutorials, and other articles in the literature to learn how to begin writing about the statistics and the results to illustrate the findings.

Finally, I would say that your committee is both a boon and a challenge and it depends upon how you foment relationships with them and view the feedback they give you. It is imperative that you establish a humanly rapport with your committee. They are not automatons meant to appeal to your every whim and desire. They have lives outside of academia and rooting interests inside academia. To the degree permitted by your committee, get to know them. I am still Facebook friends with my committee members and found that my chair and I had a shared sense of humor—he was an ironic Bostonian and I was a sardonic Idaho farm boy—and we got along great. Same with my other committee members. What I don’t mean is being a suck-up, but rather just a good human and a caring person. They care about your academic success—or hopefully they do—and it is good to care about theirs, as well as their personal success.

Secondly, if you are dreaming about the academic freedom you will experience through the dissertation process, then keep dreaming. Academic freedom is not entirely farcical, but rather it is confined within the paradigms of those consuming and approving your work. The same is said of your committee. You are not going through the dissertation process because you already know everything. Rather, you are going through it to become a budding scientist who will continue to grow in scientific skill after the dissertation process. It is a training ground, but one where too many doctoral students figuratively perish upon the mountains of their own pride when they want to argue every word and verse of their dissertation.

I’m not saying roll over every time your committee gives you advice, because there are times when you can provide some clarification that might help your committee through the feedback process, but I commonly say, “Don’t defend your dissertation until the defense.” If you heed this advice, you won’t have to worry if you will pass the defense or not, because you will be open-minded to the feedback your committee gives you, you will incorporate the feedback into your dissertation, and both you and they will be more confident about the product by the time the defense arrives.

If you do this, then you can defend the document because you know you are the expert and that you have done your due diligence in making it the best it can be through the review process. I did this and I was on cloud nine the morning of my defense because I knew that I knew more than my committee about the topic and felt well prepared to answer any question they had. Furthermore, I knew they knew that I had done everything in my power to heed their counsel throughout the process and it was the apex of my educational career—just like it should be for you.

Lastly, I did not always agree with what they said, but it did not really matter if I agreed or not. What mattered was that I was being teachable and open throughout the process. Also, I really have no recollection of what I agreed or disagreed upon now anyway. Meaning, in five or ten years, when you have your degree hanging on your wall, it won’t matter how much editing and re-writing you did. What will matter is the increased confidence you gained in the diligence and patience required to do something hard and come out on top anyway.

Last, last thing. Enjoy this as a journey. When I first started my doctoral degree, I was worried about how long three years seemed and I was worried about how much effort it would take and how much time away from important family events it would take. I often thought I just wish I was finished with this, which surprised me because I had always liked school. However, shortly within my first semester, I was gratified to realize how much learning and growth I was experiencing.

I also made a plan for when I would study and I stuck with it. Sometimes that meant I spent all day on a Saturday (from morning until night) doing my assignments. Some Saturdays, I didn’t and went to the family reunion because I did not want to sacrifice those moments, so it meant that by the time I got home at 10:00, I would crack open the books and not close them until 6 in the morning the next day. Those were not easy nights, but they were full of meaning.

Embrace the highs and lows as all being for your good and the good of those you are doing this work for. If you enjoy the journey and carve out special time for homework and special time for your dissertation writing—you will make incremental progress. This last part is important: look at every fifteen minutes as fifteen minutes closer to defending your dissertation. Avoid thinking “Oh, I only have fifteen minutes, how much could I write? Or I would rather sit and write for an hour. I’m not going to take this 30 minutes because I won’t be able to progress much.” This is a fallacy. You will get very far in stringing together 15 minutes upon 15 minutes. I didn’t do this with my master’s thesis and the process dragged on, but I did do this for my doctoral degree and my experiences could not have been more different.

[] What were the key findings of your research, and how have you applied the insights from your dissertation research to your current work? How has your research positively influenced other education leaders in understanding how to build supportive online learning environments for ESL learners?

[Dr. Seth Robins] In collaborating with several different universities on a shared English as a Second Language curriculum project (BYU-Pathway Worldwide’s EnglishConnect curriculum), a former classmate of mine, who was working on the project, mentioned that it would be interesting if someone examined “grit” (Angela Duckworth’s construct) as a predictor of English language learning achievement. Having seen Duckworth’s TED Talk, I became really enamored with the idea and determined to take my classmate’s words to heart and study it for my dissertation.

In getting into the grit research, I realized that there were several key questions that still remained about grit’s viability as an antecedent of success across various domains in the literature, with inconclusive results across the spectrum of research. Foremost was my first research question, which asked:

What is the factor structure of the grit construct in a second language?

This was an important question for exploratory and confirmatory factor analyses. Does grit really consist of two separate yet overlapping factors of passion and perseverance, or should they be conflated as one factor? To answer this, it was important to use correlational analyses to determine if the grit survey questions should be aggregated together in comparison with retention and achievement data, or if the passion questions and perseverance questions should be correlated separately.

Once I had confirmed a strong, yet independent relationship between the two factors (.67), it was determined that they loaded onto the higher-order factor of grit. This was important to establish foundationally in order to then begin answering my next questions.

  • What is the correlation between grit and academic achievement among online, ESL learners?
  • What is the correlation between grit and retention among online, ESL learners?

Assuming the null hypothesis (there was no correlation between the grit factors and retention or achievement), I was able to deduce statistical significance at the .05 level by using a series of Pearson correlation analyses and found that both the whole grit scale (all of the question responses) as well as the individual factors of passion and perseverance showed modest, statistically significant positive correlations with GPA, which was sufficient to reject the null hypothesis.

The response to the third question found no statistically significant relationship between the single-factor grit scale (perseverance and passion questions responses grouped together) nor passion question responses and retention. However, there was a moderate, statistically significant correlation between GPA and retention—suggesting the harder one worked, the higher the GPA. The higher the GPA, the more likely Spanish and Brazilians students were to persist to the next semester in their enrollment.

  • What is the association between grit and academic achievement when considering age, gender, parental education level, and first language among Spanish and Portuguese speaking online, ESL learners?
  • What is the association between grit and retention when considering age, gender, parental education level, and first language among Spanish and Portuguese-speaking online, ESL learners?

The fourth question asked about covariation and academic achievement and found that the combination of gender, parental education, and age had the strongest combined effect upon GPA—accounting for 4.3% of the variance.

The fifth question asked about covariation and retention and found that the combination of GPA, gender, and first language had the largest combined effect upon retention, accounting for 37.3% of the overall variation—which is very large.

Once I concluded my dissertation, I found immediate application for the findings in my work as the faculty-director of the first-year experience program where we have a course that focuses on helping to inculcate students into the university environment with success.

I chose Grit as the textbook for the course and have the students read select chapters as well as selections from Carol Dweck’s growth mindset research. Through the course, we have students choose one “stretch goal” that is imperative for their success and identify the campus resources most useful in helping them to accomplish that goal. Not every student thinks a compulsory freshman seminar course is the greatest thing since sliced bread, but we have found that the target audience (first generation students, international students, academically ill-prepared students, low SES students) are greatly helped by the principles and application of the course and that is gratifying.

Furthermore, from my dissertation and my course experiences, I was invited to give a TED Talk (This TEDx Talk Won’t Change Your Life) based upon my research and experiences. The premise is that ideas don’t change your life, but ideas in action do and that giving just a little more effort in the things you want to accomplish most on a daily basis will lead to big gains over time. Patience is key.

[] What advice do you have for current and prospective EdD students who want to know how they can succeed in their dissertation, from choosing the right research topic to staying organized and on track with their research?

[Dr. Seth Robins] I mentioned some things previously, but I’ll reiterate the importance of not defending your dissertation until the defense. The shortest distance between where you are now (Point A) and dissertation defense (Point B) is amicably and open-mindedly receiving and incorporating your committee’s feedback in the editing and re-writing process.

Secondly, imposter syndrome is real and is a waste of time. Of course you are not smart enough to defend your dissertation… “yet” (Carol Dweck, The Power of Yet), but isn’t that the point of your coursework and the dissertation review and re-writing process? It is to become smart enough to do it and you’ll find that intelligence is more a matter of diligence than just genetics. I suffered with this as an MA student, but I comforted myself with this thought as a doctoral student: there are undoubtedly people smarter than me who have defended their dissertations, but there are probably 1 or 2 people dumber than me who have also done it. And if they could do it, why can’t I?

I can’t tell you how profound this thought was in giving me the courage to write line-by-line and to receive feedback from my committee as something meant to help me—not hurt my feelings or derail my goals. It helped me take advantage of all those small 15-minute segments. It can work for you too!

[] What have been some of your most rewarding experiences as an educator and education leader? What challenges and opportunities were the most formative across your career, and what advice do you have for students who wish to work in higher education?

[Dr. Seth Robins] My most rewarding experiences with my doctoral degree were seeing that it did indeed work for me as a springboard into a faculty position at BYU-Idaho that I had been gunning for 16 years to get. Even more gratifying was to leverage my dissertation work into my daily work in helping students to believe in themselves as agents in charge of their ability to succeed through resourcefulness and help from others.

Even more gratifying is to work with fantastic colleagues whose views are similar and yet different enough to continually identify new challenges and apply solutions to overcome those challenges. I love working with my student-employees who often have better ideas than I have in working through challenges and making the work culture one of mutual respect and admiration as well as one where care and concern for each other and our students is given primacy. You can’t help but feel involved in a great work when you have others’ well-being and success a main goal in your daily work. It gives meaning and value to the challenges and gratification in the success.

Current challenges we are grappling with include helping students to overcome learning gaps due to disruption from COVID, or in the case of some of our African students, disruption and subsequent conceptual schema lack due to civil war and strife that robbed them of early educational opportunity. It’s a good challenge, but a challenge nonetheless.

Another challenge is that less and less students, especially males, look at higher education as a long-term investment in themselves. Not everyone has to go to college to succeed in life, but research shows that it is likely the case for the masses. There are exceptions to the norm, but most people will have their lives enhanced and their opportunities expanded through higher education, yet enrollment trends are downward trending.

If I had the answer to this last challenge, I would probably be wealthy, but I like local government initiatives that incentivize higher education through concurrent enrollment programs as well as paying for certain numbers of college credits. These are good, but are usually taken advantage of by those who had intended to go to college anyway. We need to determine how we can encourage those least likely to pursue higher education in the form of trade schools, community colleges, and universities in a way that doesn’t snowplow all student problems (this is an important part of gaining self-efficacy), but rather knocks down unnecessary and inequitable challenges when the slope is the most slippery at the beginning of higher education.

Thank you, Dr. Seth Robins, for your insight into your dissertation research process, your examination of factors contributing to student resilience and success, and your important work in supporting diverse student populations!