Dialogue, Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies, Orientation

Small Measures: Using the Data

This morning I returned from my annual week in the woods to discover our institution’s National Survey of Student Engagement Report (NSSE) on my desk.  For the uninitiated, the NSSE compares student reported experiences of academic and other campus interactions both within group (comparing first-year to senior year-responses) and between colleges of similar types. Like all surveys, the NSSE is an imperfect measure, but it does reveal some potential points of pride and some areas we might improve on.  Since we invest in this survey as part of our institutional assessments, I am thinking that we ought to make some specific plans to use the information gathered.

First, the good news.  Our first-year and senior-year students are reporting spending more hours on reading and writing than the students from several of our peer institutions are, and many of our students report feeling challenged to do their best work.  Our seniors are completing culminating academic projects (a widely recognized high-impact practice) at a very high rate, and they value that experience.  Taking a long(ish) view of our NSSE data, there has been improvement in student reports on academic challenge for both first and senior year students and, although still not where we hope it would be, more of our students are reporting more quantitative reasoning opportunities in the curriculum.

By the time our students are seniors, they are reporting experiences with academics, peers, faculty, and the campus in terms that are roughly comparable to our peers.  There are a few plusses here, too.  Our seniors report that they are using good learning strategies, their faculty are using effective teaching practices, they have engaged in discussions “with diverse others,” and completed culminating and integrative educational experiences.

Unsurprisingly, there are real differences between our first-year and senior-year student responses.  Our first-year students are not convinced that we are using effective teaching practices, which may be a function of the transition from high school to college expectations.  In addition, our first-year students do not feel they are experiencing integrative learning opportunities, and they do not feel they are engaging in discussions with diverse others.

This interesting information.  We want our students to engage with difficult concepts, examine their worldviews, and be confident in their ability to learn both broadly and within their major.  Based on our NESSE data, this appears to be happening by senior year, but our first year students are not reporting this at all.

Over the past five years, WCSU has done a lot to make our goals transparent to our students. We have revised our general education curriculum to reflect common learning outcomes that we believe are essential to a liberal arts degree, published four-year plans, and added a first year navigation course.  Great.  Perhaps these steps account for some of the improvements in our NSSE scores overall.  However, we should not be satisfied yet, because our students are still not fully engaged with or aware of our great plans for their education.

Here’s a radical idea–let’s clarify things for our first-year students. Can we make those big ideas about their whole education visible to our students right from the start? Here are three suggestions to that might help us communicate our intentions more clearly.

  1. The First Year Course. Let’s build a couple of conversations about the holistic of a liberal arts degree into every FY course.  Part one of that conversation can focus on just describing the rationale behind the components of a degree (general education, major, minor/certifications) and the related experiences that might be considered enhancements (study-abroad, internships, etc.).  This conversation should take place prior to advising for the spring semester.  Part two could happen at the end of the semester. Take a moment to ask the students what they have learned.  Give them a writing prompt that encourages them to draw connections between their courses.  Then ask them to consider what they think they need to learn to make those connections more clear and encourage them to get those experiences in the next year.
  2. Introductory Courses. In all 100 level courses, let’s describe and discuss our pedagogical approach with our students.  We should not be repeating high school: college is different. We put more control into our students’ hands and we are more focused on questions than clear, short answers.  Let’s clue our students in to these new expectations with direct conversations about how the higher education environment should differ from their experiences with education.  Give them some direct examples of how this might work.  For example, show them the difference between a quiz for memorization and a quiz for integrative thinking.  Then they will know we have a plan and it is not to trick them. This might help students see our teaching strategies as effective at an earlier stage in their education. It might also help them build effective learning strategies.
  3. Everything Else. So, who about those conversations with diverse others?  This is both the easiest and hardest change to make.  It is easy because there is no subject that is not informed by experiences of different groups of people.  From the histories we tell, to access to the arts, to land use, or genetically modified foods, we have unique perspectives that deserve consideration.  As an institution, higher education is uniquely responsible for fostering conversations that examine these issues from many perspectives. It is our job to help our students develop skill in sorting through fact, opinion, and probabilities in thoughtful and civil ways.  It is hard to achieve this because sometimes our differences are complicated and intimidating and we are unsure of how to navigate the conflicts.  Still, we should be working to gain full participation in these conversations in every single course we teach. This means we must be intentional about fostering inclusive conversations and brave about addressing conflict.  It is a challenge, but I am certain we are up to this task.

If we take these steps, we might be able to close the difference between the impressions our first-year and senior-year students are having of their education.  Maybe we can engage them sooner so they can enjoy this experience from the start.

 

Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies, Orientation

(Re) Orientation

It’s orientation season again.  As soon as we finish calculating final grades and  shaking hands with our graduates, we turn around to greet our entering class. It is a happy task, full of optimism and good intentions.  Families are eager, students are nervous, everyone is hoping that they have found the right fit for their education. We do our best to calm the nerves and make folks feel welcome and at home.

Much of orientation is filled with logistical information.  How do I get my ID?  When will I meet/pick my roommate?  Can I qualify for more financial aid?  Will my AP or community college classes count? How do I pick or change my major?  And always of greatest interest… when will I get my fall schedule?

Then there is the social information.  What is it like to live in a dorm? How will I make friends?  What are the activities/clubs available?  What do students do on the weekends? And generally, will I fit in here.

Like every other university, WCSU will do our very best to answer these questions. We have an overnight orientation to give our entering class a taste of the campus experience, advisors to talk about schedules, and lots of opportunities for students to interact with each other in the hopes that they make an initial connection to ease the first month on campus.  All of this is to the good, and there’s lots of good evidence that it is a helpful exercise, but I’m wondering about when we can get to the real conversation.  You know, the one about how college is not the same as high school?

Our students have heard it a million times.  Their high school teachers have been telling them that things will be harder in college, as encouragement and sometimes as a stick.  It’s the background noise to the entire high school experience… it’ll will be harder, you won’t get away with this level of effort, you won’t get into a good college if you don’t study… an on and on it goes. But what does that really mean?

Well, one thing that it means is that decisions truly have consequences. At my school, students will be given a schedule to start with.  It should have the right courses for the intended program of study.  We’ve built in some nice things, like pre-major pathways (meta-majors) for students who haven’t selected a major, and we’ve worked with all departments to craft an ideal first year.  Unfortunately, though, things can go wrong pretty quickly.

Perhaps a student took an AP class in statistics, but it wasn’t sent to us before we enrolled her, so we put statistics on the schedule.  We can’t give credit for the same course twice.  Sorry.  Or, perhaps a student changed his mind about an intended major, but didn’t realize the new major had an important pre-requisite in the first year. Now he either needs a summer course and to stay in college an extra year.  Or, perhaps a student simply dropped a class (because now they can do that sort of thing unsupervised) but they didn’t realize the loss of credits would mean registering last (later than the second year students) for another year, thus reducing the likelihood that they’ll get an appropriate schedule.  Consequences are real.

Another big difference between high school and college is the structured schedule. Students come to us having participated in school, extra-curricular activities, jobs, and community service. Their schedules were full and planned and, though they might have been overwhelmed, they rarely had to think about how to fill their time.  In college, time management is all up to the students. Courses meet two or three days a week, and then the time required to stay on top of one’s studies is up to the student to figure out.  They may be in some co-curricular programs, or not.  They are likely to have some part-time work to juggle, but the time in their control will greatly increase as compared to high school.  This can come as a real shock to students. As faculty and advisors, we often marvel at how students fail to prioritize study time, but really it is a new experience for many of them.  The increased time available is actually a huge shift in responsibility for our incoming students and for some of them it becomes their downfall.

Then there is the thing that should be really different, but frequently is not.  College courses should not feel like high school courses. They are different in the frequency of meetings, and they are definitely different in pacing, but I worry that we are not really changing the learning experience.  In our first year courses, are we moving from learning as knowledge that is delivered to learning as knowledge discovered and created together? Are we inviting our students to take hold of what they want to know, in real and empowering ways, so that they successfully transition to the kinds of learners we say we want?  I fear the answer is, not often enough.

When we fail to address our transitional pedagogies in systematic and thoughtful ways, we contradict all of the other messages that encourage our students to move from adolescence to adulthood.  If we stick with content delivery, the “college is harder” is only about pacing, and not about self-direction and interest. We remove highly structured environments,  add consequences for poor or uniformed decisions, but we neglect the payoff, which is a sense of control over the pursuit of interesting questions and ideas.  No fair.

So, as I reflect on our inviting experiences at orientation, which are appropriately matched to the students’ immediate needs, I am reminded about all of the follow up we need to truly support our beginner adults in their first year of college. We have to re-orient them to learning in ways that are truly different from high school.  I suspect we need to do that for ourselves, too.