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Highlights from “Teaching First-Year Students” Conversation – Unanswered Questions

Posted by on Tuesday, April 27, 2010 in News.

On April 1, the CFT held a conversation on teaching titled “Teaching First-Year Students: Cognitive Challenges of the First Year.”   About twenty-five faculty, staff, and graduate students participated in the discussion.  Panelists at the session were Doug Christiansen (Dean of Admissions), Susan Kevra (French, American Studies), and Adam List (Chemistry).

The following questions were raised in various ways during the discussion, but few answers to these questions were suggested.  The questions highlight what appear to be key challenges in helping students make the cognitive adjustment from learning in high school to learning in college.

  • Coping with That First C: First-year students often have trouble coping with their first lower-than-expected test or paper grade.  Whether it’s their first C or their first A-, this experience can be a shocking one for students used to being big fish in small ponds, as they say.  What kinds of coping skills do students need for these experiences?  And how can instructors help students develop those coping skills?  What role does student-teacher rapport play in these kinds of interactions?
  • Grades and Motivation: More than one Faculty Head of House in the session praised first-year students in their houses for engaging meaningfully in difficult discussions in book groups and other informal learning settings.  However, participants noted that when grades are on the line in more formal course settings, student motivation and engagement often changes in unproductive ways.  What roles do grades play in motivating students to engage in deep learning?  How can instructors mitigate some of the negative motivational effects grades have on students?
  • Teaching Diverse Students: First-year students are diverse in a number of ways.  Their academic backgrounds vary, their academic and vocational interest vary, they come from different regions of the United States as well as many other countries, and they come from a variety of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.  Admissions works to achieve a diverse student body, but leveraging that diversity in the classroom can be a challenge, particularly in large classes.  How can instructors teach diverse groups of students?  How can they leverage various forms of diversity as advantages in the classroom?
  • Large Classes: An overarching challenge here is the impact of class size on how instructors interact with their students.  Helping students cope with difficulties, motivating students to engage meaningfully in learning, and instructing diverse groups of students—all of these are more challenging in large classes.  What strategies can instructors teaching large classes employ to deal with these challenges?  And what implications does the large-class challenge have for the kinds of courses we offer first-year students?

For more on teaching first-year students, see the CFT’s teaching guide on first-years.

Image: “Questions” by Flickr user Oberazzi / Creative Commons licensed


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