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Advice for Faculty Teaching First-Year Undergraduates This Fall

Posted by on Tuesday, August 11, 2020 in Resource.

A couple of weeks ago, while talking with some faculty who will be teaching first-year undergraduates later this month, it occurred to me that this was a very unusual year to start one’s Vanderbilt experience. I reached out to an expert the first-year experience, Melissa Gresalfi, Dean of the Martha Rivers Ingram Commons and professor of mathematics education and learning sciences, to see if she had any advice for faculty teaching first-years this fall. She did, and she graciously allowed me to share her advice here on the Center for Teaching blog. – Derek Bruff, Director

  1. We are building students’ identities through our instruction. That is always true, but especially true for the first year as some students treat their first semester of college as a “test” to see if they are really meant to be here or not. If we think of the purpose of our courses as educating students, not sorting them, we can foreground their emergent identities in relation to the disciplines we teach. It is really devastating to talk to a first year student in January who has abandoned their dreams because of one bad class.
  2. First year students are learning a lot of things about college, and course performance is just one of them. Some students haven’t yet had a chance to learn how to manage their time, how to read a syllabus, how to put events into their calendar. This is the first time for most students that no one has been around to remind them to go to bed, or to check in with them to make sure they have everything they need for school. They also sometimes stay up too late NOT doing work, talking to friends, or (this year more likely than usual) being lonely and sad. Having flexibility about deadlines and offering opportunities for revision is crucial to support students learning, and not only evaluate their performance.
  3. Some students don’t know what office hours are, or why they are beneficial. First generation college students, in particular, might fear that asking for help is indicative of not being good enough; that they should be able to be successful on their own. Please do not interpret students who do not ask for help as indicating that they do not WANT help. Please think about the ways you can educate students about how to be successful in your class, which includes explicitly inviting students to office hours if you have concerns about their performance.
  4. First year students are learning new routines, finding new friends, and generally getting adjusted to a life that looks nothing like anything that has come before. This adjustment takes a tremendous amount of cognitive energy. So thinking about the timing of assessments, and making sure that nothing too critical happens in the first few weeks of classes, gives students the space they need to begin to form some routines so that they are able to automatize some of their behaviors and focus more centrally on understanding and remembering new ideas.
  5. If you see a student whose performance is declining, who looks to be depressed, anxious, lonely, or withdrawn, please don’t hesitate to submit a student of concern form. The fact that students are living in singles, and that houses are only half full, changes some of our routines. Please sharpen your gaze and let someone know if you have a concern about one of your students.
  6. Particularly for this year, students have been isolated, and the first year students have lost so much this past spring. It is reasonable for them to be even more distracted than usual by social opportunities, by chances to meet new people and experience new things. Please offer more patience, more rope, and more chances that you might usually think is reasonable.



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