30 May 2007

first year students again

In comments on my earlier post, I was asked if I might say a bit more about some of what went on in the faculty workshop on teaching first year students.

To begin, for those of you who teach freshman regularly, I want to highly recommend Teaching First-Year College Students by Bette LaSere Erickson, Calvin B. Peters, and Diane Weltner Strommer (Jossey-Bass 2006).

The book does a great job of helping those of us in the front of the classroom to understand the 18 year olds sitting there facing us. The book draws upon anecdotes, research, and surveys such as the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). It is also chocked full of practical tips on effective instructional practice.

As for Betsy Barefoot's presentations, she covered several broad areas: how first-year theory and research can inform our practices, how various partnerships can support the first year, some basics of student retention, and issues about assessment.

In her first presentation, Barefoot gave an overview of some theories about how first year students adjust to and succeed in college and what kinds of research data we have available to support these theories. We looked at items such as institutional fit, campus involvement, social and academic integration, engagement in learning, and commitment and motivation.

Barefoot was convinced that the last of these items is the most important: commitment and motivation with regard to the institution, to completing a degree, and to a life goal. Motivation and commitment are, in her opinion, the best predictors of success, and can even mitigate weaknesses in the other areas.

But that just moves the question to how teachers and institutions can help cultivate commitment and motivation in the kinds of students we have today.

Barefoot turned then to research on first year seminars, learning communities, advising, residence, and so forth. The upshot of her overview was that much of the research is inconclusive and largely developed around white, male students. Nonetheless, most of what colleges do with advising, learning communities, etc., does seem to have some positive influence on student achievement and learning.

Measuring impact on retention is more difficult, though freshman orientation and support services such as tutoring seem to have the most demonstrable positive impact on retention.

In her presentation on partnerships, Barefoot's focused upon one main point that research seems to substantiate: student learning and development are enhanced when there is purposeful interaction and partnership among students, faculty, and staff to create mutually supportive, coordinated learning experiences. But what does that mean practically?

The answer will differ by institutional context, but strategies can include faculty involvement with move-in and orientation, summer common reading programs, faculty participation in resident life programming, use of first-year seminars, and so forth.

Regard student retention, Barefoot argued there is no easy "fix" and that thinking in those terms is likely the wrong strategy. What we do know from research is students are more likely to drop out if they are male, poor, the first in their families to go to college, work full-time, attend part-time, have children of their own, earned a GED, arrive under-prepared, attend their 3rd choice college or lower, commute, etc.

Obviously, the predicting factors are multiple and, in fact, it is very difficult to predict who will drop out, though we can think in terms of increased likelihood. And many students who do drop out of one institution will eventually finish elsewhere.

Barefoot suggested some primary strategies to promote student persistence: outlining expectations honestly and clearly, requiring attendance, giving feedback early and often, making a course relevant to life skills and experience, and other basic things all of us in education probably see as obvious.

Her main emphasis seemed to be the need to help students identify and build on their strengths and for instructors to promote interaction with students outside of the classroom.

On the current obsession with "assessment," Barefoot promoted a program of self-study that she works with. Honestly, it was late in the day and I mostly zoned out during that part of the workshop.

I'm not sure if any of this information will be helpful for those of us who teach freshmen. But I would highly commend the book I mentioned earlier.

Barefoot also recommended the article, "Collaborative Partnerships between Academic and Student Affairs" by Charles Schroeder (in Challenging and Supporting the First-Year Student, Jossey-Bass 2005).

In addition, there are a lot of resources available online at Policy Center on the First Year of College.