After 34 years of teaching and two and a half years working as the Executive Director of The Student Success Center, I finally had the opportunity to teach an FYE class. Now in its second semester, the one-credit mandatory FYE course at Cuyahoga CC is offered in either the 8-week or 16-week format. My eleven-student class met 8 evenings for two hours a night.
Across the nation, First Year Experience classes are considered a significant strategy to increase student success as they are designed to increase student adherence to the college and its culture. There are many different approaches to the course in both format and content. At Ohio community colleges, the some of the variations are one-week one-credit courses before the semester begins, 8-week pass/fail one credit “mini-mestser” courses, and full term 16-week three credit classes. At some colleges the course is mandatory; at others it is recommended. The content may include college knowledge, financial literacy, career exploration, academic planning and, hopefully not an after thought, personal reflection.
Given the importance of FYE, I really wanted to do it right – make a difference for my students, help them get on a strong path to success. But, I agonized, what kind of difference could one really make in 8 weeks? At Cuyahoga the course is in its infancy, becoming a one credit mandatory class in Fall 2014. Although there is a college-wide course outline, I had a lot of freedom in how I could approach the class. What, then, should be presented in the course, why and how?
To prepare to create a syllabus, I decided to talk with a few people. First, there were colleagues who had just completed teaching the FYE course in the prior semester. I heard, “Don’t waste your time; the students aren’t really interested” and “I really didn’t know what I was doing until the class was almost over; next time I will do it differently and better.” Also, the class is currently graded as a pass/fail class. Some faculty believed there should be a letter grade so students will take the course seriously; others thought pass/fail is the only way to go. As my concern over the “right” way to approach the course increased, I called a CCC graduate who had served as a Supplemental Instruction (SI) Leader and asked for her thoughts on what is an absolute must for the curriculum. Her response, “Teach them how to do deep reading.” And finally, I conferred with a former OACC colleague who had both taught and managed an FYE program. Her advice was to promote college knowledge – teach the college, the resources, the website.
While at the OACC, I reviewed the CCSSE results from a number of Ohio’s community colleges. No matter the college, I noticed a common theme. A majority of students were aware of, and even grateful for, the various services available to them on campus. But, a much smaller number actually used these opportunities. So what good does it do to keep telling the students about the services if data shows that a small percentage actually use them? It’s the old “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink” theory. So then what? How do you get the horse to consider drinking, especially when you know that without enough water, he will probably not survive?
In light of this concern, I reflected on my conversations with Skip Downing, creator of the On Course texts, workshops and national conference, and his approach to student success. Skip once told me, “changing the student from the inside out” is the key. If students learn that taking responsibility, learning self-management, engaging in self-monitoring and developing emotional intelligence really matters, then they will both seek out and use the necessary resources to help them succeed in college.
All of this speculation needed to be put into action when the students walked in the door. Eighteen students signed up for my FYE section; eleven showed up and passed the course. There were 2 eighteen-year old males, right out of high school, one with a learning disability. Another young 20 something male wanted to go to the police academy, but his mother was making him attend college first. A very quiet and shy 20-year old female was working 50-60 hours a week in construction, but is hoping to become a chef. Two 30 year-old single mothers were anticipating a health career. A 35-year old single father, who owned his own heating and cooling business, was enrolled to achieve an electrician’s certificate. Two of the students were married, to each other, and were grandparents hoping to advance their skills and find different occupations to increase their income. Another 40-year old male was hoping to move from car detailing to a health career. All were African American except for one white female who was working as a cosmetologist. All were employed except for the student with the disability.
From day one, I presented the class as opportunity for growth, where students could examine themselves and what to do to be successful, or as Skip says, to stay on course. These particular students embraced the opportunity to reflect on who they are, where they are, where do they want to be, which behaviors are working to get them there, and which are not. So, yes, I included many of the standard topics in my success course: time management, deep reading strategies, financial literacy, career exploration, and creating an academic plan. But, mandatory personal reflection papers (homework) followed each class activity. For example, the students were asked to write two pages on their relationship with money, citing strengths and weakness. They were asked to discuss what strategies they use to manage their time, if the strategies work or not, and what new strategies (that were learned in class) would they be willing to try. Below are three comments from students’ reflective papers.
On Interdependence – I was pretty shy growing up and I have made a lot of progress in that area, but I still could try to build relationships with people. Instead of doing things on my own, I need to be more social and maybe get new ideas from someone else. I have had times where I could really use advice or help with something and I don’t really have anyone to help me. Interdependence is definitely something I struggle with.
On Money – Instead of going down to the Q to watch the game, maybe I can go to a sports bar and watch the game with a friend and buy dinner and eat and watch the game at the sports bar. That way I can see the game, eat, and still save money. If I cut down on how much I spend everyday, I will have a little extra money left over in my bank and I won’t feel the budget cut as bad. If I save a nice amount of money and the rainy day comes I will be prepared.
On Studying and Taking Tests – My biggest weakness would be that I am easily distracted when I am studying. The best improvement strategy for this would be to plan to study when and where there are the least distractions. To do this I would have to designate a time for me to devote only to studying and during that time make sure that I am not disturbed. This would include turning off the television or any entertainment and also turning off my cell phone. I would also have to go to a quiet location such as the library or even a quiet room in the house.
Often, after these reflective papers were written, they got into small cooperative groups and shared their answers. During our whole group conversations, I, too, shared my reflections on what I have learned about myself as both a student and a teacher. More than simply an informative course, this class became a safe place where individuals were seriously considering how to approach success. The good news is that students can reflect and change, so they can drink from the trough of college.
At the end of the semester, the students gave an oral presentation, which called for broader reflection. They each discussed what they learned about themselves during the semester and, as a result, how they are going to proceed in the future. At the end of the 8 weeks, the students became rather close and were open to sharing their thoughts. “I have really thought about how I am afraid to ask for help. I am too proud to get help. But I am thinking that I need to change that if I am going to succeed.” “I have learned that even though I am very anxious (about math), I can do it. I formed a study group and we are really helping each other.” “Even though I believe that I am going to fail my English course, I am not going to let that stop me from getting a degree. I will keep going to class, learn all I can and take it again if I have to.” “I have to find ways to delegate and relax, so I can spend more time on my school work.”
Following the final presentations, I showed them Denzel Washington’s 2014 speech to the graduating class at University of Pennsylvania. Denzel discussed how he was unclear of what his major should be until he acted in a play while a counselor at a summer camp. Prior to that, he was floundering. So his advice was not to find a goal or a career to fall back on but to take risks and “fall forward.” “You are going to fall,” he said, “Everybody does. But fall forward.” That was the message I wanted them to leave with – take risks; fall forward. The class applauded.
I hope that I helped them grow both the skills and the attitude to fall forward – to persevere in spite of the obstacles they will face. I applaud them for their bravery and feel so grateful to have helped them begin their journey.
If there is a message in this first experience for both student and teacher, it is to engage in reflection no matter the topic. I believe that all the students stayed engaged and completed the course because they were asked to think about their thinking, their habits, and their how to revise these if necessary. Mandating reflection in a course is not really a new approach, but it is clearly an important strategy to help students look seriously at their path to success.