Relating to the First-Year Student

Relating to the First-Year Student

Photo: Rod Searcey for Stanford CTL

Part 3 of 3: In this series, we are 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 considered the potential for first-year grade anxiety, political leanings, socialization, and development of critical thinking. Part 3 will take a closer look at the way that first-year students expect learning to take shape.  We will also explore a few practical ways to relate to 18-year-olds today.

Understanding How First-Years View Learning

Many first-years come in with particular expectations for learning. These students typically fall into what’s called “dualism” (there is always a right answer and the authority should provide it) or “multiplicity” (everything is a just matter of opinion). Mitigating these expectations can be a real challenge when teaching first-years. When I ask about these tendencies at Stanford, Dr. Margaret Cohen, Professor of French and Comparative Literature at Stanford, replies, “I see a lot of dualism – the expectation that the professor is the authority.” But she is quick to qualify that.

“This is literary studies. You need authority in the classroom. Without it, students are uncomfortable. Literature is a form of expression that lends itself to many interpretations, interpretations that need to be grounded in evidence,” says Cohen.

One of the best ways to get students to stay close to the text is to model the process for them. “I put up examples of close readings and evidence to give them an idea of what I expect. I also pick artifacts that present questions that don’t have yes/no answers. This is the best way to produce a teachable discussion.”

For questions of a more factual nature, Cohen asks students to go home and look up the answers for themselves. “Some students get a lot of pleasure out of that.” Then, she uses that opportunity to demarcate how sources vary in usefulness and validity (i.e. the difference between Wikipedia and the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics).

These approaches might be a useful way to help students understand that knowledge is contextual, that taking a stance means supporting an argument with evidence.

Relating to an 18-year-old

Learning doesn’t start and stop in one classroom, but some first-years aren’t yet used to making connections between classes or between classes and their own lives.  One thing Dr. Donna Bouley, Professor of Comparative Medicine at Stanford, recommends is to have students do a reflection after every lecture. In just half a page, they write about whatever comes to mind from the previous lecture. According to Bouley, “They can’t look anything up. It has to be ‘Sit down, write it off the top of your head.’” It could be something new they learned about, or perhaps something they heard about elsewhere that relates to recent learning. There is no grade other than completion.

This is Bouley’s way of trying to get them to think about anatomy and how it relates to the things already going on in their minds. And there’s an additional bonus. “I get to know them a little bit better. I see a style, an interest, some feel for their background. I started doing that about three years ago, and I really enjoy it. It really gives me a better sense of the students.”

Bouley is careful to repay the favor, all in the name of enhancing student engagement and trying to maximize retention of the material. “I’m always telling them anecdotes. Having been a vet and having been in practice, I help them remember stuff by telling stories about certain things that you do in vet practice that they might think is gross, or cool, or whatever. It helps them remember a little bit more.”

In short, one way to better relate is to ask your students to share their experiences, and for you to do the same.

Making Available Support More Evident

The high school student-teacher relationship is often different from the kinds of relationships that college instructors form with their students. On the first day of class, students often don’t even know what to call their instructors – is it Dr., Ms., Professor, or just a first name? This seemingly simple uncertainty is just one manifestation of a whole range of insecurities regarding how first-year students might or should approach their instructors.  On the one hand, we want our students to know we are available for additional support – be it in office hours, through email, or some other way – but, on the other, we also must set up boundaries so that students understand, for instance, that the possibilities of email communication are not, in fact, limitless.

Cohen recommends agreeing to check email once a day and promising students to get back to them within 24 hours. To encourage them to visit office hours, she gives short assignments early on and tells them to come see her about them.

Bouley is even more hands-on. “I tell them all that they will get sick of getting emails from me. I’m very communicative. I’ll try to reach out by not just putting things on Coursework but actually emailing about things. If they email me - and you can ask any of my students – I instantly respond to them.”

Whatever the style, remember that first-year students are still figuring out how to reach out to us, and it helps if we reach back.

“Don’t Forget What It’s Like to Be a Novice in the Field”

In Teaching First-Year College Students, the authors write, “Faculty are experts in their fields, trained and rewarded (through publication and promotion) to work at the edge of a discipline rather than at the foundation. As a result, first-year courses are usually seen as less desirable assignments than courses for majors or graduate students.” But, they remind readers, “Don’t forget what it was like to be a novice in the field.”

Key ideas may not seem so key to beginning students, so be transparent about them. Cohen also recommends starting off with accessible material and keeping it current. She says, “Get them into something contemporary. That way, you reach their lives outside of academics.”

Additionally, “You really need to start with great texts.” She might ask first-years, “What is the role of religion in Robinson Crusoe?” This kind of question leads to broader questions like, “Who am I?” and helps to develop a personal connection with the course content.

In the end, says Bouley, “The biggest thing to remember is that these kids are just out of high school. They’re trying so hard to be adults, but they need to know that sometimes it’s okay to be a kid.”

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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.