equity, Inclusion, Martin Luther King, Jr.

Equity in the Co-Curricular

It is Martin Luther King Day, so of course I’m thinking about equity in higher education.  In the many years since King’s March on Washington, and the continuing efforts to achieve equity–Sheff v. O’Neill,  Title IX, the American with Disabilities Act, and Affirmative Action, to name a few–all areas of employment and education have improved. We have not reached equity yet, but we are moving in the right direction. These efforts, though, focus on the body (race, gender, ability).  Today, I’m thinking about the equally important role of socio-economic status in college success.

In recent years, higher education has turned its focus to the experiences of first-generation college students. These students have pushed us to consider the hidden rules that make moving from start to finish in a college environment somewhat mysterious.  Like many others, my university has added courses that are essentially extended orientations (FY) to help level the playing field for students of all backgrounds.  From the simple things (like the extremely baffling R means Thursday on one’s schedule), to how to find an academic advisor and what to expect when meeting with them, to making four year plans, reading transcripts, and getting academic or financial support, this course is meant to demystify the secret codes of the college environment. It is our acknowledgement that universities are complicated and if you have no prior experience of them, assistance is required.

The FY effort is important, to be sure, and we are seeing a positive impact on our graduation rates since implementing this course.  But there’s something else we are missing, and it is very hard to manage.  Simply put, our awards and recognitions (beyond those generated by GPA) are built on the premise that students have time to participate in all sorts of activities beyond the classroom. That time is a cost that many students cannot bear.

Consider honor societies, for example.  Almost all of them start with GPA as a minimum criterion for admission, but then they expect something else. That something else generally requires uncompensated hours to complete.  The same is true for most student government awards.  Awards for great clubs generally mean someone had to have time to organize activities for that club.  And of course, there is research.  Students who conduct research with faculty may or may not receive any compensation.  Those who do receive compensation, are unlikely to receive enough to cover the lost wages of a part-time job.

All co-curricular activities require a lot of time.  Time is a precious commodity for all of us, but even more so for students who are working to support themselves while in college. Time for participation is time away from work.  Factor in the time necessary to study for classes, and these hard working students are likely to opt out of clubs, honor societies, and research opportunities. This means they’ve opted out of a lot of opportunities to be recognized for excellence.  There goes that line on the resume.

For students who live on campus, it may be easier to engage in the many clubs and activities, while holding a part-time job.  They are likely to be around at the hours that events may occur or be able to dash into a lab for a research project, between classes. In the best scenario, they may even have an on-campus job to support them. This is great and I applaud their participation.  But for those students who commute, the cost of the time commitment is magnified by travel time and the cost of transportation.  Add to that the odd hours at which many clubs meet, and these students will frequently just give up on participating. Unfortunately, our focus on participation does not factor in these barriers, and some students may feel discouraged or devalued as a result.

Now, sometimes those are just the breaks.  We figure out how to juggle our workloads and resources and some of us are luckier than others in terms of our college finances. Barring big changes in how we fund public higher education, this is just the way things are. Students who cannot participate in the co-curricular still win by completing a degree and advancing their opportunities post-graduation. If we focus on funding for their tuition, and not on potential prizes, we’ll have done something to assist them and their futures will benefit from their education. But this something is not equity.

It nags at me that we have structured things in a way that rewards students who are already at an advantage.  Like admissions criteria that are stacked in favor of the lucky few, perhaps we should reimagine the other rewards and opportunities, that are systematically unavailable to the less fortunate.  Is it time to re-imagine how time and opportunities are structured at the university so more people can be included in the things outside of the classroom?  Is it time to figure out a way to recognize the efforts of students who are holding down jobs, caring for family members, and figuring out how to succeed in college with little to no family support? Is it time for yet another look at how we inadvertently build barriers to equity? Yes, yes, it is.

 

Innovative Pedagogies, Orientation

Simple Steps with Big Potential

I am always on the lookout for some easy strategies to improve student success as they transition from high school to college.  Last week, I read a wonderfully straightforward book by Lisa Nunn called 33 Simple Strategies for Faculty: A Week-by-Week Resource for Teaching First-Year and First-Generation Students. It is exactly as described and I urge anyone teaching first-year courses to give it a read.

Nunn has worked with students from three different types of universities (public, private, and religiously affiliated) to develop this list of strategies. She organizes the text around steps to take each week of the semester and then supports her arguments with comments from students at each of those schools.  Their comments are compelling and the strategies suggested are convincing. Best of all, they do not require a big curricular overhaul, just a little re-thinking of the structure of a course.

While I liked everything Nunn suggested, I will just highlight a few here in the hope that there is still time to weave these into next semester’s courses.

“Give Pedagogic Rationales for Everything You Do; Write Them in Your Syllabus.” 

So many times, I have heard students describe assignments as a waste of time or busy-work.  Some wonder why creativity is counted in a science class or why writing matters in a math class. Then there is the oft-used phrase “I just have to memorize the things the professor thinks is important” (usually uttered by a student taking a class we are sure is teaching critical thinking).  While our reasons may be clear to us, they are not that clear to our students. Perhaps a little communication is in order.

 Although it might seem a little much to have to justify our pedagogies, we might consider that this suggestion is for first year students who have never considered the why of their teacher’s practices. As we ask them to take on a more adult role in their learning, they should be encouraged to consider that there is a strategy and how it might (or might not) work for their own learning processes.  If we start this conversation in the first year, perhaps we will help students align their own expectations and outcomes with our plans. Then, in the second year, we can feel fine about just letting them figure things out.

“Give a Mini-Midterm in Week 2 of the Semester.”

This is a great idea. When students transition from high school to college, they frequently have trouble sorting through which information is important and which is peripheral. Creating a mini-midterm for week 2 (or 3) is a great way to help them see if they are on track.  It can help students figure out how to study and how to take notes.  Given the large amount of research on the importance of many assessments (as opposed to a midterm and final of days past), this fits right in. It is a bit of an effort, but it has the potential to benefit students greatly.

Nunn goes on to advocate for a true review session for this mini-midterm, to help students see how to prepare. For me, that means at least week three, but I love the idea.  Both of these strategies offer students a good preview of how to sort through and prioritize information in their classes.  A little guidance in first-year courses can serve as a fabulous foundation for years 2-4.

“Share a Story in Class of Some College Woe that You Experienced as an Undergraduate Student.”

Or, to put it another way, be human.  Many students, whether first-generation or not, have preconceived notions that faculty were always good at school.  Many of us were not.  Certainly, none of us was good at everything.  Telling a story of a time you struggled communicates a feeling that you have empathy for your students’ struggles. It also communicates that we can succeed despite those struggles.  While I have heard students comment on faculty sharing too much of their personal lives, a little relevant information here and there is an important way to bond.

Most importantly, we want to help students get past those moments of self-doubt and invite them to be open about their own struggles.  Too many do not seek the help we want to offer.  Too many wait to reach out for assistance until too late in the semester.  If we talk about our own struggles, we can then talk about the path out of them.  We can let our students know that needing help is not about being a lesser student.

These are just a few of Nunn’s delightfully easy to follow strategies.  What I love about it is the simplicity of it all. There are no spreadsheets, no new technologies, and no buzzwords. These are just some good teaching strategies that come from listening to students.  Now that is a simple plan I can work with.

 

Engagement, Higher Education

Practical vs. Liberal Arts Education

Well, I am back from my respite in the tropics, where I had time to read several books, some of which were about education.  In an interesting history of higher education in the United States, I found myself laughing aloud, as I read that the demise of liberal arts education has been railed against since at least the 1860s.  Charles Dorn’s, For the Common Good: A New History of Higher Education in America (2017), flags the Morrill Act as a pivotal moment in this argument.  The Library of Congress describes it here:

“An Act Donating Public Lands to the Several States and Territories which may provide Colleges for the Benefit of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts,” the Morrill Act provided each state with 30,000 acres of Federal land for each member in their Congressional delegation. The land was then sold by the states and the proceeds used to fund public colleges that focused on agriculture and the mechanical arts

Largely celebrated as an act that represented a commitment to education as a public good, it is about as clear a commitment to practical/applied education as there could be.  Even before this act was established, alarms about practical education were being raised. Dorn recounts a speech by John C. C. Hamilton on this very issue.

The numerous schools and colleges scattered over the vast expanse of our country, the liberal encouragement which they receive from the public, and the munificent patronage lavished on them by the various States, amply attest to the value which the American people place on their system of general instruction. And yet, whilst the importance of the subject is recognized in this practical and substantial manner, and whilst we fully understand the great agency which the enlightenment of the citizen is to exert on the progress and final success of our peculiar form of government, it is surprising to see how great a prejudice exists against the liberal studies. The pursuit of them is regarded as a waste of time. We are told that they contribute nothing towards what are vaguely called the practical purposes of life; that they are too tedious to suit the active spirt of the American youth. [An Address Delivered before the Philodemic Society of Georgetown College, D.C., by Joh C.C. Hamilton Esq. of Washington, D.C. (Washington, DC: Henry Polkinhor, 1862), 3-4.]  (as cited in Dorn, p. 68)

So, there it is.  We have always been torn between learning things that are good for us and learning practical things. But Hamilton does not just reflect a sense of longing for liberal arts; he is also recounting a public sentiment about the temperament of the learner. Well, if the liberal arts were “too tedious to suit the active spirit of the American youth” in 1862, then it is the “same as it ever was” (apologies to Talking Heads).

What strikes me is this: with the exception of those very few people who get to spend their lives thinking about one area of study, uninterrupted by commerce or teaching, we are always juggling the love of pure inquiry with the practical use of that inquiry.  For most of us in higher education, the juggle is not practical vs. liberal arts.  It is really about dividing our thinking between our field of study and how best to teach about it.  Frequently, the best path to that teaching is helping students see the value of what they are learning.  Guess what? They frequently find that value when they understand how it might be useful to them.

Whether we are teaching about nursing, accounting, art, philosophy, or history, most of us spend a lot of time considering where the points of engagement might be.  You see, after we get over the notion that everyone finds our discipline exciting (usually in one’s first semester of teaching), we get obsessed with how to help our students feel the excitement that we feel. We usually stumble through many strategies, testing out assignments of various types, trying to get our students to understand what is important or interesting about the subject at hand.  Whatever the assignment, that moment of understanding often comes when students can connect the knowledge to something tangible in their own lives.

So, our nursing students endure anatomy and physiology because they know it is a means to success in their profession.  But what about that art history course?  Can we help them see a purpose for this knowledge without demeaning the pleasure of just encountering some of the great works of art? For those who are pursuing degrees in literature, can we help them see the poetry in math, or at least connect it to their daily realities?  For the psychology major, can we offer a music class that fully engages them with the role of music in our culture, without turning it into preparation for future trivial pursuit games?

I guess what I am trying to say is this; it is all practical or useful in some way.  Indeed, much of what we teach is downright magical in the ways in which it can help us build an understanding of our lives.  Some things are directly useful in particular professional contexts. Others are a different kind of useful as they help us process cultural and emotional responses to all sorts of things. And those much maligned symbols of the true liberal arts, philosophy and history, have never been any more or any less useful than they are at this exact moment in history.  They are filled with opportunities to understand the world around us.

So, let’s not spend another minute arguing about practical vs. liberal arts education. If we continue to commit to a balance of major and general educational experiences, we will be just fine.  Instead, let’s think about how to create learning experiences that help our students discover the practical value that every discipline provides. After all, we don’t actually want them to find this stuff “tedious.”

Thinking

Reading for Restoration

Final exams are over.  Students have returned to families and work.  Faculty are turning in final grades and most are taking a minute to exhale as we complete the fall semester.  It always feels like a mad dash to the finish line, no matter how carefully we plan.  I suspect it is built into the very notion of end points in learning.  They are necessarily artificial, so they are always a little disconcerting. But, hooray, we’ve made it through another fall.

For administrators, the punctuation is a little different.  Our vacations do not necessarily align with the semester breaks, and no one understands what we do all summer (lots, but that is for another day).  We don’t have exams to grade (hard work, to be sure), nor do we have the elation that comes after they have been completed. For me, the middle of the academic year generally brings a moment of horror as I realize the number of  projects on my to-do list that are nowhere near done.  There are policy projects, accreditation projects, record keeping projects, software implementation projects, and the ever-present pressure to insure that our efforts at supporting students are working.  Sometimes December just feels like a moment for panic.

Despite that panic, the end of the fall semester does allow for a moment of reflection and re-evaluation of my goals.  I will take a look at that to-do list and take advantage of the opportunity to delete a few goals, restructure some others, and then enjoy a few days of uninterrupted efforts to complete the parts that I can do alone.  Yes, with most folks off campus for three weeks, I have fewer meetings and more time for sustained reading and writing.

But first, I will pause.  I might not have the whole mid-semester break, but I will depart for some quality rest and relaxation. It is time for a vacation during which I will mostly just sit still and read.  Some of the reading will be about education, some will be fiction, all will be in a lounge chair by the pool, beach, or on the balcony of my vacation rental.  And all of it will be restorative.

I have been thinking about reading lately, mostly because it is so hard to get sustained reading done during my general workflow.  Like students and faculty, I am immersed in deadlines, email, meetings, and desperate efforts to stay informed of daily crises or breakthroughs in my field. My inbox is continuously filled with updates about higher education, ads for new technologies to help me do things more efficiently (ha!), and reminders to follow up on ideas, requests, or new initiatives.  By the time I go home each night, I find my mind ready for a relaxing British police procedural and reading gets pushed aside.

When I go on vacation, I suddenly find myself with the capacity to read.  When I first get started, I actually feel my body relax.  I have logged off and given myself over to the book in front of me. Distractions are gone and so is the stress of trying to keep up.  There is no deadline for this book, just the pleasure of the journey.

It is interesting to observe that it doesn’t matter if I am reading about education or just enjoying a novel, the effect is the same.  I feel restored and even inspired.  When not trying to keep up with the everything-ness of daily life, ideas have time to emerge.  Some might be about the human interactions that are best revealed in novels. Others might be about learning or teaching, that arise from recent scholarship in higher education.  I enjoy the opportunity to let the ideas wash over me. With more than a day to consider them, the ideas might even have time to develop into plans.

We should never underestimate the value of the pauses that we have built into our education systems.  They are not simply vacations, they are the space to heal, settle our minds, and bring back new perspectives and attitudes to all that we do.  And, we should not forget the difference between reading for survival and currency, versus reading for inspiration and reflection.  The latter requires the unscheduled blocks of time that our breaks allow.

Of course, observing that means I’m already thinking about how we build more blocks of time into our regular lives, not just during breaks.  After all, I would like to support more inspiration and reflection. But for now, I’m letting it all go and focusing on selecting books to take on my holiday.  I’ll work on new ideas later.  So, happy holidays, happy vacations, and congratulations on completing another term.  I wish you all a restorative break. See you in 2020.

Growth Mindset, Innovative Pedagogies

Grades?

Last week I offered a perspective on student evaluations of teaching.  To summarize, I was advocating for a much more collaborative and developmental approach than the usual bubble forms support.  This week, I would like to suggest that a similar re-thinking of our goals should take place around the topic of grading.  Let me be transparent from the start: I would like to see us give up the letter grades that have been designed for ranking students and replace them with a much more developmental approach.

Years ago, my husband and I sent our children to a high school with no grades.  After having attended a traditional (and small) public school from kindergarten through eighth grade, they moved to a small private high school full of progressive learning strategies.  For my eldest, this was an easy switch.  Alex moved from a student who earned As and Bs, to a student who asked lots of questions, argued perspectives, struggled to be a better writer, and thirsted for understanding.  The small seminars were perfect for this kind of learner and Alex thrived.

For my second child, the adjustment was more complicated. Michael was not a student who thrived in the traditional structure and the same was true in the new structure.  However, the narrative evaluations that took the place of the summaries of the A, B, C grading system, helped to identify some patterns of learning that were covered up with simple grades.  For this, the switch was a benefit, even if Michael did not love the learning the way Alex did.

At the time that this was going on, I asked my students about the idea of abandoning grades in favor of narratives.  Their response: “How will you know who is best?”  Well, there it was, as clear as could be, grades are about ranking not learning. I assured them that it was very easy to determine who was best at working with the material we were discussing, but I was not sure what the value of that knowledge was to supporting learning.  I’m still not.

So, as my faculty are reading papers, administering final exams, and trying to sum up their students’ work in simple letter grades that are effective for ranking but not necessarily for learning, I am suggesting we just stop it.  Here is what I propose instead:

  1. This student has demonstrated sufficient understanding of the content of this course to warrant the awarding of credit and proceeding to a related topic at a more advanced level.
  2. This student has demonstrated sufficient understanding of the content of this course to warrant the awarding of credit and proceeding to a related topic at the same level.
  3. This student has not yet demonstrated sufficient understanding of the content of this course to warrant the awarding of credit.

Instead of ranking students, these categories will simply facilitate progress through the undergraduate experience. We will not lose any of the rigor we currently expect; indeed, it might encourage greater integrity in the evaluation. Instead of suggesting that a D represents learning of any kind, (I’m pretty sure it just means the student attended class), the focus is on the future.  Faculty will determine a student’s capacity to participate fully and successfully in subsequent courses.

Arriving at these non-grades still involves lots of evaluation of students.  Just like in the current system, it would be best if there were many assessments on which to base this decision.  Regular feedback is an important part of nurturing learning, and that work never gets easier. However, with this system, students are incentivized to keep trying, even when they are struggling.  With grades, a few early missteps and low scores can drive a student to withdraw, or worse, give up trying.  They see the low scores as holes they cannot dig themselves out of, and they are right.  Even if they do well later, those scores will be part of their final grades. Their ranks (GPAs) will reflect the struggle more than the learning.

In the system I have proposed, the process of learning does not penalize students for struggling. In other words, if students arrive at aha moments mid-semester and start to thrive, they will not be bogged down by earlier scores.  Indeed, the changes in understanding may actually reflect the capacity to learn in ways that are more predictive of success than the “good” grades ever were. It is a truly developmental approach to assessment.

Of course, this opens the door to all sorts of next questions about time, progress to degree completion, the notion of credits, and so on.  In addition, our culture is so devoted to ranking that this will probably never fly.  Still, for just a minute, I would love for all of us to think about learning instead.  Wouldn’t that be more fun?  I’m pretty sure it would be more productive for students and faculty alike.