Friday, May 7, 2010

The forgotten part of the First-Year Experience

A recent discussion on the first year experience listserv has gotten me thinking about the way we allocate resources across the first-year experience.  If your campus is like mine you likely have a variety of programming for first year students with most of it being front loaded to the first semester or even the first two weeks of their time on your campus (it's always been interesting to me that we speak of our work in terms of the first year experience, when most of us do very little in the way of formal programming during the second half of that year).  

This practice of front-loading makes sense (and has been advocated for by, among others, John Gardner).  Among other things, it allows institutions to communicate expectations, help students feel connected to each other and to campus, and provides proactive support that positions students to be successful.  These are all good things and the last two decades have provided plenty of data suggesting that they make a difference.  The question raised on the listserv was about end of year rituals or ceremonies and that made me wonder if what we do at the end of the first year experience matters.  

For much of the formal learning we see in schools and elsewhere, beginnings and endings get a lot of attention.  Think about a typical college course.  In the beginning students receive a syllabus that outlines the learning objectives for the course, an anticipated timeline for when and how they can expect to be learning, and some information about how to get help along the way.  The syllabus (assuming it is a well-written one) becomes a guide for the semester.  Plenty of important things then happen in the middle of the course to facilitate learning.  Then, four months later there is an ending, an ending that in some cases is quite ceremonious and ritualistic.  There is the "last lecture" where the faculty member reminds students of what the course goals were, a "testimonial" of sorts where she might remind them of what she thinks is the kernel of the entire course, and some sort of final exam or project that helps students tie things together and demonstrate their learning.  We see this across the entire college experience as well (i.e. Orientation/Convocation followed by graduation/commencement four or five years later).  I even vaguely remember it happening when I was a student in Mrs. Palmer's pre-school class.  On the first day I remember meeting Mrs. Palmer, getting a tour of the classroom, and hearing about all of the fun things I was going to get to do that year.  Then at the end of the year we had a full-blown "pre-school graduation" (complete with homemade graduation caps) where we were honored by our parents and then given a chance to showcase the cutting, coloring, and singing talents we had worked hard to acquire that year.  I would like to think that these practices, ceremonious as they may be, also have pedagogical value.  

The question this raises for me is whether we could or should do something at the end of the first college year that would have value for students and campuses.  The tendency would be to plan an end of year celebration with music, eloquent speeches, and a banquet or refreshments.  That may not be a bad thing, but it is expensive and runs the risk of becoming a frilly show absent of any real value.  So, are there simple, cost-effective ways of capitalizing on the end of the first year that would be both celebratory and educationally useful?

There are a few things that would seem useful to consider when designing a "second book end" for the first-year experience

1.  Revisit the goals, learning objectives, etc. introduced at the beginning of the year.  We spend a fair amount of time and effort introducing institutional missions and aims, learning goals, and expectations.  It only makes sense that we would want to follow up at the end of the first year to remind students of these same things.

2.  Celebrate successes.  The National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition sponsors a First Year Students Advocate program wherein they recognize faculty members and administrators who have done extraordinary work to improve the experience of first year students on their campuses.  There isn't any good reason why this couldn't happen on individual campuses (I know there are a few campuses that are already doing this).  Faculty members, staff, administrators, and student leaders who have done significant first-year work could be recognized.  Additionally, first year students who have demonstrated tremendous progress towards first-year objectives could be highlighted.  This would seem useful in at least two ways.  First, people like to be recognized and when they are, they tend to work even harder because they feel appreciated.  Second, it would give institutions the opportunity to recognize best practices and communicate a set of values to the rest of the campus community.

3.  Bridge the gap between the first-year and sophomore experiences.  I'll confess that I have not followed the SYE (sophomore year experience) movement very closely as of yet.  However, it seems to be commonly accepted that the transition from the first to the second year is challenging for many students.  If that is true then an end of year book end could be designed to address some of these issues (e.g. how to prepare for the sophomore year, resources to connect with prior to starting classes in the fall, etc.)

4.  Reflection on growth, challenges, and lessons learned.  The first college year and its experiences provide students with plenty of opportunities to learn and grow.  Asking them to reflect on those experiences, make meaning from them, and share their learning in public ways could be beneficial (if you use portfolios on your campus this could be a required artifact in that portfolio).

The challenge in all of this is finding the time, resources, and space for something like this to happen.  So, can it be done?  And, how would it look on a large campus with a large freshman class?  What challenges do small colleges face in considering the end of the first year?  

 

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