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Notes from Last Week’s “Teaching First-Year Students” Conversation on Teaching

Posted by on Wednesday, February 3, 2010 in News.

On January 26, 2010, the CFT held a conversation on teaching titled “Teaching First-Year Students: The Myth of First-Year Enlightenment.” About twenty faculty, staff, and students participated in the discussion. This was the description of the workshop:

The popular vision of the first year experience is one of personal, ethical, and intellectual awakening. However, in his book, The First Year Out: Understanding American Teens After High School, Tim Clydesdale writes, “Most of the mainstream American teens I spoke with neither liberated themselves intellectually nor broadened themselves socially during their first year out. What teens actually focus on during the first year out is this: daily life management.” Should Vanderbilt faculty and staff try to engage first-year students in critical thinking about their own ethics, values, and culture?  Or should we give that up as a lost cause and focus on more practical matters?  These and other, related questions will be discussed in panelist remarks and roundtable discussion.

The general concensus during the discussion was that Vanderbilt first-years do focus their attention on daily life management–at first. Several participants indicated that they felt that Vanderbilt first-years move past this, however, and engage in the kind of self-questioning that Clydesdale describes as rare among first-year college students. Here are a few of CFT Assistant Director Derek Bruff’s takeaways from the conversation:

  1. Students begin to question aspects of their identities as a result of a variety of university experiences other than classroom learning experiences. Several participants described experiences students have had in the Commons, Vanderbilt’s living-learning community for first-years, that have led them to examine their personal beliefs.  Others pointed to the importance of first-year students seeing personally relevant engagement modeled by older students in the Commons and elsewhere.
  2. There is a difference between first-semester freshmen and second-semester freshmen relevant to this discussion. First-semester freshmen do tend to focus on daily life management out of necessity as they adapt to a new environment.  Second-semester freshmen, having largely adapted, are more able to focus their attention on self-questioning.  It is possible that Visions, Vanderbilt’s extended orientation for first-years facilitated by older students and faculty members, helps students more quickly adapt to this new environment.
  3. More generally, different students become “ready” for more personally transformative experiences at different points in their college careers. Several participants pointed to this as a reason to provide students with opportunities for such experiences frequently through their first years, even as early as their second week on campus.  Some students arrive on campus ready for these experiences.
  4. Encouraging first-years to engage in personally relevant ways with their education can be difficult in the classroom. Some students are hesitant to express their personal interest in course discussions in front of their peers; others are too focused on grades and other external rewards to engage in personally meaningful ways.  These issues are exacerbated by large first-year classes.  Unfortunately, few ideas were suggested for classroom instructors interested in overcoming these roadblocks to engagement.

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