Photo: Rod Searcey for Stanford CTL
Part 2 of 3: In this series, we have been looking into the aspects that make teaching first-year students distinct from teaching more advanced students. In Part 1, we focused on how most first-years feel about learning, and how instructors might best help students become more comfortable in the college classroom. In Part 2, we’ll take a look at specific approaches that professors use to make the first year as enriching as possible.
Dr. Donna Bouley, Professor of Comparative Medicine at Stanford, notes a tendency in first-year Stanford students to be overly concerned with grades. “The students here are always kind of asking about grades,” she says. That dreaded yet often repeated question – “Is this gonna be on the test?” – frustrates many instructors because it points to an overly reductive attitude towards learning.
Bouley recommends making sure teachers emphasize learning over assessment. She told me, “I’m finding that I’m not a super hard grader. I try to really emphasize the stuff I’m going to be asking them [on assessments]. I’m not out to try to trick them.”
For literature classes where final papers tend to make up a large portion of the overall grade, students’ concerns over how to get a good grade can be even higher. (In fact, the final paper has been on the chopping block across institutions of higher education for years now, because some educational specialists don’t believe it’s the best way to assess student learning. At Stanford, where the quarter system presents particular time constraints, some literature professors have shifted to assigning alternative final research projects that require students to outline a research paper but not actually write it.)
Dr. Margaret Cohen, Professor of French and Comparative Literature at Stanford, does assign term papers, but she scaffolds the process for students so they get an early start and are supported along the way. Her assignments are progressive, with meetings built into the process: during the quarter students write two to three assignments, two to three pages each, “just to keep them engaged.” The “mini” term paper she assigns is meant to be developed more fully by the student after the conclusion of the course. “Good writing is multiple drafts,” says Cohen. She teaches her students how to begin with a presentation or a short paper and extend it for a better (longer) result.
Bouley also helps her students process new skills and knowledge with a progressive strategy. During the first lab, Bouley demos a necropsy with a pig (where she takes out all of the organs and examines them in a specific way). The next lab everybody does a complete rat dissection, guided at every step by his or her instructor. “They follow my lead. Every cut that I make, they follow along and do that, too.” Bouley makes sure to reinforce important content knowledge by asking targeted questions during dissections. “What is this? What is this called?” By the third lab, students are able to pair up and conduct a full rabbit necropsy on their own.
Sometimes dealing with grade anxiety just comes down to attitude, says Bouley. Stay laid-back and comfortable, and it will get your students to be a bit more relaxed.
Many believe that part of a college education is to help students think more critically about important issues in the world. Cohen, who teaches both undergrad and grad students, points out that politics can be a bit more complicated with undergrads, particularly with first-year students.
“You can’t come on too strong. There is a more varied political complexion with undergrads. So I edge into potentially contentious topics and have them ask the questions of each other,” says Cohen.
This strategy can also be very useful in maximizing student participation in class.
Some students seem naturally more inclined to speak up in class than others, so I ask Cohen and Bouley, “How do you nudge the quiet ones to participate and get the outgoing ones to be a bit more circumspect?”
Bouley replies, “I treat them all the same.” Without exactly teasing the more quiet students, she playfully works with them to encourage them to participate. She is also very quick to encourage students when they do something well.
In terms of trying to find the right balance, she says, “The ones that are too aggressive, I tell them to slow down. It works both ways. Some of them I have to get up to speed and others I have to tell to slow down.”
Cohen takes a slightly different tactic. From day one, she emphasizes that “process work” (part of which is class participation) is an important part of the work they’ll be producing in the quarter and points out the grade distribution on the syllabus. To get off to a strong start, she puts students on the stand early by assigning short oral presentations right away.
As the quarter goes on, she breaks them into small groups of three to four people so that everyone gets a chance to talk. “Alternatively, I go around the room and ask everyone for their impressions. Hopefully, they’re not just talking to me but to each other.”
Many (if not most) introductory classes geared towards first-years prioritize comprehensive coverage of content over the development of analytical thinking. We shouldn’t get caught in this either-or scenario. The authors of Teaching First-Year College Students distinguish among three different forms of learning: knowing, understanding, and thinking.
In a nutshell, knowing is closest to memorizing content and reproducing it. For example, students may be asked to describe an approach or explain the nature of a key concept in their own words.
Understanding is the ability to see how one particular example relates to the broader idea. To promote understanding, a teacher may assign students to come up with their own examples or ask them to explain how a provided example illustrates a point.
Thinking is all about application of new knowledge. In this case an instructor might ask students to use content to solve related but not-yet-seen problems or to take a particular approach to a complex issue.
All three – knowing, understanding, and thinking – should form part of the learning objectives for college students at all stages in their college careers, but it’s that third one that seems to be missing from many first-year classrooms.
Both of our professors, however, have taken steps to address this. Cohen, for example, gives a final exam in addition to the above-mentioned mini term paper “to allow them an opportunity where they can give a synthetic judgment on the fly.”
Bouley also uses assessments to help promote better thinking. She wants to make sure students are able to figure out problems they’ve never seen before. “It’s comparative anatomy, so you have a bone for example. You can have a vertebra that very clearly looks a certain way, but when it’s this big [Bouley extends her arms about three feet wide], because it’s a big animal, even though it looks exactly the same, they get thrown on that.”
Bouley adds, “I like to give them things where they have to really think about it and not get thrown off by the size or by the fact that they haven’t seen it before. They have to think about it.”
In Part 3, we’ll look at specific ways that instructors can better relate to eighteen-year-olds.
Did you like some of these suggestions? Are there additional ways we can better serve our first-year students? Please share your comments with the Stanford community below.
Anna Koester Marshall is a doctoral candidate in Iberian and Latin American Cultures.