Archive for April, 2009

On our campus we are beginning the dreaded “Curriculum Revision” process. God bless those of you with the nerve to enter into the fray. I am enjoying thinking about the possibilities for a first year program, so I thought I would throw out my idea here, hoping people might have ideas and reactions. I am still on the fence about formally proposing such a thing to our faculty committee.

Idea for a unique and innovative First Year Experience

Our students come to us adept at absorbing information that is given to them. To make the most of their college experience, students must move from passive receivers of knowledge to  active seekers, discriminating consumers, and competent communicators of information.
A first year course should motivate and facilitate this move from passive to active learner. This can be accomplished through a course which, regardless of content, has 3 key features:
1. The design of the course leads students to a point of “expectation failure” (Bain, 28) where students experience the short-comings of their existing mental models by encountering information that does not fit the model.
2. The class is a safe environment where the students are supported through the process of re-evaluating knowledge and constructing new models and mental structures through exploration and discovery.
3. The content of the course has a real, physical element, or connection to a place, that the students can experience.

Proposal: Reading Richmond: Place as Text

How do scholars make sense of the world around them? Professors would construct courses whose topic can be connected to the Richmond area in some way. As part of the course, students would spend time outside of the classroom, in the Richmond area.
Readings in the course would interrogate and interact with what the students see upon first “glance,” encouraging students to explore further, go deeper.
1. Students would develop individual (or group) research projects to learn more.
2. The research process would be monitored carefully and mentored by faculty, utilizing proven approaches for this such as research logs.
3. Every student would contribute a piece to a living, growing digital archive called “Reading Richmond.” Picture a Google map with pins. When a user clicks a pin, s/he would be taken to a student project developed in the “Reading Richmond” class.

The goal of these projects would not be to create new knowledge, but to learn well the first step of creating new knowledge: evaluating what is currently known. At the college level, this means going beyond accepting simple, basic information and working to obtain more accurate and perhaps more complex information.

What will make these classes exciting is what the individual professors bring to the class, and the opportunity for students to interact with the professor in his/her area of passion. Imagine a physics professor teaching a class about bridges in Richmond…a business professor teaching about the evolution of Philip Morris…A religion professor teaching a class on the statute of religious freedom…a literature teacher teaching a class on Edgar Allen Poe…What all the courses have in common would be students being surprised, confused and confounded, and then being helped to move beyond that through information gathering and research, reading, writing, discussing, trying and trying again.

Any faculty member could create such a course and this will create buy-in from all parts of the university, engaging the broadest possible spectrum of faculty in this crucial work with first year students. It would be necessary for the best teachers to teach the course, those who are adept at motivating and mentoring students. It would be a challenging course for faculty as well as students because it asks faculty to not rely on having the answers to give to students, but instead on leading students through sophisticated ways of asking and answering questions.

If the class is successful, students will be more curious and, at the same time, more confident that they have the tools to satisfy their curiosity.

If UR required all first years to take this course in the fall semester, each section/group could stay together for a spring course where students then focus on reading written texts, similar to the current Core course. It would be different, however, in being a class that is truly about reading complex written texts, and not an attempt to survey the history of thought. The texts could be linked by a theme like “What can we know?” Or perhaps “What matters?” This course would be writing intensive and focus on academic argument. It would be important that the course on reading written text come after the more experiential course. The emphasis would be understanding why “hard texts” exist: that life is complicated and knowing is a complex task, and that writing is one way that people have developed to accommodate these truths.

Bain, Ken. “What the Best College Teachers Do.” Cambridge: Harvard University Press


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