Gen Ed on My Mind

AGLS will invite a series of association officers, members and guests to write short essays on current general education issues and matters of the day. Our aim is to have a new essay every 6 weeks. Past essays will be archived online for a year, then in association offices. Have something on your mind? Contact us at execdir@agls.org to find out how to share your ponderings.

Things that have Worked Before

Joyce Lucke - Monday, February 23, 2015

by Dr. Ted Remington, University of Saint Francis

Last semester, I was talking with students in my section of the University of Saint Francis’s first-year experience seminar about the nature of the course itself.  Several had voiced complaints about compulsory additional sessions held during the first eight weeks of the semester that were intended to provide an “extended orientation” aspect to the seminar (e.g. learning how to register for classes, finer points of financial aid, etc.). 

I understood their complaints—the sessions are held on Friday afternoons and often cover material that, while valuable, students feel they already know.  I explained that these sessions were part of an experiment we were trying to see how to best get this information to students.

One woman said without hesitation, “We’re always getting experimented on!”

Suddenly, the conversation was no longer about lack of enthusiasm for orientation meetings on Friday afternoons.  The swift, firm nature of the comment made it clear this was a thought that went beyond this topic and that had been percolating for a while.

Several other students nodded in agreement.

On that particular day, we didn’t have time to delve deeply into this issue beyond a follow up question or two from me, but the comment stuck with me.  So, a couple of days later, I put this issue on our agenda for the class and we discussed it a bit further.

I explained to them that I was intrigued by this sentiment given that so much time and effort is spent trying to find new ways to “meet students where they are.”  Flipped classrooms, service learning, social media  . . . how many papers and talks have faculty (and not just those of us who deal specifically with general education curriculum issues) given/read/heard about the need to “rethink” what we do and find new approaches aimed at “millenials” or “21st century learners?” I told my students that many of my colleagues, both at our university and in education more generally, were desperately searching for ways to more effectively reach students.  Papers, panels, books, conferences, websites, and whole organizations were devoted to this quest.  Were we wrong?

The responses I got were not univocal or without ambiguity, but they were interesting.  One student mentioned an experiment done at his high school—students were all given iPads to use.  But in reality, this technology was largely wasted on games, not learning. It was, in his terms, a “total waste.”  Other students mentioned attempts to do things online just for the sake of doing them online.

As one student said, “Why keep changing things that have worked before?”

Now, I don’t think for a moment that these students are secretly yearning to have me come in and lecture at them for 75 minutes twice a week.  I’ve seen too much evidence in my own classrooms that students both appreciate and get a lot out of innovative approaches to use nothing but old-school methods.

But I take their point seriously: do we put too much of a premium on being innovative and “outside the box” for its own sake?  Of course, we never actually admit to such an attitude, but if we were being honest with ourselves, do we sometimes not fall into that kind of thinking—fearful that we will fall into obsolescence if we’re not constantly trying to reinvent the wheel? Do we sometimes try things primarily in the hope and belief that doing so will keep students from seeing us as (horrors!) boring?

And if we are truly interested in meeting students “where they are,” we might keep in mind that today’s college students—at least those of “traditional” age—are a generation that have been assessed and tested from their first day in kindergarten.  They are self-aware enough to pick up on the fact that they are often subjected to “flavor of the month” pedagogical techniques as the educational industrial complex throws things at a wall to see what will stick (i.e., raise test scores, increase retention numbers, or produce other allegedly objective measures of student success). 

What I took away from this interaction was not that I should become one of those faculty members who pulls out the same worn manila folder, stuffed with yellowed lecture notes, from the file cabinet at the beginning of every semester, but rather that to the extent I do deviate from “things that have worked before,” I do so mindfully and explain why to students explicitly.  If I can’t provide a sound, easy-to-communicate reason to them for an experiment, I probably shouldn’t be subjecting them to it in the first place. 

Again, I don’t think any of us truly believe that “new” equals “better.” But I suspect we are often seduced into thinking that way by forces both within and outside the academy—talking ourselves into the benefits of trying something out without truly thinking through whether it actually is better.

Since this discussion with my students, I’ve found that I’ve set the bar just a touch higher when thinking about whether a particular social media app, classroom-flipping technique, or wiz-bang technological feature on our course management system is worth trying out.  I still like trying new things and finding ways of engaging students more thoroughly in their learning.  And I don’t assume that the way I learned material years ago is necessarily the best way to teach it to my students today.  But sometimes the best approach might just be to use “things that have worked before.”

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