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.