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.