Unprepared Students

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February 19, 2014
Supporting and Encouraging UNPREPARED STUDENTS. Discussion lead by Will Robertson, MA & Adjunct Professor. We discussed the importance of recognizing and supporting students who are un(or under)prepared for university education and who may not understand the expectations we have for them. We discussed general ways to help unprepared students and specific ideas to implement in classes.

Will prepared notes from Kathleen Gabriel’s (2008) Teaching Unprepared Students: Strategies for Promoting Success and Retention in Higher Education. We discussed these points and extended the discussion to include UTSA as a specific context. In a 2006 report by Chronicle of Higher Ed, 44% of college faculty members reported that their students were not prepared for higher education. Historically underserved students (common at UTSA) have significantly lower rates of graduation, which is often attributed to lack of preparation at the secondary level. This is a clear indication of their “unpreparedness.” Further, historically underserved students are often first-generation college students and so do not have the family support to prepare for college life and university expectations. We discussed how different college life can be for students coming in from high school and how freedom and can affect their work ethic.

How instructors interact with and teach at-risk students makes a big difference. There is a correlation between a student’s academic and intellectual development and student-faculty interaction. Professors who develop rapport with students in and out of the classroom have a “significant positive influence” on students’ development. Posting office hours and waiting for students to come is not enough; there must be an active engagement with students. According to Kuh et al. (2005: 181, cited in Gabriel 2008), “The most successful schools balance academic challenges with various types of support so that students are not left to fend on their own to figure out how to succeed.”
Gabriel (2008) recommends the following for helping under-prepared or at-risk students:

1. Clearly written syllabus that lays out goals and objectives with specific procedures and expectations that students must meet to succeed. This should be gone over on the first day of class and expectations should be communicated verbally and in writing. “If a positive and interactive tone is set during the first week of the semester, the benefits will be reaped throughout the rest of the course.” We discussed that while a thorough syllabus is required for UTSA Anthropology courses, often with standardized sections, some instructors do not take the time to introduce students to its content and so may lose students who do not understand the expectations and what a syllabus really is. We also discussed strategies to make the syllabus a “contract” and have each student sign their copy.

2. Providing opportunities for interactions with your students (faculty-student interactions) and among your students (student-student interactions) is another important ingredient for retention. We discussed the fact that most students are either unaware or afraid of office hours. We brainstormed ways to get students into office hours and also discussed the barriers for unprepared students.

3. Create a positive classroom environment that embraces diversity and promotes inclusion and respect for all.

4. Maintain consistent contact. Students who go to class regularly earn higher grades and are more likely to stay in college. Find ways to increase attendance of all students regardless of how prepared they are for that particular class or for college in general.

5. Inventory your students learning styles to tailor course material.

6. Embrace “learner-centered education.” A learner-centered approach focuses on how students are learning material and applying it, rather than professor-centered that focuses on how professors present information to students (usually as lecture). We discussed how this dovetails with our January meeting topic – Experiential Learning – and ways to actively engage students in class.

7. Interweave assessment and teaching. Ongoing assessments (rather than 3 – 4 exams + paper) before and in between exams to get feedback on what students are retaining. Early warnings of problems allow for earlier and better interventions to avoid discouraging at-risk students. We discussed that sometimes we do not have enough grades in the first half of the semester to adequately project who is “at-risk” or not. New systems such as “EARN” and “Early-Alert” will become mandatory and will help to make students aware.

8. Promoting academic integrity and discourage cheating. Try to shift attention from grades to learning (‘Is this on the test?’ is indicative of an obsession with grades rather than learning material). We discussed the possibilities of flipping the common assumption of most students in terms of grades. Most students come into a class thinking that they already have an A or a 100 and that mistakes or failures are deduced from this as the class goes on. If you flipped this and structured your syllabus to reflect that idea that each student enters the class with a 0 and must earn points to accumulate their final grade other semester, how would this change students’ outlook on the course and the assignments?

Things Will has implemented recently to address some of these issues and strategies:

1. Syllabus quiz early in the semester. Formatted to put students in position of instructor. Must answer questions asked by “students.” Gave individual quizzes, then had them do same quiz as groups to open up discussion about syllabus. We also discussed the use of Blackboard/Canvas technology to create an online quiz that students can complete on their own time as homework and does not take away from class time. This is also a way to ask your students about themselves and begin building faculty-student interactions. We also discussed the idea of creating a clicker quiz to gather student feedback on the syllabus immediately.

2. Syllabus policy stating that if a student makes less than a 70% on an assignment before week 12, the student must come talk to me in office hours before further grades will be released. This reinforces the importance of faculty-student interactions and can serve as an early warning for students who are unprepared and/or do not understand the expectations of university courses.

3. Extra credit for visiting me in office hours by end of week 3. This promotes faculty-student interactions and allows students to experience office hours with me. This will hopefully be an impetus for them to visit office hours of their future professors. We also discussed an idea to use class time early in the semester to have all students walk with the professor to their office. This introduces students to the office location and hopefully demonstrates that they should not be timid or afraid of visiting their professor. We also discussed barriers such as a closed office door. Making sure to have a sign inviting student to knock will likely ensure that student who do visit do not leave without speaking to you.

4. Extra credit for “discussion groups” outside of class, in conjunction with Professor Deborah Wagner and her students in courses related to Cultural Anthropology. We meet somewhere on campus (outside of a café for example) and discuss readings or topics relevant to both courses. This encourages both faculty-student and student-student interactions and opens the floor to discussions that we might not have had time for in class. We have received a lot of positive feedback from students who have participated.

5. Assigning ongoing assessments with opportunities to revise (as is the academic standard!) for partial credit. These opportunities allow students to experience academic feedback and revisions as well as have professional interactions with the faculty member about their work. Ongoing assessments are another example of Alternative (or non-traditional) assessment that we discussed in our first meeting in December 2013.

Things Will would like to implement in the future:

1. All freshmen required to visit in office hours by end of week 1 to introduce them to the concept of office hours, help them build confidence in speaking to a professor, and to offer extra credit. Throughout our discussion, several people mentioned reservations about extra credit as a practice. Will suggests that when used properly, it can be an incentive for students to take advantage of opportunities they otherwise might forego.

2. Learning styles inventories during first week for participation grade to gauge how students learn and how I can best target my lectures and assignments to their needs.

3. Semester-long permanent groups that get together for in-class group work and submit some work throughout the semester for a portion of their final grade to promote student-student interactions in class and hopefully outside of class. One of my anxieties as an undergrad was being told to “get into groups” in classes where I didn’t know anyone. I avoid this now by always assigning groups by randomly numbering people. In the future, I’d like to set up groups (always with an eye to diversity) to facilitate people building relationships in class, even if those relationships do not continue past the course. Knowing your students is also very important. We discussed strategies to ensure that potentially unprepared students (such as freshman) are grouped with juniors or seniors and so can learn from the more prepared and experienced students.

Meeting Attendees: Jenna Bonavia, Lori Barkwill Love, Emily Lloyd, Guillaume Pages, Chris Jarrett, Griette van der Heide, and Leah McCurdy.

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