Friday, January 9, 2009

Institutional Values

Part of my work at the University involves planning and coordinating New Student Orientation events for incoming students which has been an interesting task for me because it has helped me be more reflective about the implicit messages that we as a University send to students.  Colleagues of mine have helped me understand the importance of "bookends" in students' university experience, in other words the events at the beginning and end of their time on campus.  New Student Orientation seems to be one of these critical bookends and an opportunity to help students catch a vision that can carry them through the rest of their educational career on our campuses.  
This idea of the big picture is something that I gleaned from the work of Jean Lave & Etienne Wenger in their book Situated Learning:  Legitimate peripheral participation.  In it they explore the utility of an "apprenticeship model" in terms of learning.  The book examines a number of case studies (Yucatec Midwives, West African Tailors, Navy Quartermasters, Retail Meat Markets, and Alcoholics Anonymous) and identifies the aspects of those settings that help or hinder learning.  One theme that I saw emerging from each of those studies was that the best learning occurred when learners were able to develop a clear vision of what a good performance looks like whether that was a well-tailored suit, a successful delivery, or a fully recovered alcoholic.  
In many ways New Student Orientation can help new students develop this vision of "what can be" or what they can become during their University experience.  Sadly, we often approach orientation activities from one of two perspectives (1) a very technical business model or (2) the social/party model.

The Technical Approach:  In the technical approach we use orientation as a venue for communicating large amounts of information to students (e.g. registration policies, graduation requirements, housing policies, etc.) or as a way of helping them complete a number of orientation tasks (e.g. obtaining a parking permit, registering for classes, purchasing textbooks, etc.).  The objective here seems to be running students through the system so that they can complete as many "errands" as possible and be ready to begin classes.  While there is undoubtedly a place for these sorts of things in an orienation program, if all a student does during Orientation weekend is stand in lines, complete online forms, and engage in transactional interactions there is a danger that they will perceive the University as a mill where students go through the motions in order to check off a set of well defined tasks.

The Party or Social Approach:  In this model orientation is a big party where students attend dances, take tours, watch sporting events, and make friends.  The goal  here is to help students make social connections and to show them a good time so their first experience on campus is a positive one.  Again, not a bad thing--literature suggests that meaningful social connections pay big dividends in retention rates and overall learning gains.  However, there are two problems with an orientation that makes this its focus.  First, it may be a little naive to assume that large group activities facilitate the formation of the meaningful relationships that are referred to in the literature.  While this may happen occasionally, it is more likely that those relationships that persist through the first year are those that were formed in small, informal interactions occurring in the residence halls, among members of student groups/clubs, etc.  Secondly, if orientation is nothing more than a big party we run the risk of leaving students with the impression that college is a party--fun and games with the occasional late night of cramming for an exam.

A Better Way:  What if orientation became a way to help students develop the "big picture" referred to in Lave & Wenger's work?  What messages could orientation send in terms of academic expectations, institutional culture, etc.?  It is my feeling that campus administrators can design orientation experiences that communicate these messages while also allowing for the "business" and social connections to take place.  The key is in being thoughtful about the experiences that we provide for students and the values that are embedded in these experiences (as a side note, training of orientation leaders becomes critical here because they are likely to communicate a great deal about implicit institutional values in the informal conversations they have with students during orientation).  This can be challenging because the temptation is to pack students into the basketball arena and talk at them.  While this simplifies things from a logistic standpoint, very little learning takes place for students and they are left worn out from a weekend of lectures from high minded university administrators.  We have a responsibility as orientation professionals to find ways to engage students in active learning during orientation activities and to provide environments where they can learn about what it means to be a university student, what is expected of them, and what they can hope to become during their time with us.  

Occasionally I hear from colleagues that 18 year-old students aren't ready to participate in conversations about institutional missions and objectives.  My response to those individuals is that if not now, then when?  If students don't find out about our Aims until their junior year it is too late.  Furthermore, at that point in their educational career they have very little time or motivation to consider things of that nature as graduation deadlines, the MCAT, and law school interviews loom on the horizon.  Orientation is a window of time when students are both receptive to and in need of these conversations.  We are doing them a disservice if we aren't providing a forum for that type of learning to take place.

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