University Series 044 | Lipscomb University

Today we are joined by Dr. Annette Little from Lipscomb University. This program offers its students diverse opportunities, not only with coursework but also with practicum opportunities. Students learn from full-time faculty and adjunct professors who are dedicated to bringing knowledge of the field of behavior analysis to their students through real-life experiences. Not only will you learn, but you will build a life-long network of professionals that can assist you throughout your career.


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Programs at Lipscomb


Shauna Costello (00:01):

You're listening to Operant Innovations, a podcast brought to you by ABA Technologies. This week on the University series. We are speaking with Lipscomb University and Dr. Annette Little. Dr. Little taught special education classes in residential treatment centers, public schools, and alternative schools for eight years before moving into higher education. She then spent four years directing research projects in the areas of positive behavior interventions and supports, reading and writing strategies for students at risk for emotional and behavioral disorders, and prevention of behavioral problems at Vanderbilt University. Dr. Little is also a board certified behavior analyst and has worked in the field of applied behavior analysis since 2007. She has taught classes in general education, special education and applied behavior analysis in higher education institutes since 2005. Dr. Little joined Lipscomb University in 2013. She is currently serving as a director of the studies in applied behavior analysis programs at Lipscomb University. Without further ado, Lipscomb University. Today, we are here speaking with Dr. Annette Little from Lipscomb University. Thank you so much for talking with me today.

Dr. Annette Little (01:22):

Absolutely. Thanks for having me.

Shauna Costello (01:25):

I am actually gonna pass it right over to you to jump into a general overview of the program.

Dr. Annette Little (01:31):

Okay, great. Lipscomb's program was initiated about eight years ago, and we started with just a certificate in ABA at the graduate level. Over the years, of course I'm collecting feedback from students and adjuncts and supervisors on how we can improve the program. There was a lot of interest in a masters of science in ABA. I created this master of science in ABA based on student surveys, student feedback in class, based on adjunct and supervisor feedback. It's a pretty unique program at the masters level. What we did is we created a couple of courses that allow students to go beyond that masters in a lot of different directions. I had a lot of students who were interested in the business side of ABA. What does that look like and how do we get into owning our own companies? Really understanding the business side, even if we don't own our own company, but being a part of the growth of a company. I'm like, "Okay, cool. We'll add a business class to our master of science in ABA." We've added that business class and that's been very popular with students. I've had a lot of students graduate and open their own companies, which is fun to watch and see the variety and types of companies that come out of the students. In our program, we have a couple that are really focused on that nonprofit piece of it, some that are really focused on the social media aspect and how we can bring that in. It's been fun to follow students after they graduate and then follow their companies. Of course they always come back to me and say, "I have a problem. I have a wait list. What should I do?" And I'm like, "You hire more." That's what happens in this field. Everybody grew to the point of just having to continually hire and then we added an additional research class. Of course our core has the research class, but students wanted an additional research class that really focused on teaching them how to disseminate this knowledge. In a lot of programs, we have research classes and we teach students the ins and outs of research, how to conduct this really cool research project, and then we give them a grade and say, "Awesome. You passed, you're moving on." These students are like, "Well, we probably need to disseminate this because we worked really hard on it." I'm like, "You're right." We need to teach you how to apply and get accepted at conferences. We need to teach you how to submit to different journals and really publish your work for a broader audience. We created a research class focused on dissemination of the research that they conduct earlier on in their program. That was based on students' needs and what students wanted. I said, "This should set you up on that path for a doctorate." If that's what you want to do. If you don't wanna open your own company, here's another path that you can take in this field. I had a lot of students who wanted to teach in the school setting and if not continue being a teacher or go into the field of teaching, but be a behavior analyst in that particular setting. They wanted to work more collaboratively with speech language pathologists, because it's so critical to have that commonality and language, because we're all on the same page when we're working towards changing behaviors of students in that educational setting. Oftentimes we are using the same vocabulary words, but in different ways, in different contexts and it causes some conflict, sometimes, that's completely unnecessary and completely preventable. We created this communication language and social skills class. All of the classes at Lipscomb's program are taught by BCBAs, except for this one class. This class is taught by an SLP because that's his field, but it's really cool because the person I chose to teach this class was a behavior specialist before he became an SLP. I'm like, "Oh, so you understand verbal behavior and you've read Skinner's verbal behavior." And he's like, "Absolutely." I said, "I need you to come teach this class for me." He can bring both worlds together in a way that's just really cool for students. He teaches the language from the SLP perspective in a way that students in the ABA world understand so that when they go out into the world, they can better communicate with the team of people working with a particular individual. Those are the classes that we build around that masters of science in ABA. Of course the last class, in addition to our core classes that everybody has to offer as a verified course sequence, is an Autism communication class. This Autism class is taught by someone who's a lead specialist in the field and her main focus is on Autism. I offered this class, not because that's the only population we work with, everybody knows we work with anybody, but it is our biggest funding source. Especially in our area, and because that's our biggest funding source, I wanted students to have a class that they truly understood what it means for an individual to have this label. I'm not a big fan of labels and that's all it is, but of course we know that in order to receive certain funds, that label is necessary. We wanted students to fully understand that. We offer a course specific to Autism spectrum disorders. Those are the main courses that make up Lipscomb's program other than our core verified course sequences, which I guess are pretty similar to everybody else's because they have to be.

Shauna Costello (08:22):

Everybody always has those main core courses that are very similar just because those are the requirements, like you said. I heard there are a lot of different, very unique courses that are very interesting that might not necessarily be offered at a lot of other places. The fact that this is a good thing that a lot of people do, but I think for you specifically, you're so close to the students and their needs and their wants. To actually take everything that they've said that they wanted or needed is something really cool to hear as well.

Dr. Annette Little (09:10):

Yeah. I'm in a unique position as well, because I've been a faculty member since the beginning of the program, up until this past January. We finally hired our second full-time faculty member and I can't do this alone. My team became the students, it became the adjuncts, it became my supervisors and we're better as a team and it's important to grow a program. The program is not for me, it's for the students. It only makes sense to grow it in a way that's beneficial for them and who better to say what's beneficial for them than the students themselves? I love that I have that student connection. I find that, because we're a small program, we do get to know our students on a personal level and they stay connected once they graduate. Once they leave, they contact me saying, "Hey, guess what I'm doing right now?" And I'm like, "Oh, I wanna hear all about it. Let's go meet for coffee." I live on a farm, and come out to my farm. Let's talk. I love that we're small enough that I can continue to have that connection with students. I have a great group of adjuncts that also have that connection with students. Even though they're just adjuncts, they are so invested into this program and into the students. I'm just very fortunate to be at Lipscomb.

Shauna Costello (10:45):

I really love hearing that and I'm excited to jump more into some of the specifics. I know you just mentioned the faculty and some adjuncts. What does that faculty setup look like now? Who's teaching in this and what can the students expect from them?

Dr. Annette Little (11:08):

Yeah. I have been able to pretty much hand select a unique, fabulous group of adjuncts. I gave you the example of the SLP who's teaching the communication class. The person, who's teaching the ethics class, has a JD. He has a doctorate in law, but he's also a BCBA, and I'm like, "Oh, so you could teach ethics and bring in the laws related to our field?" And he's like, "Yeah, I could do that." I'm like, "And you could teach us as an adjunct, couldn't you?" And he said, "Yeah, I'll do that." What surprises me so much about these adjuncts is that they're saying yes to coming in and teaching a class, and this is not their full-time gig, but they're still willing to contribute and adjuncts don't make a whole lot of money. It's a service that they're offering up and they're willing to do that for these students and I love that. We have adjuncts from various fields. I try to select them based on their particular areas of expertise, which you often don't get. If you hire a full-time faculty member, you get a person in a particular area of expertise, but then they have to teach lots of different classes and lots of different things. If it's an adjunct, I'm like, "Okay, I want you for this one. I want you for this one, you for this one," and I can spread it out. It works so much better. When I have students that are interested in business, I'm like, "Well, you need someone with a background in business to teach a business class. Let's bring it in." I also make sure that we have that BCBA connection and that all the instructors, other than the communication class, are BCBAs who are teaching these classes. I have a person who is really focused on that school setting. It was a BCBA in a school setting, teaching the program design class that really looks at those school wide system approaches. I brought her in to teach that. I have a variety of adjuncts who fit nicely in with the classes they're teaching. They've been with me for years, which is really, really helpful. The adjuncts are also great at sitting down and looking at our program data with me. I share that at our faculty meetings, which sounds silly that I have faculty meetings and I'm a faculty of one, but I'm like, "Hey, you guys come as adjuncts to this faculty meeting. I'm gonna hold a faculty meeting." We look at the program data and I give tests throughout the program on all the standards that are being offered. The task list four, and now task list five. I've created these assessments that test all these different standards and I bring it to the adjuncts and I'm like, "Man, students are doing great in this area, in this area, but look at how they performed on this standard. Who teaches that standard?" One adjunct is like, "I think that's in my class." And I'm like, "You know what? You taught it in your class and students retained it in your class for the period of your class. That's awesome. Long term retention is just not there. Let's talk about how we can teach it differently to promote that long term retention." They have been instrumental in coming in, looking at the data, changing their courses and helping to really evolve this program. I love it because I bring my little graphs, here's the progress of students over time. All these little pretests that I'm giving students, these little checkpoints, the scores are going up, which means the adjuncts are actually listening to me and changing the method in which they're teaching certain standards to promote long term retention. I love that I see these scores going up because that means I can just add new information to my last class. I'm kind of the bookend. I teach the first class, the foundations of ABA, to get students started and engaged. I teach that last class, the advanced ABA. In that advanced ABA, I have the set of standards that I teach, but I also teach all the standards. I look at those pretests and I look at the holes in students' understanding of ABA concepts and I reteach all of those concepts in the class. If they've performed very well on these pretests, because the adjuncts have done a fabulous job teaching these concepts, then I get to add all of this new stuff into my class, which is super fun. It's a lot of work because it's not one of those classes that you prep and you're good for the next five years. I have to reprep it and recreate it every single time I teach based on student knowledge of that group that comes to me, but that keeps me fresh in the field. Not quite so bored with teaching the same thing over and over again. It's fun and it's a good thing for me to be able to dive into new knowledge all the time as well. I can share that with the students. That's the makeup of even those core courses that we have here at Lipscomb.

Shauna Costello (16:52):

I really like hearing that, because from somebody who has been in a couple different adjunct positions, I've never actually been that involved with the decisions and the feedback and the teaching strategies that you're listing. I think that's an absolutely amazing way to, not just showing your students that you're bringing in these people who doing this every single day, but you're also showing your adjuncts that you really do actually care about them about how they're teaching, what they're teaching, making sure that your student outcomes are what you want them to be and what they need to be as well. I think, as you say, your book ends and with the advanced course, I think that that's really great to hear that it's not just this canned course that you go off the same syllabus every single year. I think you're doing exactly what we like to do as behavior analysts, and you're really individualizing it. It's to that course, a group of students, but I think that's ideal because, like you said, depending on what they need, it might need to be some supplemental material or you might get to bring in all of this cool new stuff as well. I think that's phenomenal to hear and within those courses and with you, I know that with adjuncts, the research probably is set up a little bit differently. What are some of those opportunities for either research or capstone or even projects within the courses as well?

Dr. Annette Little (18:49):

Yeah. It is a little different with adjuncts, but I do love to collaborate on research with adjuncts and with students. I let the adjuncts and the students lead the way. Especially local conferences that come up and we have an adjunct or two that are like, "Hey, let's do a presentation on this topic." I'm like, "Oh, great. Let's set this up." What would it look like? We jump into co-presenting at conferences. I'm involved to an extent in student research, as students reach out to me and want me to be involved, but I don't teach either of the research classes. I definitely want to hear about the research that students are doing and, as their advisor, we talk about it. With the student research, they're all, of course, the single subject design research. It's more of, I wanna say, an umbrella approach to the research that we have with our students. In the research class, they have to do what I call FBIs: The function based interventions. They have to go through this particular process for their research, where they select one to three participants and they have to do their details. The literature review of course is a big piece of it, but they select clients from their particular work setting. They select four participants in the study and then they have to do this entire FBA on the target problem behavior. Their literature review, of course, will inform the intervention that they implement and then they have to select some kind of single subject design in order to evaluate the effects of this intervention on the behavior. They do all of this in one semester. I say one semester, we can give in progress grades for students who need a little bit longer, but the idea is that they get it completed in one semester, which is pretty impressive. Of course we have that second research class that will help them publish or at a minimum present at a conference somewhere. I try to be involved as much as possible in student research, but I'm also involved in adjunct research as they want it. I've had supervisors contact me out in the field saying, "Hey, I have an idea." I'm like, "Oh, I love ideas. Let's talk." We talk through ideas and I've collaborated on some projects with some supervisors as well, because I think it's so important when people get out in the field. When they leave the University setting, oftentimes that research disappears. Now, everything we do is research, but as far as actual research that you want to disseminate doesn't fit in with practice at all times. If I have a supervisor out there who's like, "I really miss the research from the University setting." I'm like, "You don't have to miss it. You can continue on." You're here as a supervisor for Lipscomb. I hired you as an adjunct because we hire all of our supervisors as adjuncts. We can go through Lipscomb's IRB, let's do this together. I work with the supervisors on conducting research at their clinics or wherever they happen to be working. If they're interested in that, it's not a requirement of course, but I have a lot that just missed that piece of it and have lost that connection with University. Universities can do a little bit better job reaching back out into the field, into that practice piece and continuing research in those areas.

Shauna Costello (22:49):

I really like hearing that too, because that goes back to the comment I made before about individualization. It sounds like if a student would come to you or another faculty, an adjunct, that they would say, "Hey, I would really like to get X, Y or Z experience. How can we go about doing that?" Whether that be with an adjunct, with you, with their site that they're at. It sounds like there's a lot of different ways that they could go about getting involved in this, but it is there if the students want to. One thing too, that I like to mention, not everybody's doing research out in that that might not be their main focus when they get out. There are people who just wanna go out there and be clinicians and that's completely fine as well. I really like hearing though that there are those options, if the students do want them.

Dr. Annette Little (23:56):


Shauna Costello (23:57):

That also brings up some more of the student experience. You've been talking a lot about and I'm hearing a lot about it as well, but what the students can expect with these courses, with the course load. If a new student was coming in, how would you explain what to expect with all of these classes to them?

Dr. Annette Little (24:25):

Yeah. The classes are all evening classes. They are hybrids. That does not mean we don't meet with students face to face. We definitely meet with students face to face really the majority of the time. We are meeting in eight week blocks for each class. In those blocks, we meet once a week for a four hour class in their evening classes. They have online portions in between those face to face meetings. During the pandemic of course, face to face meetings, ended up on Zoom, which really intimidated me a lot. I was like, "No." My Dean has been begging me to move the program online for a long time and I've been stubborn, I've thrown temper tantrums. I'm like, "I'm not gonna do it. I'm not gonna do it." I love my connection with students and I wanna see 'em in the classroom. I wanna see 'em face to face and the pandemic hit. My Dean called and he's like, "Guess what you're doing?" I'm like, "Ah, okay. He got me." I have found out that this synchronous Zoom class really wasn't different. I could see all of my students because our class sizes are small, so that helped. I could see all of my students on one screen. It didn't feel much different at all than being in the classroom. That part worked out for me, but I'm excited in the fall of getting to see students in a classroom again, but we are going to continue offering a Zoom component for students who want to come to Lipscomb, who live a little bit further out. They can do that. With these classes being in the evenings, allow students to work during the day, and I expect all of them to have a full-time job. You're not gonna come to Lipscomb and just do classes because I need you to learn this content and apply it immediately in the field. Plus you have 2000 supervision hours you gotta get in. You're not gonna do that after you finish classes. You need to start when you start classes. I also don't mandate that students work for a particular place. When students come to me and they're interviewing and they want to get into this program, we talk about the job they currently have. We look to see if that fits within the requirements for that practice piece. If it does, then they can keep that job. I will send a Lipscomb supervisor to their work to supervise them, or if it's a clinic loaded with BCBAs, I hire one of those in-house BCBAs as a Lipscomb adjunct to provide that supervision. We now have so many different clinics in the middle Tennessee area that we collaborate with that I pretty much have an in-house BCBA at each one of those. There are also times that I have students come in and they're teachers and they're like, "Man, I wanna stay in my classroom." I said, "Tell me about your classroom." And they're like, "Well, I got this kid who climbs walls. I've got this other kid who strips naked and runs down the hallway and I've got..." I'm like, "Okay, I think you're good. I think we can make this work for your placement site." I'm gonna send a BCBA to you to help you with all of this. Students are like, "What? I get a free BCBA in my classroom to help me?" They're pretty excited about that piece where they don't have to quit their job, they can continue on in their current job. I have other students that are like, "I've been teaching for 15 years. I wanna do the first year of the program in this school setting and then I wanna see what a clinic setting looks like." And I'm like, "Not a problem." I have all these clinics where you can interview and find which works best for you. The cool thing about finding a job in this field is that the interview goes both ways so that the clinics definitely interview you as a student, but you're interviewing the clinics because everybody's hiring and everybody wants to hire you. You find your best fit. I let students guide that field experience. I've had students that are like, "I'm interested in the adult population." I'm like, "Great." I have some partnerships with some places that work with the adult population. I've had correctional officers come in who work in prisons and say, "Hey, I've got some behaviors I'm dealing with." I said, "I bet you do." And they're like, "Could I use this as a placement site?" And I said, "Absolutely, you can." I'm very open to working with students and their placements. I had one student come in and said, "I'm a real estate agent." I said, "I don't think that's gonna work." And they're like, "Well, I deal with behaviors." I said, "Well, not on a regular enough basis that this is gonna work. Let's look at other options for you." I occasionally have those come in that really need to look at a different job option. The majority of the time, students can just use their current jobs as their field placements and then we just assign a supervisor or we hire an in-house supervisor.

Shauna Costello (29:54):

That is amazing to hear, because a lot of times the biggest location I hear issues with, are schools because each program has its own limitations. The fact that you go out of your way to make sure that this is something that can happen is phenomenal because there are so many schools and teachers that if they don't already have a BCBA in the school setting, it might not be able to work for them, unfortunately. To hear that you have these resources to get a BCBA out there to supervise them and to assist them is phenomenal. You answered my next question as well: What do some of the practicum sites look like? That was great. I'm seeing that same theme that I've already talked about . If a student wants it, they can probably get it, especially with their experiences as well. We're gonna talk about location in a little bit, but I really like hearing about all of the teachers that are coming in, because that is probably one of the hardest spots, depending on where you're at in the country, to get an actual BCBA supervisor in there. Congrats to you on being able to start these partnerships with the clinics, with working with the school districts, with just being able to have your students tailor their experiences. You have the dissemination course, but that really even speaks more to the dissemination effort because that's huge. Making these bridge connections to these other fields, speech, to law, to schools, to business in general. That's absolutely amazing to hear.

Dr. Annette Little (32:20):

Fabulous BCBAs in this area, who are very willing to jump in and help out. That's awesome, and I've been very fortunate.

Shauna Costello (32:30):

I know you've mentioned it while talking about middle Tennessee, so why don't we jump right into the location? I know that you mentioned about the hybrid and how that can continue and things like that. Where are you located?

Dr. Annette Little (32:49):

We're in Nashville. What better place to be other than Nashville? I am biased. I'm a Nashville native, born and raised in Nashville. Of course I love Nashville. We are located in Nashville, just down the road from Belmont University, down the road from Vanderbilt University. We're centrally located, but our students come from all over middle Tennessee, all the surrounding counties. I had one student who was driving two hours, one way into campus every day. I said, "Okay, I need to find a supervisor for you two hours away." We were able to do that. We were able to find a supervisor for that one student. Nashville is just a small, big city, right? It's definitely growing very, very quickly, but it still has that small town feel to it. I love that part of it. As a BCBA community, it's still relatively small. I tell students all the time, if you're talking to your supervisor in your work setting and you run into another BCBA, they probably know each other. We all know each other in this area and we're all pretty collaborative. It's just a great place to be. I just love this area.

Shauna Costello (34:29):

I'm excited to be back down in Nashville in a couple of weeks, actually for the WIBA conference. It's been a few years since I've been to Nashville. I'm very excited to get back down there and explore it a little bit more as well. Let's see... We have covered the general overview, the faculty, student experience, practicum opportunities, research opportunities, location. How about the admissions and is there an interview process?

Dr. Annette Little (35:10):

Yes. [Laughing] Your admission is pretty typical when you have your application, and you have your letters of recommendation, and you have your personal statement, and you have your standardized test scores. We accept the GRE or the MAT, either one of those, and you have an interview with me. Right now, I'm the only one who's interviewing students as they come through and it's really just a conversation. I've read their files, which is great, and the interview is just an opportunity for me to get to know this individual and to see if Lipscomb is the right fit for them. Through the interview process, I talk about the program and I listen to what this particular person's interest happens to be and we kind of go from there. I make recommendations for acceptance into the program, but the Dean makes the final decision. I just send my recommendation up to the Dean and so it's a pretty simple process. It happens pretty quickly. Nothing painful about it at all.

Shauna Costello (36:27):

When are those applications typically due as well?

Dr. Annette Little (36:33):

They're rolling applications and we accept them throughout the year. I have two start dates. We have a fall start and then we have a spring start. Students can apply really at any time. If they apply a week before classes start in the fall, we're looking at a spring start, but I interview year round. We may have a deadline on our website, but you can really go ahead and apply at any time. It may just roll you into that next semester.

Shauna Costello (37:09):

Awesome. We've covered a lot about the program. Is there anything else that you wanna make sure to tell any of the listeners?

Dr. Annette Little (37:21):

I think the biggest opportunity that you have, if you're interested in coming through Lipscomb's program, would be that opportunity to connect with your instructors and connect with your supervisors and really build those relationships that last beyond the program. We are not one of those universities that is so large, it's hard to keep up with all the students who graduate. We can keep up with our students, because we are relatively small and I hope we stay small. That's the biggest benefit of coming to Lipscomb. The relationships that you're gonna create and build, not only with adjuncts and supervisors, but with the other students who come through the program. We become a family and we remain a family afterwards.

Shauna Costello (38:22):

It sounds like that is very important to being in the area most of the students are in. You are so closely connected. Thank you. I've learned a lot. I'll admit that this is the main reason why I wanted to do this series on the podcast. To hear about some of these schools that I've never heard of before, but are doing some really cool things and just the differentiation between your students and their experiences and the networking and the relationship building is really great to hear. You can very easily hear the passion you have for your students and the program when you talk about it. Thank you so much.

Dr. Annette Little (39:18):

Thank you for doing this. I love the work that you are doing and giving us the opportunity to get our voices out there. Thanks so much for your hard work.

Shauna Costello (39:27):

Thank you for listening to this episode of Operant Innovations. And as always, if you have questions, comments, feedback, or suggestions, please feel free to reach out to us at


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