Blog
Divya Mathew

Understanding The Challenges Facing First-generation College Students

Understanding the Challenges Facing First-Generation College Students While there have been competing definitions of what it means to be a first-generation college student, one of the most widely accepted of these comes from the Higher Education Act of 1965. This federal understanding of the term, “first-generation college student,” recognizes a student as first-generation if either of the following are true: 1) neither of the student’s parents have a four-year college degree or 2) the student only receives support from one parent, who does not have a four-year college degree. Here, I will discuss some of the challenges facing first-generation college students, and more specifically, the following topics: 1) the lower levels of familial financial support that first-generation college students have access to, 2) the disparities related to the use of on-campus services between first-generation college students and their continuing generation (i.e. not first-generation) peers, and 3) some of the ways in which colleges and universities can begin to better support this student demographic. The Size and Importance of This Demographic Prior to discussing some of the challenges facing first-generation college students, it is important to conceptualize how large this student population is becoming across the country. As noted by the Center for First-Generation Student Success, the most recently available data from the U.S. Dept. of Education indicates that approximately “56% of undergraduates nationally were first-generation college students…, and 59% of these students were also the first sibling in their family to go to college.” With that being said, the sheer prevalence of first-generation college students indicates the need for thorough conversations about how to best support this emerging student demographic. However, other aspects of national data also indicates the importance of this, particularly since first-generation college students face distinct challenges in comparison to their continuing generation peers. Financial Challenges for First-Generation College Students One such challenge is the lower levels of familial financial support that first generation college students have access to. While continuing generation students reported a median familial income of $90,000, the median for the families of first generation college students was reported at just over $40,000. As such, the financial support system for first generation college students is often more tenuous, and this may result in a series of other challenges, such as not being able to afford course materials and emergency expenses that can arise throughout one’s college career. In addition to the practical realities that such a stark disparity creates, first-generation students also report higher rates of utilizing financial aid resources in comparison to their continuing generation peers.[3] While the need for access to financial aid is not surprising given the median familial income of first-generation college students, research suggests that this student demographic is more likely to lack the financial literacy skills to make fully informed decisions during the process of obtaining a student loan. Disparities Among the Use of On-Campus Resources Another major challenge facing first-generation college students is a lower usage rate of on-campus resources, including but not limited to health, advising, and academic support. Regarding health services, 14% of first-generation college students report using said services in comparison to 29% of continuing generation students. Additionally, a similar trend emerges in relation to academic advising services with a nearly 20% difference between the two groups. And finally, there is a marginally smaller percentage of first-generation college students that use academic support services, such as tutoring assistance. In short, major areas of on-campus support networks are often less utilized by first-generation college students in relation to their peers. Such differences may exist for a number of reasons, like the inability to access the resources, lack of awareness of the services, and more Considerations to Better Support First-Generation College Students While these challenges are a reality facing first-generation college students across the country, there are also a number of considerations that faculty and staff can make to ensure that they are better supporting these students. First and foremost, making sure that your resources and support structures are accessible and visible is key, as this will aid students in learning about and then accessing the services. Additionally, higher education professionals can also work to remove administrative and bureaucratic barriers that might create additional impediments to first-generation college students. And finally, our institutions can, more broadly speaking, provide more training opportunities for faculty and staff to better learn about the realities of being a first-generation college student. While this short list of considerations is simply a starting point to better responding to the challenges that first-generation college students often face, continued improvement will be necessary, and this will become increasingly important in the coming years, considering the rising enrollment numbers of this student demographic across the country.

Divya Mathew

Creating Experiential Learning Opportunities In Any Course

Creating Experiential Learning Opportunities in Any Course The terms rigor and relevance have rocketed to the forefront of K-12 education initiatives over the past 10 years, and with good reason. Research has shown that students, when allowed to apply the cognitive information they learn through meaningful experiences, connect deeper with the material and enjoy the classroom experience more . When we take a deeper look at when experiential learning opportunities are used, they are typically reserved for higher level classes that include service learning and internships that lead to a high impact experience. However, when we look at the definition of experiential learning, the concept is not as difficult to integrate in all experiences. Integrating Experiential Learning Experiential learning can be “defined in terms of an instructional model, which begins with the learning engaging in direct ‘experience’ followed by reflection, discussion, analysis and evaluation of the experience” . Based largely on the work of David Kolb, experiences outside the classroom give students opportunities to apply their knowledge, but also increase motivation of students by showing their relevance to real-life situations through reflective process. Seven years ago, I transitioned to the college classroom from my work in K-12 education. I observed many professionals very rooted to the tradition of teaching using lecture and other direct instructional methods as the only pedagogical approach to classroom learning. I wanted to challenge myself to have students involved in experiential learning, and have that be the crux of all my courses. Now, I have identified a sequence based on Kolb’s Learning Cycle that will incorporate experiential learning in my classes and help embed the objectives of a course by creating contacts in the community. Figure 1. Kolb’s Learning Cycle (www.pugetsound.edu, 2020) The Seven Sequence Process The first part in this process is to identify learning objectives that you believe to be at the heart of your course. These are the higher order objectives that build upon the lower level knowledge that students have already received in the course. These typically fall in Bloom’s Taxonomy of applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating. Within my courses, I tend to look for learning targets I know to be essential in students’ careers, and something they can create and use in the future, if possible. Utilizing the Backward Design Model, I then create an assessment that focuses on the Active Experimentation phase for students, which allows them to practice the skills they have witnessed and reflected upon in a meaningful way. This could be through teaching a community-based lesson, launching a marketing campaign or business model, field research projects, or teaching a lesson through community partners, such as a local preschool or Special Olympics. The third step is to arm students with the fundamental knowledge necessary to understand the experience they are about to observe. These objectives typically consist of the lower level of Bloom’s Taxonomy objectives, and relate to what I want students to experience. This step may take a class period or more, depending on the amount of baseline information necessary. The fourth step involves the first stage of Kolb’s learning cycle, which includes a concrete, observable experience. This process involves allowing students to see what the concept is in practice and provides them with an opportunity to frame—in their own minds—what a desired result looks like. The fifth step asks the students, within 24 hours after their observation, to reflect on the experience. Last year, I moved away from a written reflection because of the work I saw being done in my daughters’ school, which utilized the Seesaw app. With this app, follow up questions and/or rubrics can be embedded utilizing the app and video, or by using voice-over reflections. I found that my students really enjoyed having the opportunity to reflect via video. The sixth step requires students to create a 30-second elevator speech on how the observational experience helped them understand the objective more clearly. In this process, they must take what they observed and compare it to their background knowledge of the concept to create their own abstract understanding. I find in this phase that students will commonly say things like, “Well they were able to do this, but I didn’t see this concept at all. I wonder why.” It is in these moments that they realize what happens in real life is not as easily scripted as it is in the classroom or other closed environments. Discussions then occur within groups of four where they share their 30-second speech, and compare and contrast their findings. The seventh step involves my favorite part of the process, which is to have them plan out their own experiential plan. What would they do that was similar? What would they do differently in that situation? It is in this designing/creating stage that students gain the confidence to attack a real-life situation with confidence from the experiences and reflections they have encountered. It is in this planning phase that students enjoy discussing big ideas with one another and creating new ways to solve issues, and also begin to develop confidence in their abilities. In some cases, this can be the final step of the process, where the planning experience is the final assessment of their learning. However, when I can, I reach back out to the community contact and see if there is a way in which the student can put their plan into action. More often than not, this is possible. Additionally, if I can, we go through the cycle again, but with the student as the leader. The conversations that are created during these opportunities and the feedback from students after the experience has prompted me to find experiential learning in all courses, no matter the level. In a time where human interactions are decreasing and virtual experiences increasing, experiential learning can help students build confidence and the reflective skills necessary in today’s workforce.

Umaprasad Venktesh
Chemistry Teacher

Educating The Digital Native: Teaching Students In A Binge-watching World

Educating the Digital Native: Teaching Students in a Binge-Watching World No matter your specific discipline, teaching in the 21st century can often feel like you need an advanced degree in IT if you want to reach your students. After all, the majority of students are millennials or Generation Z, meaning most of them grew up with some form of technology in their hands. The theory that the best—really the only—way to get through to these digital natives is to speak their language, the language of tech, sounds plausible, but is it accurate? What is the best way to teach students in a binge-watching world? It’s Not About the Tech Whether you’re a veteran educator or you’re just getting your feet wet in the classroom, it can sometimes feel as though leaning heavily on tech in your teaching is the only option. There’s so much hype today surrounding the “technology-enhanced” classroom, anything less than a wholehearted leap onto the ed-tech bandwagon can seem like an abnegation of your responsibility to your students. But that is the danger. As Samuel Buemi discusses, amid all this fervor over screens and apps and VR, it’s far too easy to get misdirected, inadvertently focusing more on the technology than on the student. Besides, as anyone who taught before the digital revolution fully took hold knows, technology is by no means the only way to build connections with your students or to do productive, even life-changing, work in your classroom. Sometimes, you can go further with a stack of index cards or a pair of dice than you can with the coolest, most state-of-the-art gadget. It’s Never All or Nothing Of course, taking a bit of a step back from all the fervor doesn’t mean renouncing tech altogether. You may very well have a student riot on your hands if you tried. However, it does mean using tech more conscientiously and more deliberately. It means embracing strategies and systems that truly do seem to provide a measurable advantage over more traditional methods. For example, studies show that students learn more efficiently and retain information better if they develop some sort of emotional connection with the material. Technology can be immensely powerful in helping students achieve this emotional response, such as old-school film adaptations that can humanize Shakespeare for students struggling to connect with Elizabethan English. Or consider today’s innovations in virtual reality, that could, for instance, enable your class to “walk” together through the internal systems and structures of the human body. The Greatness of Gamification In addition to using tech to help your students connect emotionally with challenging content, tech can also be a great way to make your classroom more interactive. In fact, this is probably the attribute that has received the most attention in recent years. While we certainly don’t subscribe to the hyperbolic claims of ed-tech as some sort of teaching panacea, there seems to be little doubt about the efficacy of gamification in learning. There’s an old teaching aphorism that the student can’t really be said to have truly learned the content until they can use the material in some way. This is what gamification allows: students can use gamification technology to systematically master highly complex material, charting their progress through incrementally greater levels of difficulty. Students can be rewarded, both inside and outside of the game, for persevering through and ultimately overcoming learning content challenges at each gaming level. Best of all, the social nature, along with the surge of competition, can be particularly motivating for students, helping them to engage with material that was presented from a textbook page or classroom lecture. The Takeaway Teaching is one of the greatest, and one of the most difficult, professions there is. It is a calling of the heart. But to serve today’s students well, it is incumbent upon teachers to understand if, when, and how to incorporate technology into the classroom. While some measure of technology is not only beneficial, but necessary, for optimizing the education of today’s digital natives, it must be used with care, deliberation, and strategy if the reality is to live up to the promise.

Umaprasad Venktesh
Chemistry Teacher

Leading Our Classes Through Times Of Crisis With Engagement And Peace

Leading Our Classes Through Times of Crisis with Engagement and PEACE The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has caused a fast and radical shift across colleges and universities to remote and online teaching models.  As such, our face-to-face courses have been taken out of the physical classroom and thrust into virtual domains.  While many instructors are fluent and may prefer online teaching practices, others are struggling to rapidly expand their skill sets and become fluent in technologies they have never, or perhaps only briefly, explored. Although this transition to a remote teaching and learning format is uncomfortable for many of us, it has been inspirational to witness the collaborations that have emerged as a result of this pandemic.  More specifically, in order to support these hasty efforts to move teaching online, a variety of communities of instructors have emerged to provide guidance, advice, tutorials, and other resources to help themselves and their colleagues achieve “good enough-ness” in continuing to teach their students. The recent emphasis on logistical resources and teaching-related information is understandable.  Anecdotal accounts abound of instructors experiencing great anxiety at having been directed simply to “put classes online”, and these resources and information can help alleviate that anxiety and empower instructors to keep teaching.  What has received less attention, however, has been discussion of how we as instructors should lead our students and inspire them in this time of emergency.  Indeed, it is important to remember that while this is a new and unsettling experience for us, this is an equally new and unsettling experience for our students. How we address these changing circumstances to our students will markedly impact their own reactions.  We have an opportunity to use our teaching personas, philosophies, and practices to both help our students understand and manage the gravity of this current crisis and reassure them that we have some control, even in this uncertain situation, to create positive personal and professional experiences through our continuing academic connections.  Below, we provide recommendations for how we can use our teaching personas, philosophies, and practices to lead our students during this crisis. Acknowledge, and accept, that things are different now for us and our students.  We could not anticipate the essentially universal transition to remote learning models.  Many instructors do not want to teach online, and many students do not want to learn online.  We are justified not only in our frustrations caused by this transition, but also in our desire to commiserate briefly with colleagues about how difficult and scary this will be.  But rather than focus on the negative, we recommend that instructors immediately transition to discussing with their students how they are ready to accept and lean into these changes.  As instructors, we have the unique opportunity here to provide guidance, excitement, and inspiration about the changes we are facing.  We have the opportunity to communicate with our students the value of this modified educational experience, which is a much more effective use of our time and skills than grieving about how things were or could/should have been. Show your students that you will be reasonable and empathetic.  Once you have acknowledged the changes and guided your students to accept that these changes will happen, you have the opportunity to reassure your students that, at least academically, things will be okay.  Explicitly state to your students that you will shepherd them through this difficult time by making changes to their academic experience that are reasonable and fair.  Share with them your empathy to their experiencing potential crises in many domains of life.  Your student athletes may have had their seasons cancelled.  Your senior students may not see their friends again or experience walking across the stage to receive their diplomas at graduation.  Your students, or their family or friends, may be impacted directly by COVID-19.  Let them know that you recognize that your class is not the only responsibility or concern they have right now, and let them know that they can trust you to continue to promote their learning and academic success through this difficult time. Model engagement, optimism, and PEACE for your students.  Our teaching philosophy is called “Trickle Down Engagement,” and is based on the idea that instructors’ engagement in the course and the content will impact students’ engagement, and ultimately, will facilitate their learning.  Our Trickle Down Engagement teaching philosophy is based on theories of self-determination, intrinsic motivation, positive psychology, and emotional contagion, and our data supports this link between instructor engagement, student engagement, and student learning.  We believe that in times of crisis, instructors have the unique opportunity to model their engagement intentionally and palpably to their students to guide and inspire them through that crisis.  Instructors have the opportunity to model acceptance of and optimism about the situation.  Further, instructors have the opportunity to bring PEACE to their students.  In saying this, we mean not only that instructors can promote a sense of calm, reassurance, and positivity to their students  while teaching remotely, but PEACE is an acronym the describes the teaching persona they should make apparent to their students all the time. Instructors should explicitly manifest the attributes of Preparation, Expertise, Authenticity, Caring, and Engagement to their students.  By doing so, instructors can use their teaching personas intentionally to inspire their students to persevere through the challenges we currently face. The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken the world and will fundamentally change how we face many aspects of life.  The transition of education to remote teaching models has been and will continue to be difficult for instructors and students.  While this pandemic is temporary, we may make permanent impressions on our students by focusing on more than how to deliver our content in online modalities.  We as instructors have unique opportunities to use our teaching personas, philosophies, and practices to inspire our students to keep learning, especially as we keep teaching in engaging and PEACE-ful ways. 

Mrigankasekhar Meenakshisundaram
English teacher

Eight Steps For A Smoother Transition To Online Teaching

Eight Steps for a Smoother Transition to Online Teaching As universities rush to get all their courses online quickly, there’s a high probability of error but also a lot you can do to succeed. Problems may occur due to overtaxed technological infrastructure, yourstudents’ disorientation and fear, and your own learning curve. On the positive side, you learn for a living, so you are good at it! Being open to the current crisis-driven educational opportunity is a call to action. The reputation and integrity of your institution—and you!—depends upon your offering engaging online classes. (No pressure.) Below are a few tips to get you started. Be a Learner:  You’re used to being an expert. But now you may be facing a situation where you aren’t an expert. For most of your students, taking all their classes fully online will be a new experience. If it’s new to you as well, don’t be afraid to let your students know that you are learning with them. Keep a beginner’s mindset. You don’t have to have all the answers. Just know how to point your students in the right direction. There are many free resources online to help out. And as you would tell your students, there are no stupid questions. Ask away. Do a Google search, check in with IT, phone a friend, or ask your students. They will be happy to help if you make it clear that having a great online course is a group project. Use Technology as a Means to an End: Don’t confuse technology with teaching. The goal is to use technology to facilitate engaging and effective teaching and learning. Know that technology’s tools of engagement (like discussion boards, wikis, journals, blogs, etc.) are just that—tools, not the engagement itself. What is the secret sauce? You are! Along with the community of learners that includes your students, your fellow faculty members, and every teacher on the internet! An LMS or Zoom can’t stand in for a trusted advisor, mentor, or experienced subject-matter expert like you. If you are new to online teaching, take it slow initially, but don’t leave out engagement. Don’t be “the Man (or Woman) Behind the Curtain.” High “instructor presence”—the feeling that an instructor is still present in an online educational experience—is more critical now than it has ever been. Log into your course every day. Yes, every day. You don’t have to promise a 24-hour turnaround for responses. In fact, that will quickly exhaust you. A 48-hour turnaround response time is typical. But do respond to your students’ posts if you have a discussion board.  Set expectations of when you will and won’t be available. Don’t make Sunday night off-limits if you have an assignment due on Monday. That’s not fair. Make use of group communications, like the announcement function in your LMS, to touch base with your students every few days. Instructor presence is established when your students feel that you are there for them. It doesn’t have to be 24/7, but your students will miss you! So, stay in touch.   Know the Gotcha’s: Partner with IT to determine the top five to six technical issues that students are likely to encounter when accessing a course online. This may be a forgotten password, a pop-up blocker, or a browser issue. Educate yourself around what the issues could be because students will turn to you for technical support. To avoid spending more time troubleshooting technical problems than teaching your content, develop FAQs or links to websites or videos that provide solutions to the most common problems. You don’t have to become a programmer to intervene effectively on technical matter. You just need to tell people where they can find good information. Encourage all students to help one another, as well. If you begin to feel bogged down or frustrated with tech support questions, remember that you want to help. It’s part of the reason you chose this profession! Promote Engagement: In a pinch, there may be an impulse to use the LMS as a content repository: upload all the relevant docs, schedule a lecture in Zoom, and voila you have an online course! But such a course will not promote lasting change—as you would expect your classroom course to do. As you construct your class—even if it’s on the fly—ask yourself if your expected learning outcomes will be achieved. Avoid the trap of choosing “coverage” over engagement. Let students take turns week to week leading online discussions, either via Zoom or on the discussion board. Add peer-to-peer support, try virtual group work, and provide frequent opportunities for feedback. You don’t have to be technologically inclined to let your students know that you care about what they have to say. Upskill, Upskill, Upskill. Just as you shouldn’t overemphasize the role of technology in this educational moment, you don’t want to underplay it either. Everyone (faculty, administrators, and students) will need to upskill themselves in educational technology quickly. There are many free resources out there to get you started. Check out LinkedIn (which merged with Lynda.com) to find short videos on how to work in an LMS. If your university’s IT department is overloaded, take matters into your own hands by using OERs (Open Educational Resources). OERs provide a wealth of information and resources (such as videos, articles, examples, case studies, rubrics) and other things useful for you and your students. Creative Commons is a good place to start, and YouTube has some very helpful videos, as well. Survey Often and Early. Survey your students about how it is going early into your tenure as an online instructor. Fear not. You can handle the truth!  Quick surveys are a way to take the temperature of the room, a sense of the meeting. They provide an early warning system. The point is not to give yourself a grade but to find out which students are struggling and what they are struggling with. A simple 3-question questionnaire will do. Use a tool like Survey Monkey if you don’t know how to set up a survey in your LMS. Ask simple open-ended questions like: “What is the best thing about this experience so far? What would you do differently? How can I help?” An instructor may be unaware that half of the class can’t access one of the assignments because of a pop-up blocker or some other easy-to-fix issue. Believe it or not, communicating with your students online may give you the opportunity to be more connected to them as individuals. Keep it Simple. Think of your first online course as Version 1.0. Remember that the first time out of the gate won’t be perfect. Long past the national health crisis, there’s likely to be a version 2.0 and 3.0. Keep track of what you “wish you had known” as you go through the rest of the semester, and plan to use these nuggets of knowledge in future online courses. If you don’t have time to make videos, post your PPTs. If you don’t have PPTs, post your notes. If you don’t have notes, dictate your expertise into an audio recording application (such as VoiceThread) or just use your phone to create an audio (MP3) or video (MP4) file. All of this being said, don’t be too hard on yourself. You are, after all, making the plane while flying it! Allow yourself to make mistakes. Experiment. Have fun. You know this teaching-with-technology thing has been on your to-do list for a long time. So, let this be the opportunity you’ve been waiting for. You are not alone. The whole world—your students, their parents, your colleagues, and your family and friends—are pulling for you right now. Our higher education system depends not upon your technical expertise, but your pedagogical passion. Keep your love of teaching front and center while you learn this important 21st century skill!