Friday, April 8, 2022


Heidi Arbisi-Kelm
Heidi Arbisi-Kelm

Heidi Arbisi-Kelm, assistant dean for academic affairs at the University of Iowa Graduate College, received an Excellence and Innovation in Graduate Education Honorable Mention at the 2022 Midwestern Association of Graduate Schools (MAGS) Excellence in Teaching Awards meeting. 

The honor recognizes a MAGS member school for outstanding contributions to graduate education and was bestowed at the MAGS 78th Annual Meeting in Milwaukee, WI, April 7, 2022.

Team members assisting with the project included Erin Kaufman, Vivian Sheridan, Andy Jenkins, and Archit Agarwal of the University of Iowa Graduate College, and Emily Wuchner of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

The team was honored for their project entitled, “An Unexpected Outcome: The Promise of the Remote Thesis Defense,” in which students were surveyed on their experience with remote thesis defense during the campus shutdown in spring of 2020. The resulting data "unequivocally assert that some participants and circumstances are best served by a remote defense option, rather than a one-size-fits all, face-to-face approach for their culminating and milestone graduate exam experiences."

"I cannot emphasize enough how unique it is for Heidi to have taken the time to arrange all of the details necessary to launch and conduct this survey during the time when our university, like many others around the world, was hurriedly pivoting to online instruction, with all of the challenges that such a rapid transition required," said Amanda Thein, associate provost and Graduate College dean.

Erin Kaufman, Heidi Arbisi-Kelm, Vivian Sheridan, Andy Jenkins, Archit Agarwal, and Emily Wuchner.
Team members who worked on the survey project.
Top row, left to right: Erin Kaufman, Heidi Arbisi-Kelm, and Vivian Sheridan
Bottom row, left to right: Andy Jenkins, Archit Agarwal, and Emily Wuchner.

The Graduate College collected remote exam participant insights by conducting intervention measured assessment in real-time. Survey requests were systematically disseminated to every student and every committee member each time a dissertation defense occurred. Unlike schools which sent a mass survey to students and/or faculty about the remote defense, the Graduate College collected survey responses at the time of the event by sending the survey link to all participating parties 24 hours after the exam was held. This resulted in a robust response, and over the course of the last seven weeks of the spring 2020 semester and subsequent three semesters (summer and fall 2020 and spring 2021), over 1,500 UI students and faculty responded to the qualitative survey questions about their experience with the remote thesis defense. Arbisi-Kelm asked respondents three simple questions:

1. What was positive about the remote thesis defense?

2. What was negative?

3. Would you recommend the remote thesis defense?

According to the Graduate College, reconsidering every aspect of graduate education is vital to safeguarding its future health, survival, and student success. In addition to creating a policy which promotes student and faculty choice for graduate exam modality, the Graduate College expects discussions about considering this policy change to also surface important considerations about the purpose of the defense and its conventional design. The project's team hopes that with the remote thesis defense as an option, the university can promote a model of practice which aligns a defense mode with the desired equity, learning, and developmental outcomes wished for students to experience.