Friday, December 3, 2010

Do freshmen students know what is good for them?

About nine months ago I blogged about a new mentoring initiative on my campus intended to benefit freshmen students.  At that time I was a bit worried at the backlash we might receive by "requiring" all freshmen students to participate in the program and asked the question "How much should we require?"  A posting on the blog Confessions of a Community College Dean earlier this week got me thinking about this question again, but from a slightly different angle.  

In the post, "Dean Dad" tells the story of a first-year initiative that attempted to integrate a variety of best practices (a learning community of linked courses, joint assignments between faculty members, and co-curricular activities) but that, in his estimation, was an utter failure.  Interestingly, he reports that the students who participated in the program achieved "course-level academic success," which could be tremendous sign of success.  However, the problem he saw with the program was that students "hated it" and opted out of the program as soon as they were allowed to.  The program has now been discontinued.  Obviously, I don't know enough about this specific situation to make a judgment about whether or not this was a good decision, but I do think it raises some interesting questions for those who design programs and make policies on our campuses.  

There seem to be two competing forces at work in situations like the one on Dean Dad's campus.  First, as educators we are attempting to creat environments that allow learning, growth, and personal transformation to occur.  We create structures, implement policies, provide access to resources, and make requests of students all in an effort to provide them with an opportunity to "learn."  Second, as institutions we have to have students choose to come to our campuses and want to stay once they are here.

This can create interesting dynamics because we have to balance "requirements" and asking hard things of students (things they may not like) against their expectations and desires for their experience (which are quite often naive).  

College will always invite (or require) students to do things that are difficult, frustrating, time-consuming, etc.  I will be the first to admit that many of things we ask of students have no real learning benefit; however, I would like to think that we know something about what promotes learning, and that at least a few of the things that we require of students are in their best interest.  So, what happens when things we truly believe are beneficial for students--general education, new student orientation, a learning community program, etc. aren't well received by students?  And, as we measure the "success" of a new initiative, how important is the question "Did you like it?"

Part of why I'm asking these questions has to do with the experience I've had watching my campus' new peer mentoring program unfold.  There were lots of complaints early on we occasionally hear things like what Dean Dad described in his post (e.g. "you're taking away my freedom" or "this feels like high school").  However, it has been surprising to me to see how many students, faculty members, and parents who once "hated" the program who have are now saying things like "Thank you for your help."  And, "I never realized what a good think you're doing."  I would also wager that there are a number of students who don't realize the value of the experience they are having now, but that will look back and realize they grew a great deal.  

None of this means that an institution should have free reign to require anything and everything from their students and pay no attention to how students are responding.  But, I worry when solid academic programs, supported by the literature and that demonstrate academic value,  get the axe just so we can keep students "happy."  

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