Training First Years to be Intentional Learners

For much of the second half of the semester, I’ve been concerned that the students in my First Year Seminar were not putting in the effort that I expected of them. This was surprising because they seem to be very bright and interested in the topic: globalization. Part of the reason for my concern was what I heard at the Course Redesign Conference: Freshmen don’t do optional. The FSEM is designed to give students a tremendous amount of flexibility about what they do for the course and when they do it. It gives them more options than they can reasonably be expected to do. A second reason was that almost no one had turned in a second draft of their first graded paper, and several students had not turned in the first draft of the second graded paper on time. (In the FSEM, the students are allowed to write as many drafts of the papers as they like and I will provide detailed formative comments on each, as long as they make the initial deadline.) A third reason was that no one seemed to be blogging very much.

A week or so ago, I polled the students using a version of Gardner’s APGAR. My initial review of the results suggested that they weren’t engaging very much. The next class I challenged them about it. They expressed some surprise at my challenge. They essentially said, they were working on it. Within a few days, there was a flurry of thoughtful blog posts, and paper submissions. The Course Redesign Conference essentially recommended taking the easy way out–Make students do the work or else they won’t. But if we want to teach students to be intentional learners, that suggestion won’t do. It’s true that first years may not have the intellectual maturity of upper level students, and that they’ve been trained for twelve years or more to only do what they’re required to. But if we’re going to train them differently, why not start as first years? If not the FSEM, what course then?

My take-away from this is that it’s true that first years need more structure to complete college level work, but the solution isn’t to make everything required. Rather, it’s that instructors who give first years flexibility need to regularly remind the students of what’s expected of them. (HT to Jerry who asked me if I was doing this!) And in time, they will produce it.

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8 Responses to Training First Years to be Intentional Learners

  1. Gardner says:

    Well said. I’ve struggled with these issues in my own FSEM. I even left a fairly sharp (for me) comment on a student’s blog when she complained I had not “told them what I want.” To her credit, she immediately commented back that I was right and she was simply expecting to be spoon fed.

    That lesson didn’t stick, of course. This same student–a perfectly bright and polite person–has continued to sing versions of the same song, even once admitting that though she felt bad about something she wouldn’t be doing anything to change it. There’s a deeply cynical passive-aggressive behavior that K-12 instills in students, I fear, that gives them just enough self-awareness to be truly unreachable. That said, I feel, deep down, that students do in fact want the real thing, no matter what they say on their blogs or the course evaluation. I suppose I have to believe it. Now, of course, the question is: can I help that “real thing” to appear in our time together?

    This time of year, I’m not sure what *I’m* able to bring to the table…. But that’s not unusual at the end of term.

  2. Steve says:

    I’m more optimistic. Jerry asked me if I had told the students that I expected them to read everything that any of us del.icio.us tagged ‘FSEM100j’, or to each others’ blog posts, to comment on same, etc. I couldn’t remember if I had explicitly. I really think that had I regularly reminded them to do these things explicitly, I would have gotten better responses. I’ve put it on my plan for next year.

  3. Gardner says:

    Well, I want to be more optimistic. 🙂 I did remind my students several times, but I didn’t want to nag. Perhaps that was not a wise decision on my part. There’s a way to remind folks regularly without nagging. Perhaps my real issue (love that word) here is that I want my students to find intrinsic motivation for the assignments I’ve given them. I understand that’s a tall order, but as you say, it’s the tall order we should be investing in.

    The saga continues–that’s the beauty of this job, isn’t it? We can keep trying until we get it right, or closer to right.

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  7. Terry says:

    Steve,
    I am still thinking about this. I heard a talk at the educause conference about a course that was nearly student led, using a collaborative virtual environment to learn about Web 2.0 tools. The students did a beautiful job, and there were no grades! But they were seniors. The students themselves described the discomfort they felt at first, how they had to struggle to define things for themselves, but then the magic happened. They said they could not have done it as first years.
    I really believe first years have been trained into submission for 12 years, and it takes a year of carefully designed work to help them shift their paradigm. But giving them more of the same (structure structure structure) won’t help them. Neither will just setting it up the way we want them to behave and then hoping. What is the in between? I think the key (or one key) is to set them up for cognitive failure in a way that gets them fully engaged (I explain it here: http://tdolson.wordpress.com/2009/04/02/making-them-curious-again/) a la Ken Bain. When we put motivation first, it seems to me, the stone is rolled away and a resurrection of curiosity is possible.

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