Over the last year, I have fallen prey to a common ailment of bloggers—wanting to get your ideas just right before they are published. Putting your ideas out there is, after all, risky. Especially when those ideas may be half-baked. Of course, that’s contrary to the way some view blogging. Gardner Campbell recently wrote “Almost all the time, I write my posts in one sitting and publish them right away.” Half-baked or not, it’s almost certainly better to post those ideas; otherwise, they may never get published at all. So here goes!
In recent years, I’ve become interested in student success at a systematic level. Last Saturday, I participated in our First Year Honors Common Reading Group. Afterwards the faculty discussion leaders went out to debrief. We were universally pleased with how well it went, with how easy it was to lead the discussion with students who had read the book and were clearly interested in discussing it. The hardest part was reining in the dominant speakers (of whom we had three in a group of eight) to provide the space for the other students to talk.
You might retort, well of course the book discussions went well since you had bright students, but I think it was more than that. Students are successful and earn good grades not merely because they are intelligent, but also because of behaviors, habits of the mind, that they practice. So it’s not just who they are, but what they do that matters. The honors students were prepared for the discussion and they also wanted to learn from it. They were intellectuals in the sense that they wanted to discuss and debate the ideas in the book so they could learn from it. The prospect of learning seemed to motivate them.
I had two takeaways from this about student success more generally: First, I think it may be important that students find a sense of belonging, for example, by becoming part of a group with common interests, especially one where some sense of peer pressure motivates them. On athletic teams, there can be a sense of wanting to do well academically so you don’t let the team down. Academic majors probably are another example of students working together in parallel towards common goals. Could this be one reason why students who fail to declare a major until very late find it difficult to complete the degree?
The second takeaway is the following. I wonder if productive academic behaviors can be taught to students who aren’t honors students, especially in the context of their group. What are good practices for economics majors? What are the same for Historic Preservation? I’m sure there is some overlap across departments, but I suspect there are also differences.
I also think that being part of a cohort (not just part of a group) can be important. A sophomore economics major probably has less in common than a senior economics major. Two sophomores are more likely to be taking the same courses.
Groups tend to have leaders or at least faculty responsible for the groups. This could be a way to establish the “one faculty or staff member who cares about your academic success.” The director of our Honors Program struck me as similar to the “house mother” in dormitories of old. Who is offering the same caring and attention to our non-honors FY and older students?