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.