The Second Year Slump

Much has been said about the difficulties and challenges that both students and teachers face during that first year of college. For some, the increased academic demands weigh heavy on their shoulders, while for others, the culture shock of a new, independent environment away from their comfort zone can be emotionally draining. Last semester, Provisions explored ways in which we can help these students to adapt, on both a personal and an academic level.

However, it appears that, even after those first year teething problems have been treated, educators must brace themselves for a familiar challenge…

In “Disengaged and overwhelmed: why do second year students underperform?” from the The Guardian, Clare Milson explains how students can often experience a slump in their academic progress. Whereas the first year and the last year arguably carry more significance in the minds of the learner, the middle year(s) is awkwardly caught between the two, struggling for identity. Milson, who likens the second year to a middle child, states that this issue is, in fact, “a widely recognized” phenomenon, which is referred to by U.S. academics as “the sophomore slump.” Research undertaken at a U.K. based university found evidence that one in three undergraduate students had been affected by an academic decline.

Milson notes that this phenomenon is far from simple to explain. Many of the students who were found to have experienced the slump reported that they felt “lost, perplexed, and disappointed” with their second year performances. Studies suggest that students were not prepared for the increase of the workload. Whereas students in the first year found their classes to be “cute and fluffy”, the second year represented a significant change in difficulty and volume.

Milson describes how students feel that there is a lack of “support and guidance” given to students entering their second year. Despite this yearning for help, many students do not actively seek it. Very few students took it upon themselves to make use of student services designed to provide the help and support that they clearly felt they needed.

Milson proposes three strategies that institutions of higher education can help students in the second year:

1) Design a second year induction program to reacquaint students with the challenges ahead of them.

2) Ensure that your subject is fresh and appealing. It is important for the student to feel excited about the upcoming semester.

3) Inform the students about the on-campus resources available to them.

While it is true that students may not be aware of the support available to them, there are many that are aware, but harbor feelings of embarrassment about seeking help. In order to provide students with the platform to change, educators must attempt to remove the stigma around it. What other ways can educators prevent students from succumbing to the sophomore slump?

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February Provisions Session – Teaching Historical Perspectives

To listen to the podcast from this session, click here

The first provisions session of 2015 kicked off with presentations on “Teaching Historical Perspectives”. An audience of 36 were in attendance to hear presentations from Dr. Carolyn Stefanco, President of the College, Dr. Scott Lemieux, Assistant Professor of Political Science, and Dr. Robert Shane, Assistant Professor of Art History.

Dr. Stefanco was the first to present, and she focused her presentation on her experiences as a History professor both in the United States and in Croatia. Dr. Stefanco explained that she started out as an adjunct professor in New York and Colorado, before then moving on to Wheaton College, MA to take her first tenure-track position. Dr. Stefanco then moved to Cal Poly State University, where a major part of her role comprised of teaching students who were required to take her course as a pre-requisite. In spite of that fact, Dr. Stefanco noted that, although she may have not reached every individual, it was clear that for many of the class, History was something with which they found importance and meaning. A primary objective of Dr. Stefanco’s class was to emphasise the importance of first-hand/primary sources in order to pay recognition to those who played a significant role in history, but were either unacknowledged or cast in a negative light. Such acknowledgement helped to provide a voice for many of Dr. Stefanco’s students, many of whom were from marginalized groups themselves. Activities and assignments were designed to highlight the importance surrounding the analysis of historical sources. Not only did these tasks help the students to learn more about the past, it, as well, enabled them to become historians themselves through their diligent exploration and analysis. Dr. Stefanco later moved to Zagreb, Croatia to join the largest and oldest university in Southeastern Europe. Although the plan was to solely teach an undergraduate course in American Women’s History and Culture, while carrying out her research, Dr. Stefanco was immediately needed to teach a doctoral level class in comparative literature. Seeing as the University was one of very few PHD granting institutions, the class drew in a whole host of middle-aged students from throughout Eastern Europe. Dr. Stefanco soon discovered that her students were desperately lacking in their ability to analyze, interpret, or offer opinions about the work in question. It was soon revealed that, due to their erstwhile educational experiences under communism, independent thoughts had always been suppressed. Dr. Stefanco stated that, what they learned in class was of secondary importance to finding and retaining their own personal voices.

Next up to present was Dr. Lemieux. He began his presentation by describing how contemporary political matters can help to understand and shine light on in-class topics and concepts. As an example, Dr. Lemieux cites using the issues of gun control, same-sex marriage, and abortion to help his students to comprehend and show how, in constitutionalism, people with fundamental disagreements share the same environment. However, because these issues are so hotly contested and often divide opinion, Dr. Lemieux believes that they can sometimes work against him, and culminate in taking away from the initial point. This manner of problem is not experienced by using an established historical evil, such as slavery, because fortunately, as Dr. Lemieux pointed out, there is not a debate over whether or not it was anything but evil. His students read passages from two very different historical accounts over the presence/absence of a caste system. Dr. Lemieux gets his students to place themselves in the mind of those at the constitutional debate in 1787, and by doing so, it allows them to gain an insight into the decision making process behind the events that took place at that time. Dr. Lemieux stated that, whereas some students realize that people had to operate with the best information they had at that time, others remained (unrealistically) confident that they would have handled proceedings a lot better. Dr. Lemieux concluded by saying that by using these examples of historical events, his students proved to understand their material better.

Last, but not least was Dr. Shane, whose inspiration for his presentation was in the form of a project, designed for his History of Modern Art class, called the “Scholar’s Debate.” He, however, started by explaining the meaning of Art History. Dr. Shane stated that Art Historians are responsible for analyzing the appearance of artefacts, and thus drawing conclusions about what it reveals about the period and society from which it came. An example that Dr. Shane gave was the Emancipation Memorial from 1876. Although now, from a 21st century perspective, it appears controversial for the wrong reasons, Dr. Shane explains that, at the time, it was a very progressive monument, and one of the first to depict African-Americans as human. Dr. Shane also explained that within Art History, there a lot of different framework and models that Art Historians can identity with and subscribe to.

Dr. Shane proceeded by describing how the Scholar’s Debate project is carried out. He described his process of scaffolding students in his 200 level Art History course as they read peer-reviewed journal articles in the field for the first time and begin to develop their own historical perspective. Dr. Shane provides the students with visual organisers to support them in “reading for argument,” “revising for thesis,” and exchanging constructive feedback with peers. Through this process, students are able to both understand the author’s position and develop their own voice. For more detailed explanation of this process, listen from minutes 27- 37 on our podcast.

After each of the presentations had concluded, the floor was opened up for questions and discussions. These were a few points and observations that arose:

  • Both universal historical and contemporary events can be helpful resources to ameliorate teaching.
  • Classes must be interactive; students need to find their voice and participate rather than just read slides and memorise information.
  • In group projects, it is important to have markers along the way to make sure that each member is pulling their own weight.
  • History is an important component of each program, and is not limited to specific subjects.
  • Too much emphasis is being placed on quantitative data; both qualitative and quantitative methods must be considered to achieve the full picture.

To listen to the podcast from this session, click here

Reflecting on Flipped Library Instruction, Part I

A recently published article develops several design principles that can assist in planning for a flipped classroom:

Kim, M. K., Kim, S. M., Khera, O., & Getman, J. (2014). The experience of three flipped classrooms in an urban university: an exploration of design principles. Internet & Higher Education, 2237-50. doi:10.1016/j.iheduc.2014.04.003  [Read this article]

These nine principles, listed below, though somewhat commonsensical, serve as useful touchstones as I reflect on several months of work in flipping my own library instruction.

  1. Provide an opportunity for students to gain exposure prior to class
  2. Provide an incentive for students to prepare for class
  3. Provide a mechanism to assess student understanding
  4. Provide clear connections between in-class and out-of-class activities
  5. Provide clearly defined and well-structured guidance
  6. Provide enough time for students to carry out assignments
  7. Provide facilitation for building a learning community
  8. Provide prompt/adaptive feedback on individual or group work
  9. Provide technologies familiar and easy to access

I have had the chance to work with three faculty this year to plan for a flipped library instruction component in four separate classes.  So while my experience in the flipped classroom is not extensive, I have had enough experience to have formed initial opinions and I have begun to generate ideas about how I might improve this model in the future.

#1 – Provide an opportunity for students to gain exposure prior to class

For library instruction, this is key, and perhaps represents the most radical change from anything I have done before.  Library instruction seldom offers the chance for the librarian to get materials to students before the class.  We are not in position to assign “homework” that can be discussed when we meet.  But in a flipped classroom, this exposure to material before we meet opens up the class to new possibilities.  Most exciting of these new possibilities is the chance to move away from lecture and demo and spend time instead exploring higher level concepts and strategies and serving as “guide by the side” during hands on work in the classroom.

 #2 – Provide an incentive for students to prepare for class

It did not take me long to realize that students do not always complete their homework!  Making my videos available on Youtube allowed me to get data on how many times each was watched.  In four flipped classes, the number of watches was always lower than the number of students in the class.  In an attempt to combat this, most recently, I worked with the classroom teacher to have a list of questions distributed well before the class visit.  These questions essentially restated the goals I had for creating the video.  Students knew these would be addressed at the beginning of the class, and I hoped — as a secondary benefit — they would provide some focus for these students as they watched the video.

Improvement?  Yes.  Perfection?  No.

#3 – Provide a mechanism to assess student understanding

Assessing what we do in library instruction has always been problematic.  For one-shot instruction, it is difficult to add formal assessment into an already tight class schedule.  However, flipped library instruction did provide a type of informal assessment that had previously been impossible to implement.  While working with students, observing the specific difficulties they might encounter, I was able to see where they were having troubling applying concepts and strategies, covered in the video/s, to their actual searches.  Since the goal of assessment is to improve what we do, I am able to work on materials that help address the more common shortcomings I’ve been able to observe.

 #4 – Provide clear connections between in-class and out-of-class activities

In regard to this principle, flipped library instruction truly has been “flipped.”  In traditional library instruction, we do our best to understand the assignment/s and general needs of the students, plan our instruction around our understanding of these needs, and then hope that this prepares students as they begin to work through their assignments and research.

In the flipped classroom, the out-of-class activities come first and there is the chance to provide direct help and clarification as the in-class work takes place.  As noted above, this model provides a chance for reinforcement and intervention as we work in a hands-on environment with students.

Certainly in both models, strong connections between in- and out-of-class activities is vital to effective instruction, but the flipped model provides me with a better understanding of both desired learning outcomes and a way to really determine if I’ve made the necessary connections with the materials I’ve assigned.

#5 – Provide clearly defined and well-structured guidance

The very act of planning for, recording and editing videos has improved the structure and delivery of content in comparison to the same lessons I had previously presented “live.”  Working and reworking the material serves to better focus the presentation and allows for a more narrow focus (perhaps representing a larger presentation broken into component parts).

However, I came to understand that in the class meeting itself a similar level of planning and structure is necessary.  Simply releasing students to their task at hand and roaming as “guide by the side” is not enough to ensure effective learning.  It is critical to set the context at the beginning of the class through a series of questions and discussion.  Interestingly, I have found that the flipped model is helpful in generating a discussion, as students have an introductory knowledge of the subject.  These first few minutes can be spent clarifying points that arise from the out-of-class activities, developing a broader or more conceptual framework.  This allows students to take greater responsibility for their learning and helps build attitudes (for example, persistence, flexibility, patience, curiosity) that are no small part of successful learning.

In the follow up to this post, I will continue with an examination of the principles suggested by this article, as well as discuss changes I hope to make based on these reflections on my initial experiences with flipped instruction.