October 20th Provisions Session Summary: Teaching First Generation Students

**To access the podcast, click here!!**

Our second Provisions session of the year explored the theme of Teaching First Generation Students. Presenters shared previous experience with teaching first generation students, and effective strategies for improving success for first generation students. An audience of approximately 35 faculty and staff members attended to hear presentations from Lai-Monté Hunter, Director of Intercultural Leadership, Gina Occhiogrosso, Associate Professor of Art and Foundations Coordinator, and Jeff Marlett, Professor of Philosophy/Religious Studies.

Lai-Monté Hunter started off the session by introducing the ALANA is Leadership mentoring program. This mentorship program was developed to help and offer support to first generation and first year college students. Comprised of a cohort of 60, ALANA is Leadership focuses on what these students are coming to college with, and in most cases what disadvantages the students are starting off with.  Most of these students experience a lack of support from home, a lack of financial information, and a general sense of being unprepared. First generation students face numerous challenges, including: a lack of support, pressure to succeed, role reversal (students are now more educated than their parents), and a lack of information about the accessibility of help. Peer mentors offer support and guidance, and students are typically more receptive to information from peers. Lai-Monté mentioned that he receives messages from the First Alert System when students are performing lower than they should be. This system allows for Lai-Monté and other faculty members to intervene early on, in order to prevent failing and drop out. Lai-Monté said that in order to help these first generation students achieve success, ALANA is Leadership provides a variety of sources for information. Some examples of what ALANA is Leadership can provide a student with are:

  • information about managing finances
  • learning to juggle a full-time job with a full-time student schedule
  • learning to become integrated in the school community
  • an outlet for professional development
  • peer mentors leaders
  • prevention of dropping out or leaving without a degree
  • learning to deal with feeling marginalized at both home and on campus
  • learning to deal with cultural difficulties on campus
  • ways to develop self-advocay skills

In addition to ALANA is Leadership, it is important for professors to be available and accessible to students. First generation students are often unaware that professors are there to help them succeed. They typically do not know that it is “okay” to ask for help. Lai-Monté included the following list of what a professor should provide for their students, especially first generation students.

  • accessibility/availability- make yourself available
  • ability to listen- give your full attention
  • support- encourage students to learn and improve
  • practical- remain on task
  • guidance- give direction without pushing
  • insight- share personal experiences to show students that you’re human
  • specificity- what needs to be done, what has been done well, & what needs to be corrected
  • education- how you got to be where you are now
  • ability to foster success- have encouraging conversations beyond academics

Second to present was Gina Occhiogrosso (powerpoint presentation will be available soon).  Gina started off her presentation by explaining the Art 100 Foundation Seminar, which is a 1.0 credit (approximately 15.5 hours) course. She discussed the course requirements and said that the assignment for the course was to create a public art piece to be displayed on campus in the empty space next to Massry. In the beginning of the course, as Lai-Monté suggested in his presentation, Gina and her colleagues discussed their own college experiences. Explaining how they got where they were showed the students that they too faced challenges in the process. This course allowed for students to become acclimated to the campus, as well as to other students and faculty.

Eight groups of five were randomly formed based on students’ talent areas. For example, she picked students talented in photography and placed each one in a separate group. This way each group had someone talented in photography, writing, drawing…and so on. In the groups, students were able to discuss their common interests. There were some restrictions placed on the class assignment, but the students also had plenty of room to be creative with their ideas. At the end of the semester, the groups presented their public art pieces to the class. Each group member was required to speak at least once during their presentation. Last year’s winning public art piece included a swing-set and a musical stage for performing. Gina said that for next year’s class, she should add more restrictions to the assignment. Her students thought that more restrictions would make creating a public art piece easier. Gina mentioned near the end of her presentation, that she also receives messages from the First Alert System, which allows her to intervene before it is too late for a student.

Last to present was Jeff Marlett. Jeff started off his presentation by explaining that, in contrast to Lai-Monté and Gina, he works with students of all majors and he gets to see all students on campus, even though it may only be once. He refers to his department (Ethics, Values, & Religious Studies) as the “Iceberg Department”, because there is a little bit above the surface, but a lot more underneath. Jeff mentioned that in 2008, he was asked to give a presentation for a previous Provision’s session, Teaching First Year Students. He spoke about an academic student and learning outcome assessment program that he and some colleagues started in 2008. Jeff’s main focal point of the presentation was about bridging the gap between instructors and their class material. Through the use of humor, personal narratives, and popular culture,  Jeff believes he can help bridge the gap. He said he shares his own narratives, sometimes with the use of profanity, to show the students that “he is alive.” He believes that use of his own narratives will encourage students to find and tell their own, in order to connect with the material.  Popular culture and social media serve as a framework for first year college students because it shows the similarities between the students. He said that it doesn’t matter where the college students come from because they have the same technology to “level the playing field.” The leveling experience of all student’s being subjected to the same expectations shows them that “we’re all in this together.” Regardless of which generation a student is, Jeff ultimately wants his students to be connected with the material and to be able to discuss the material appropriately.

Following the presentations, the floor was opened up for discussion and questions from the audience. Here are a few points and observations that arose from discussion:

  • It is not uncommon for first year/first generation students to be unaware of the expectations and responsibilities of college.
  • Self-regulation and autonomy skills are essential for college success but often require improvement.
  • Bridging the gap by clearly defining expectations of college, and by being aware of assumptions.
  • There is a need for improved communication among faculty, and among the campus as a whole.
  • Faculty need to communicate their accessibility and availability to students, and also make sure to be flexible in the process.
  • Should professor expectations vary for first generation students?

Please join us for our upcoming Tuesday, November 17th session on “Teaching Non-Traditional Students. Provisions’ sessions are from 12:-00-1:15 in Standish A&B. All are welcome and no reservations are required. Free lunch and refreshments will be available! Hope to see you all there!!

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April Provisions Session – Teaching First Year Students: Provisions Fellows Present

To listen to the podcast from the session, click here

Our final provisions session of the year explored the theme of ‘Teaching First Year Students’. An audience of 25 were in attendance to hear a joint presentation from Provisions Fellows Peter Koonz, Serials and Electronic Resources Librarian and Jennifer Marlow, Assistant Professor of English (Composition and New Media). Koonz and Dr. Marlow had spent the last year collaborating together on a project to bring information literacy to Dr. Marlow’s first-year writing class, and this is what they had to share:

Koonz kicked off the presentation by explaining the pair’s process over the past year. Koonz and Marlow set up bi-weekly meetings where they would get together to discuss the common readings they had assigned each other, and share their thoughts and ideas.  Among the concepts that the pair had researched were the transfer of knowledge, how expertise is achieved within a domain, theories of human cognition and memory, and composition theory in first-year writing.

Dr. Marlow then took to the floor to provide the audience with details about her first-year writing course. Dr. Marlow explained that she considers the first-year writing classroom as an environment where students can be both welcomed to the college and provided with essential writing skills that will serve them well throughout their time at college and in their future endeavors. Dr. Marlow began her journey in this collaboration by addressing the research question of “Does a flipped first-year writing classroom help facilitate transferable knowledge of the writing process?” In her research, Dr. Marlow found that leading scholars on the subject attest that transfer is indeed possible and that teaching for transfer was a realistic goal. In the field of rhetoric and composition, Dr. Marlow discovered that there was a dearth of research when it came to its connection with transfer. She continued by detailing the concept of the flipped classroom. Dr. Marlow explained that, in a flipped classroom environment, the teacher acts very much as a guide on the side rather than being the central focus of the class. Another difference is that activities and assignments that are usually done at home are instead carried out in class. Outside of the classroom, students engage in watching online lectures, discussions and other multimedia based activities. In Dr. Marlow’s first-year writing class, this was the case too; the act of writing was saved for the classroom, while discussion and delivery of other course-related material was worked on outside of the classroom. Dr. Marlow used the web-based writing program 750words.com in each lesson to encourage her students to write a minimum of 750 words per class, on top of the essays and other writing projects that the students had. The online peer-review platform ‘Elireview’ was also used in the classroom. Dr. Marlow explained that this website was useful in the respect that it helped her students to become more critical thinkers and better writers after having revised their work based on peer feedback. The process helped Dr. Marlow’s students to become more effective metacognitive learners. By inverting the classroom, Dr. Marlow hoped to create a distraction free writing zone for her students. In the spirit of flipping, Dr. Marlow also changed the order of the assignments and projects. Normally, the students start with what are considered to be more personal and exploratory pieces, before eventually ending with a researched essay. However, in the flipped classroom, the students were set the researched essay at the beginning of the semester. One of Dr. Marlow’s main objectives were for her students to learn how to ‘follow a citation trail’ from the bibliography of a previously assigned reading.

Koonz stepped back in to detail his findings from a report that shed light on students’ struggles with research. There are a whole of issues that students encounter when making the leap from high school research to college resarch: students can have trouble coming up with key words, they can find it difficult to winnow out the good research from the bad research, and there is, as well, an over reliance on using Google and Wikipedia as search tools. Koonz found that students do, however, make their own adaptations when confronted with their first research assignment at college: many students start to use Google Scholar, which is a more appropriate academic resource, they learn to read abstracts to decipher the value of articles, and they also follow the citations in their articles to find other, similar resources.  Koonz admitted that he was impressed with these self-made adaptations, but affirms that the process is still disjointed and uncoordinated without expert help (which librarians can provide).  Koonz continued by explaining that during research assignments, the teacher will contact the library and often set-up a meeting between the students and the library instructors. This can be a difficult process because the librarians often have no prior relationships to speak of with both students and teachers. There is also the issue of trying to provide the most useful, relevant library instruction within the limited timeframe. Another aspect that is problematic for library instructors is that of assessment; it is particularly difficult to get assessment data back with this model.  Koonz went to say that, after reading for ProVisions over the summer, he concluded that the concept of flipped classrooms was the perfect model for library instruction. After having contacted Dr. Marlow, it was decided that the pair would test the model in her first-year writing class. For Dr Marlow’s class, Koonz explained that he, first, familiarized himself with the students’ assignments, and then proceeded to create a series of instructional videos to help those students make use of the library resources. After the students had watched the videos, Koonz came to the classroom where he helped to answer questions and offer suggestions while they worked on their assignments. Through this opportunity in Dr. Marlows’ class, Koonz stated that he was able to resolve those previous inherent challenges of library instruction: for the students, the videos helped to create a familiarity with Koonz before entering the classroom, there was also now ample time to relay instruction, and assessment became all the more straightforward with Koonz able to see, in person, how the students were faring, and in what areas they needed help. Koonz concluded by explaining how positive the flipped classroom experience was, as well as sharing his optimism that the model could work in a wide range of different course in the future.

In the final part of the presentation, Dr. Marlow returned to the floor. She resumed by spelling out the importance of teaching for transfer. Dr. Marlow explained that transfer is not a spontaneous process, and that it is crucial that faculty facilitate and foster transfer by creating an environment of well-designed instruction. Within the field of rhetoric and composition, it is important for the students to gain a level of ‘general/local’ knowledge. Presenting research that she reviewed, Dr. Marlow explained that, in order to try to achieve this knowledge, many colleges have a first-year general writing course, followed by a writing intensive course later in their major. However, Dr. Marlow’s research stated that it would be more effective to add a further course in between the general and intensive classes. It is also recommended that writing is integrated into all coursework and across the curriculum. Lastly, it would be helpful for faculty from all disciplines to collaborate with the first-writing program instructors. Dr. Marlow went on to explain that a writing curriculum that teaches for transfer would have more writing in the early stages of the students’ time at college, as well as a Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) program that offers faculty the opportunity to collaborate, and incorporate discipline specific instruction. To conclude, Dr. Marlow clarified the differences between flipping instruction and flipping the classroom. In the flipped classroom, the in-class content is moved outside of the classroom, while homework moves inside. Flipping instruction, on the other hand, is more of a singular teaching experience like Dr. Marlow’s and Koonz’s collaboration. Lastly, on the topic of student feedback, Dr. Marlow disclosed that a high percentage of her class regarded both 750 words and flipped library instruction as having made a big difference in enhancing their learning experience.

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

  • It is common for students to be more preoccupied with simply producing and finishing the work, and not metacognitively analyzing their learning process.
  • Faculty collaboration is crucial; the process can provide valuable insight into their students’ academic progress and performances.
  • It is important to develop a ‘writing habit’ in students.
  • Students enjoy and benefit from working in a distraction free space.
  • Further links must be established between librarians and professors and collaboration opportunities should be explored.
  • It would be beneficial for students to be explicitly aware of the writing objectives required of them in each discipline.

To listen to the podcast from the session, click here

To view Dr. Marlow’s handouts from the session, click on these links – DEW midterm project & Citation Trail library worksheet

The Quandary of Writing Across the Curriculum

Julie Foertsch’s 1995 article, “Where Cognitive Psychology Applies: How Theories About Memory and Transfer Can Influence Composition Pedagogy” continues with the work of Michael Carter’s 1990 piece, “The Idea of Expertise: An Exploration of Cognitive and Social Dimensions of Writing,” which I wrote about previously.

Foertsch begins by pointing out that the concept of transfer is largely overlooked in composition scholarship (with the exception of Carter’s work).  Likewise, I have noted the same thing — even twenty years later there is little discussion of transfer in the field of composition (which is why I am revisiting these now “dated” articles).  And yet, as I have said a number of times in my posts for this Provisions blog, I believe that the concept of transfer is central to understanding what underlies the common “students can’t write” complaint.  I also think that revisiting the concept of transfer in eduction is important as our teaching/learning experiences are increasingly shaped by our digital/networked culture.

Foertsch, like Carter, believes that there needs to be a synthesis between general and local knowledge in order to teach writing effectively.  Foertsch in particular attempts to bring together the seemingly disparate composition “camps” of the social theorists and cognitive theorists.  Social theorists believe all writing is deeply contextual, discipline specific, and therefore local (so that ultimately transfer is unlikely or rare). Cognitive theorists believe generalizations can be useful across writing contexts (meaning transfer is indeed possible).  To bring these two together in a pedagogically useful way (and by this she means in a way that promotes transfer of learning), Foertsch draws on cognitive psychology’s work on memory.

[What follows is entirely paraphrased from Foertsch’s article.  I do not pretend to have any deep knowledge of cognitive psychology]:  Historically cognitive psychologists made a distinction between “semantic” and “episodic” memories. As the names connote, semantic memories refer to “an entire class of entities”; whereas, episodic memory is tied to a specific episode or instance (the difference between your knowledge of how to knit and what is in yarn store versus that time you knitted with your grandmother and the cat got into the yarn bag).  It was once believed that semantic memory was more “robust and more readily accessible,” would eventually replace or override episodic memory, and hence was more useful than episodic memory.  Later this theory of memory was called into question resulting in a model of memory known as “instance based,” favoring the strength and usefulness of episodic memory:  “[M]emory traces of individual instances can be retained indefinitely.  Semantic generalizations still occur, but they are by no means automatic replacements for the set of episodic memories that they summarize” (366).  Finally there is the “connectionist models” of memory, which see memory as a pattern of activation [based on the name of this model, you can probably see this is where we are headed].  “With connectionist models, both highly specific ‘episodic’ memories and more generic ‘semantic’ memories can be stored on and retrieved from the same set of connection weights” (367).  The level of specificity of the recalled memory depends on how many past episodes were similar to the current context.  What we end up with is not a dichotomy (semantic OR episodic with one being more robust, useful, etc.) but a continuum (!!!) “where the vast majority of memories have both some degree of generalization and some degree of context dependency” (369).  Continuum.  Context.  Generalization.  We are finally back to writing and composition pedagogy (phew)!

Drawing on this model’s ability to connect both the local (context specific memory recall — episodic) and the general (abstract, semantic memory), Foertsch makes the move to say writing too needs to be connectionist and that we can make this happen through our writing curriculum.  Using the evidence from cognitive psychology, Foertsch points out, one could conclude that “teacher-provided generalizations” / “generalizations about academic writing” have little use without “real-life” context or a plethora of “contextual retrieval cues.”

Q:  So of what use “are teacher provided semantic strategies and ‘decontextualized’ cognitive approach” (370)?

A:  To answer this question, we must turn our attention to the problem of transfer.

I’ve written previously about the “problem of transfer”:  that it can occur, but is rare; that it can only occur if we create pedagogically sound/effective conditions for it to occur; that often we see education as being achieved when transfer occurs; that spontaneous transfer is rare unless the situation involves an expert; and so on.  Foertsch tells us that all of these challenges to transfer occurring suggest a causal relationship between “the number of related episodic memories one has” and the ability to “transfer that learning to new contexts” (371).  This points us back to scholarship on the difference between novices and experts.  Ultimately it seems, experts have “enough exemplars of relevant problems in memory to bet able to abstract out the general structural relations…” (371).  That is, the more previous experience/examples upon which to draw, the more expert the person is.

However, even if novices will always be less accurate than experts at identifying the relations that are relevant, they can be explicitly instructed to use the same strategy that experts use….  [S]ucessful transfer can be achieved even with relatively low levels  of past experience as long as the novices are forced to process the problems in ways that direct their attention toward structural commonalities…rather than surface-level differences.  (emphasis in bold mine 372)

Q:  So how does this help us teach writing so that transfer might occur?

A:  “[B]ecause few lower-level college courses require writing, many students have limited opportunities to gain experience with academic writing….  [T]ransfer of learning is most likely to be obtained when general principles and reasoning processes are taught in conjunction with their real-life applications in varied, specific contexts” (374).

The general solution that many schools use (including our own) to ensure the general to context specific continuum is covered in teaching students to write is through a “general” first year writing course followed by a writing intensive course within the major.  The efficacy of these separate courses for general and local knowledge/writing is unclear, as students often “forget” and/or don’t understand how to apply the writing principles they were taught in first year writing.  While the general to local continuum when it comes to writing instruction should essentially be attended to in every course, it rarely happens.  Instead, we divide up the teaching of writing with those outside the discipline of English expecting the experts teach writing in a way that adequately prepares students for all future academic writing, while those within English departments rarely have the kind of expertise (not to mention the lack of time) to teach discourse conventions specific to other fields.  Similarly, those faculty outside of English departments argue that they have neither the time nor the expertise to teaching writing in their courses, having so much content to cover.  It’s quite a quandary.  For me the answer lies in creating more collaboration across disciplines as faculty.

Foertsch’s answer lies in working with students “to analyze the underlying discourse conventions” (379).  This requires a collaboration between students and teachers to “contrast and compare different writing contexts and assignments and to make generalizations about writing and rhetorical skill” (378).  This approach would use “real-life examples from a variety of academic contexts and have student analyze these examples in such a way that encourages transfer” (378).  As a result, “students would become aware of the differences in how the generic principles that they learn will actually apply once they start writing for specific disciplines” (379).

Foertsch also recommends two levels of composition courses before students move onto their junior or senior year discipline-specific writing instruction, in which instructors take time to teach the specific discourse conventions of the field.

All of this seems a very (long…) round-about way of doing what many first year writing textbooks aim to do, which is teach the “moves” of “academic discourse” (see, for example They Say / I Say).  What I find, however, is that these “moves” are often still too general.  I believe that collaboration between first year writing programs and other departments / other colleagues across the disciplines is central to addressing the problem of transfer.  The kinds of “real-life examples” that Foertsch refers to need to be understood in the deep way that experts  have access to in order to be discussed and analyzed with students.  Working collaboratively we might be able to actually address this kind of local knowledge in a more effective way in first year writing.

In sum a writing curriculum that teaches for transfer:

  • Has more writing early on in a student’s college career.
  • Has a robust WAC program that has resources (time/compensation) for faculty across disciplines to collaborate in the teaching of writing in order to create a contextualized general knowledge approach to writing instruction.
  • Is focused on working with students to recognize the conventions of academic discourse (structural commonalities as opposed to surface-level differences).

Generalization versus transfer in first year composition

As I discuss in one of my first blog posts, questions of transfer are pertinent to first year composition.  The point I am trying to make in that early post is that often times faculty complaints about student writing are less about knowledge and ability and more about lack of transfer:

What I believe is actually happening with student writing that leads to these laments, is that students are struggling to write in a specific context, namely, an academic writing situation in a particular discipline.  What might be a matter of students struggling with content information specific to a discipline or over navigating the conventions of a disciplinary genre is often interpreted as students not being able to write.

In Elizabeth Wardle’s piece, “Understanding ‘Transfer’ from FYC: Preliminary Results of a Longitudinal Study,” she too takes on issues of transfer as they pertain to first year composition.  In it she validates my own quest for more information on this topic, pointing out the dearth of it in our field.  She borrows from David Smit’s book, The End of Composition to make this point:

In The End of Composition Studies, David Smit summarizes what we know as a field about the transfer of writing-related skills from first-year composition (FYC) to other courses and contexts: very little.  Smit’s primary criticism is of the dearth of systematic research attention paid to transfer from first-year writing courses; he makes a valid point.  (65)

Wardle’s long-term study sets out to rectify this problem.  The importance of transfer, argues Wardle, to composition studies is manifest in the expectations from various stakeholders (parents, administrators, other faculty) that we are teaching knowledge and skills that can transfer from our first year class “to writing tasks in other courses and context.”  For this reason, it is imperative that compositionists care about questions of transfer, and yet very little research actually exists in our field.

One of the first moves Wardle makes in her piece is to distance herself from the term “transfer.”  Instead, she prefers the term “generalization” (as described by King Beach).  This can help us better understand the loose/implied connection Michael Carter makes between general knowledge and transfer.  Transfer tends to refer to specific tasks and individual learners in a way that describes “just plain learning” (as Beach puts it).  Generalization, on the other hand,

includes classical interpretations of transfer—carrying and applying knowledge across tasks—but goes beyond them to examine individuals and their social organizations, the ways that individuals construct associations among social organizations, associations that can be continuous and constant or distinctive and contradictory (Beach 41, qtd. in Wardle 68).

Wardle draws on Beach’s work, as well as that of David Guile and Michael Young, to make the case that “the learning of the activity system and the learning of an individual are intertwined, and the individual’s learning is understandable only if we understand the learning of the activity system” (68).  Motivation to learn comes from “the nature of the activity system…” Potential for people to “generalize learning” (preferred term over transfer) is determined by an activity system that encourages collaboration and some risk and opportunities to share and be “inspired by a common motive for undertaking a specific learning task” (Guile and Young 74, qtd. in Wardle 68).  The problem we are faced with according to Wardle is that,

When we confine our attention to individuals, we may be tempted to assign some ‘deficiency’ to students or their previous training….  Therefore, if we look for but do not find direct evidence that students use specific previously-learned skills in new situations, we cannot necessarily assume that students did not learn them, have not used them, or will not use them in the future.  (69)

Here Wardle makes a similar point to the one I open with from my previous post.  We are, as Wardle so aptly puts it, “looking for apples when those apples are now part of an apple pie.”  (69).  This means that the discrete writing skills that faculty might be looking for are actually part of this larger, contextual “activity system” and might not be immediately obvious to either student or teacher.  So what to do?  The idea of transfer, as Pete and I have been learning, is a little like a unicorn — rare and of questionable existence.  Yet, there are those like Gerald Nelms and Ronda Leathers Dively who do admit that while transfer has always been a difficult thing to track and measure, as it “occurs over time and across contextual borders…,” “teaching to transfer is possible” (emphasis mine 215-216). The key to achieving transfer or “generalization” lies in, not surprisingly, how we teach and the types of writing assignments we assign in courses across the curriculum.

If participation in new activity systems fails to motivate students to use those skills, it is possible that impetus for transfer may not be obvious, or readily available, to them….  Consequently, we should attempt to account for the ways in which knowledge and skills are transformed across contexts; otherwise, we risk overlooking manifestations of skills that have been adapted to meet the needs of a new activity system.  (Wardle 69)

Highlights from Wardle’s longtudinal study that give insight into why transfer/generalization might not take place across the curriculum:

  • Students reported having writing assignments that did not require advanced preparation and/and require/allow time for revision (73, 76).
  • Students describe teacher expectations as generally “low” in their first two years (74).
  • Students reported most assignments asked for summary
  • Students reported not being motivated to bring past abilities and experiences to complete “new” writing assignments (75).
  • Students reported that most writing assignments were not “engaging”
    • By engaging students meant things like:  assignment has more than one “right answer,” prompt is “thought provoking,” assignment allows for student “ownership,” assignment does not feel like “busy work”/is more than a regurgitation of facts, assignment relates to students’ interests and future (career), assignment is challenging, assignment relates closely to rest of course content, assignment’s purpose is clear and “goal oriented” (77-78).

What all of this suggests:

[S]tudents did not often generalize from FYC—but not because they are unable to or because they did not learn anything in FYC. Rather, students did not perceive a need to adopt or adapt most of the writing behaviors they used in FYC for other courses….  In other words, neither the writing tasks in other courses nor the structures of the larger activity system of the university provided the necessary affordances for generalization.  (Wardle 76)

This means that the burden for getting transfer/generalization to occur “seems to rest on assignments given in classes beyond FYC. Those writing assignments must be engaging and challenging, explicitly designed to help students use all the tools in their writing toolboxes—as necessary for achieving the learning goals of the specific classroom activity system” (82).

Two more take-aways (context and meta-awareness — aka metacognition):

  1. Over and over Wardle’s findings indicate that students need “context-specific support” in order to be successful in writing tasks for their courses beyond FYC.  Teacher feedback, interaction with peers, and reading/writing in the same field (80).  “[P]revious experiences alone were not enough to ensure student success on new and difficult writing tasks” (82).
  2. “Transfer research from other fields, and well as the findings of this study, suggest that meta-awareness about writing, language, and rhetorical strategies in FYC may be the most important ability our courses can cultivate” (82).

Further Reflections on the Novice-Expert Continuum

This week, Jenn and I dug a little deeper into our examination of the processes that underlie the transition from novice to expert through our reading and discussion of the following articles:

Laird, T. F. N., Seifert, T. A., Pascarella, E. T., Mayhew, M. J., & Blaich, C. F. (2014). Deeply Affecting First-Year Students’ Thinking: Deep Approaches to Learning and Three Dimensions of Cognitive Development. Journal of Higher Education, 85(3), 402–432. [Read here]
Perkins, D. N., & Salomon, G. (1989). Are Cognitive Skills Context-Bound? Educational Researcher, (1), 16. [Read here]
 .
Salomon, G., & Perkins, D. N. (1987). Transfer of cognitive skills from programming: When and how? Journal of Educational Computing Research, 3(2), 149–169. doi:10.2190/6F4Q-7861-QWA5-8PL1
 .
Implicit in our recent readings on composition theory, and explicit here in the Laird article, is a special concern for the needs of first-year (and even moreso, first-semester) students as they begin to travel along the continuum toward expertise.  Indeed I still am working to make the translation from theories concerning disciplinary expertise and studies about human cognition to the more personal task of improving my own efforts to assist first-year students.  While I still have a long way to go before I feel competent to draw conclusions, here are some of my intial takeaways:
  • A depth of general knowledge is useful in creating local or disciplinary knowledge.  But not in all cases!
  • We must plan lessons carefully if we hope to optimize the chances that students will tranfer knowledge into other domains (and be explicit about the idea of transfer).
  • Repetition of tasks prepares a student for “low road transfer” of knowledge into similar situations (e.g., driving a car allows transfer of knowledge about driving when you sit behind the wheel of a truck), and this will happen without a great deal of deliberate thought about this transfer.
  • The affect or emotional response a student brings to the learning process can be a critical factor in helping her move along the continuum from novice to expert successfully.

 

Perhaps this quote from Perkins and Salomon (1989) best sums up the role and importance of both general and discipline-specific knowledge within the context of transfer and expertise:

To the extent that transfer does take place, it is highly specific and must be cued, primed, and guided; it seldom occurs spontaneously.  The case for generalized, context-independent skills and strategies that can be trained in one context and transferred to other domains has proven to be more a matter of wishful thinking than hard empirical evidence…Local knowledge, more than general problem-solving heuristics, appeared to be the bottleneck.

 

Flipping Again

In our last post, Jenn and I provided reflections on our experiment with flipped library instruction.  In this post, I wanted to provide some additional context for library instruction, as it’s been my experience that many faculty are not quite sure what this entails.

needle

One-shot instruction: not always the best medicine.

The goal of library instruction is to build a range of competencies in students, often referred to as information literacy, which will give them a framework for engaging in college-level research. The opportunities for this type of instruction are presented in a less than systematic fashion — often delivered in response to classroom faculty who have research-based assignments.  Much to the dismay of many librarians, the reality is that we often engage in “one-shot instruction,” which — just as it sounds — happens once without much opportunity for follow up or assessment.

However, the range of new pedagogical strategies in the classroom presents new opportunities for rethinking library instruction.  Indeed both Jenn and I came enthusiastically to the idea that flipping library instruction could have some significant benefits.  The absence of a teaching lab in the library limits our ability (or conversely — challenges our creativity) to engage students in active learning.  I was excited to be able to be in the writing lab in Albertus, helping students as they worked through their assignment, which the assigned videos had modeled .  While this flipped instruction still can be seen as one-shot instruction, the fact that the videos serve as both pre-class assignments and as semester-long learning assets means that the normal limitations of a typical one-shot class are able to be overcome.

While there is a large body of research on the flipped classroom, there is yet to be a lot published that focuses on flipped library instruction.  The article referenced below provides a good overview, teasing out the benefits and challenges inherent in this relatively new form of library instruction.  Among the challenges many librarians would face:

  • Logistics.  It is difficult to plan for out-of-the-classroom work for a class that you have not yet met.   Fortunately, the goals of Jenn and I as Provisions’ fellows dovetailed nicely and helped eliminate the usual logistical issues; but on more normal one-shot requests, this issue would be one that could be particularly challenging.
  • Engagement.  It is always a challenge for a librarian who sees a class once during the semester.  Think substitute teacher and you have an idea of the challenges we face in engaging students and gaining their trust.
  • Time.  Creating and editing instructional videos, I quickly discovered, is very time-consuming.  I was fortunate to have a good deal of lead time, but this would not typically be the case.  However, I do think I would tend to get better — and quicker — with experience.

Part of what Jenn and I are discovering this semester through our work together and through an examination of the research on first-year students is that many of these students struggle to adapt to higher expectations and a new information environment at the college level.  One-shot instruction is simply one tool — and perhaps not the most effective one — to help first-year students build that “research toolkit” that will let them progressively improve their ability to find and utilize resources in their new and complex information ecosystem.

As I read more research on teaching first-year students and as I gain experience trying new approaches to library instruction, the suggestion that Stephanie Bennett offers in the concluding Provisions’ meeting from 2013-14 to “change just one thing” resonates strongly.  While there are many changes on the institution-level that can address the transitional needs of first year students — both generally and in the area of information literacy, the status of that larger process should not hinder or delay the individual efforts I can make to try to improve the things I do in the classroom.

W.B. Yeats once said

Life is an experiment.

I’m running with this, thinking library instruction is an experiment, and it’s an experiment processed one change at a time!

Document Referred to in the Post

Arnold-Garza, S. (2014). The Flipped Classroom Teaching Model and Its Use for Information Literacy Instruction. Communications in Information Literacy, 8(1), 7. [Read article]

“Flipped” Library Instruction

In keeping with the theme of the “flipped” classroom in first-year writing, Pete and I decided that we would also attempt to flip the library instruction that tends to be a standard part of our ENG105 classes and FYW in general (In fact, in the “Learning the Ropes” article that Pete wrote about, researchers found that “Freshman said they found campus librarians (29%) and their English composition instructors (29%) were the most helpful individuals on campus with guiding them through college-level research” (3)).  To accomplish this, Pete created a helpful series of videos to guide students through the library research processes and databases that are typically covered during a librarian’s classroom visit.  The students came to class with a basic understanding of how to approach the research assignment at hand, leaving class time free to spend answering questions and doing some hands-on research with the assistance of our reference librarians.

Hopefully the students learned as much as Pete and I did.  We thought we’d share some of our thoughts about the experience:

  • In the Hofer, Townsend, and Brunetti article that Pete details in his last blog post, there is a lot of concern with the “flat” landscape of Google.  Respondents (librarians) to the authors’ survey describe their issues with students’ research tactics:  “They [students] seem to see information as flat, as coming all from one place, Google” and “How to read a citation and understand what type of publication it represents–journal article, book, etc…  Many are used to getting all information from one flat source–Google.”  While I understand what the respondents are trying to get at with the word “flat” (there is more to the research beyond Google and much of the diversity in sources needs to be sought out in other ways, and, as Pete describes below, sources all seem the same to students), I also find the word a bit misleading.  What struck me in working with my students while they were researching this week is that the types of sources available via a Google search are more complex and diverse than ever before.  Part of the assignment [Citation Trail library worksheet] that the students were working with asked them to identify citations and source types, and yes, as the previous respondent describes, students struggled with this, but to be honest:  So did I.  One student discovered a massive online project about digital literacy that isn’t quite a blog but certainly isn’t a static webpage as it regularly publishes articles by scholars researching the topic of teens and digital literacy.  So what is it?  What kind of articles are these pieces that aren’t necessarily peer reviewed or appearing in print publications but involved in scholarly research by experts in a field?
  • The other aspect of the flipped library instruction time that proved challenging was getting students to move away from Google and into the library databases.  This difficulty is described in both the “Learning the Ropes” article and in “Troublesome Concepts and Information Literacy: Investigating Threshold Concepts for IL Instruction.”  Because the assignment asks students to track down sources contained in both scholarly and popular sources, there is good reason for many of the students to start with Google search to help track down a source from a reading that doesn’t have a bibliography (for example, as Pete details here in his video about “tips on running down elusive documents”).  Students did well with using Google to find the details of the specific reference; however, getting them to then take that information and use it to find the book or article in our own library’s holdings was a bit of a struggle (it often involved me hovering and directing them to open additional tabs and pull up the catalog or databases).

— From Pete

Two things resonated with me as I walked around and helped students make sense of the documents they had brought up on their screens.

  1. Many did in fact seem to have difficulty understanding format types and purposes outside of the context of their computer screen. The landscape had indeed become flat and within that one dimension, all content was in an important sense equal.
  2. Last year Bryan Alexander, educator and futurist, delivered a keynote speech at a conference I attended. What I most remember about his speech was that he contended that we had moved from being a “culture of the page” to a “culture of the screen.”  One implication of this shift is that a new generation, largely unfamiliar with the print counterparts of online journals, ebooks, etc., have a hard time making critical distinctions between the types of resources that show up on their computer screens.

An inability to determine the context of the resource hampered their ability for critical evaluation.  The Hofer article referenced in an earlier post contends that a key understanding that many students have trouble grasping is, in her shorthand, “format as a process.”  By this she means:

What makes a book a book and a newspaper article a newspaper article has nothing to do with how one accesses it (print/digital), but with the process that went into creating it. Understanding this principle helps students navigate the information they find online and evaluate it according to the process underlying its creation, rather than by a set of memorized, constantly changing, inconsistent characteristics.

This lack of understanding was evident as I spoke to many students and did indeed appear to be one of the outcomes of a “flat environment.”

  • Our awareness of these challenges of student research influenced both the assignment design, as well as what Pete covered in his video series.  I wanted students to begin making these distinctions and being able to identify types of sources early on in the research process and also for them to be able to see the range of sources that all scholars and writers use when composing a researched text.  Perhaps by next time framing “what makes a book a book and a newspaper article a newspaper article” in the terms that Hofer, Towsend, and Brunetti describe as “the process that went into creating it,” students might better understand the concept of “format as a process.”  This, after all, needs to be a goal of ours according to Hofer, Townsend, and Brunetti.  Citing “format as a process” as a “threshold concept” means that “the next step from a pedagogical standpoint is to make curricular changes that surface the teaching and learning of these concepts and then to assess student learning in these areas” (402).