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How can I better guide a freshman class?

This week my class met again to continue the discussion about the “public value of higher ed”. I was somewhat distressed because most groups had not posted their summary reports despite several reminders (and threats!) In class I learned that all groups had posted their reports but all over the Blackboard (BB) “world”  (BB is our web-based class support system). So, this is perhaps the first challenge I face with  freshmen:  students have little experience of college and are still finding their way. The second (general) challenge: they don’t like to read instructions and explanations in class go from one ear to the next.  Now that I let the steam go off, let me move to lessons from/about IF…

Since I had not read most summary reports, and in my first session I discovered students needed frequent  probing to come up with new ideas and more diverse positions, I thought that a simple, “Continue with last week’s discussion” would not do the job.  Thus, I offered a more specific direction, “What about the role that higher education plays in forming/building ‘good’ citizens? What is a good citizen? Let’s focus on this arena today!”  Whe I saw their blank stares I realized the last question was not going to do the trick. So, I re-worded the instructions: “Imagine that you are the president of a country. What characteristics would you like citizens to have? Who would be the “ideal citizens” of your country, and the  “bad” ones?” Shifting from the abstract to the concrete made a big difference, and the discussion groups finally started to work. They worked for about 30 minutes, filled 1-2 pages of the flip-chart, and then we moved  to another activity. I had invited 4 upper-level students to chat with them about what  they perceived  to be the value of education (based on their college experience).

After class I located/read their summary reports. I noticed that (a) thematic synthesis was an issue, at least at the level of presentation/formatting. Three out of five groups posted long narratives w/o bullet points or even paragraph divisions; the note-takers did not attempt to identify themes.  Since the two groups that  posted materials at the right place on time tried to identify themes, the problem may be that they simply don’t follow/read instructions…  I also noticed that (b) reflecting on the larger, “public” value of education is not as easy for them as reflecting on the personal value of education.  Their narratives stressed more what they personally gained from college than what the society gained from having a college-educated population.

This coming week the class will not be not having an IF discussion because we must attend a library session during class time.  To present, I am feeling positive about the process. The group discussions are keeping the class engaged; students seem animated discussing issues at hand. My biggest concern right now is providing guidance to groups and monitoring their progress.  The tasks of following up what they do/don’t do, of figuring out what students might be gaining from these discussions seem overwhelming and elusive right now. Any ideas on this front?

I will try what Laura suggested, and Michael did — asking them what they think they are getting from it, but I wonder: can you think of a way to probe the large majority who keeps quiet in the large classroom setting? Also, my students are not correcting (or reading!) the summary reports produced by note-takers:  how do I know these synthesis are not their views as opposed to the group’s? I can see myself devoting one session to reviewing reports as a group, but then, what will be left of class time? I can also see myself collecting flip-chart pages to make sure the summary reports are accurate, but my gradingload is already so large… I am working with 5 groups (5 students each) of freshmen who still seem to be in high school… Any ideas on this front?

p.s. Despite the anxiety, I am enjoying it!!!