Response to Gardner’s Rock/Soul/Progressive: II

I started to leave a comment on Gardner’s second post about his
recently concluded First Year Seminar, but found it was turning out to be longer than a comment typically is, so I moved it here.

After your previous post I was in awe that you appeared to have found the magic bullet for teaching an FSEM without the snags the rest of us faced. I’m glad to see that you ran into many of the same that I have experienced. 😉 I wish there was a way that the FSEM instructors as a group could collaborate on developing a list of such snags. I think a collective approach to addressing them would be more efficient and probably effective than each of us working on our own. Also, it might be helpful for new FSEM instructors to have a better idea of what to expect, and how not to panic when these snags occur. (Is there perhaps a role here for UMW’s upcoming Center for Teaching Excellence?) Let me respond to some of the specific points you made.

The day I asked the seminarians why they weren’t more lively in the question-and-answer period that followed their classmates’ presentations, and they replied that they didn’t want to ask questions for fear of making their peers look ignorant or stupid. … for most of them it was the absolute truth: they didn’t look at the Q&A as a time to go deeper with what their classmates had already showed they knew, or to bring in interesting connections, or generally to take the level of engagement and enthusiasm and inspiration up a notch or ten.

I ran into this as well. I’ve blogged before about how this year I’ve become more aware of how first year students are different from upper class students, and how they need explicit guidance about how higher education is different from high school. I expect Gardner’s observation above is common with first year students, and it’s something we should put on our common list of FSEM goals: to teach students this deeper purpose of Q&A. It’s not something that comes to them naturally.

[T]he way so many of the third presentations suddenly gelled into the kind of deep, thoughtful, rigorous, playful work I’d been hoping for–and trying to encourage–all along. …

There were times I thought we wouldn’t get there.

I saw this as well. Just when I was starting to give up hope, my students showed the depth of work I was looking for.It seems to take first year students longer to get what we expect in university-level work than upper level students. This isn’t surprising given their training and experience. So an entry level college course need to be less rigorous in content than an upper level course, but also different in terms of instructor’s expectations for how students will make progress towards learning how to do university-level work.

Then there was the day when it became clear that I’d have to tell them they should blog twice a week [emphasis added], when I had hoped that with this small group and a topic of some urgency to all of us music lovers, I could just step back and let the blogging commence.

This is another manifestation of the previous point. First year students need to be more explicitly told what the expectations are. It’s not that we dumb down the type of analysis and other work that we expect of first years, but rather that we need to provide more structure, more scaffolding about how to achieve the type of work.

After two tries at teaching an FSEM, I think that one of the key issues in achieving success is arriving at the right balance between what Gardner calls structure and emergence. The mistake that I’ve made twice now is to put too much emphasis on the latter, but I am getting closer to the target.

At the risk of a bit of reduction, I think the distinction between task-orientation and inquiry-orientation that Gardner raises reflects confusion in the students’ minds about who’s in charge. Are they satisfying an instructor’s requirement by completing a task, or are they searching for the answer to a question they find gripping. It’s the latter that FSEMs are trying to promote, but it’s the former that most students (even upper level students) have experience with.

Another sign of success is the extent to which students adopt a practice of self-reflection about their learning. Obviously, instructors can promote this or not, but when they don’t it’s very unlikely to occur. I was pleased to see that Gardner, like me a year ago, experienced a “Shannon Moment” when an FSEM student demonstrated that they “got it”:

Perhaps the most startling moment of all came after the class was over, when a student in my freshman seminar commented on my Theme Parks and Sandboxes blog post. It was as if something I had been saying over and over, all semester long, had suddenly connected.

Of course, Gardner identifies the most important factor for success in an FSEM:

[M]y best chance is always to let my fascination with the subject carry everything else along with it.

One final observation about the FSEM. I’ve had more interactions down the road with my former FSEM students, than with my other former non-major students, so it appears that the FSEM enables a stronger connection than a general education course.

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2 Responses to Response to Gardner’s Rock/Soul/Progressive: II

  1. Mary-Kathryn says:

    Hi there!

    When you and Gardner mention this :

    “The day I asked the seminarians why they weren’t more lively in the question-and-answer period that followed their classmates’ presentations, and they replied that they didn’t want to ask questions for fear of making their peers look ignorant or stupid. … for most of them it was the absolute truth: they didn’t look at the Q&A as a time to go deeper with what their classmates had already showed they knew, or to bring in interesting connections, or generally to take the level of engagement and enthusiasm and inspiration up a notch or ten.”

    I’m not sure I have a good grasp on it. Recently I spoke about something ( maybe the same subject???) on my own blog from a student point of view. (Keep in mind I’m rather free on my blog) It’s under the blogpost title “What I Will Do” Scroll down to the blue writing, its in the 3rd paragraph. Anyway, I’m finding the teacher perspective of the classroom to be fascinating. Thanks to you and Gradner for sharing.

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