IF [in] my Freshman Seminar works…

September 20, 2009

IF [in] my Freshman Seminar works…

September 20, 2009

Thanks, Michael, for your postings. I read them and enjoyed them, and have decided to follow your lead.

I had my first IF discussion session last Wednesday. My class is a Freshman Seminar with 24 students. I met them two weeks ago, but decided to wait before I organized the groups. My first assignment was to choose the “animal spirit” they wanted to guide them in college, and their answers were “revealing”: most males chose predators; most women chose domesticated animals…

I considered their SAT scores, performance in two class quizzes, their gender, and animal spirit to organize groups, and made sure there was at least one high-achiever in each one. This proved to be a VERY good thing — thanks for the suggestion, Jack! The class has many students taking basic-skills courses, and all the high-achievers assumed the role of facilitators in the first discussion of their groups. I did not ask them to do it, they simply “took over” and were excellent models for others.

The groups have 5 students, instead of 6 to 8, because the students seem so young! I have tried organizing a group of 7 for a class activity before and the outcome was chaotic: some were behaving like clowns and others like clams… I thought I was in High School.

Our first experience went well. I started the class by modeling the facilitator role. Since the class is exploring the “public value of higher education,” I started the discussion by asking, “What value does college have for you?” Initially many were quiet, but gradually they opened up. Many talked first about the economic value, and gradually shifted to other areas (social, cognitive, etc.). I wrote notes on the flip chart as they talked to show them what they were expected to do. Then I asked them to decide who would play this and the note-taker role on the rounds to come.

The class then split into small groups and they started discussing the “public” value of higher education — why would a society or government want college-educated people? At the beginning the discussions moved slowly, but gradually they picked up. Most facilitators filled about one flip chart page before the groups went into a lull. When I asked them to frame the question differently — why wouldn’t a society or government provide more funds for higher ed? — the discussions picked up. It was interesting to notice that these young kids could only see the “positive” value of college; they did not propose contrasting positions until pushed to do so. By the end of class, the students were fully engaged in discussion! It was good!!!

I opened an online discussion forum for each group (on Blackboard) and asked the assigned note-takers to post summary reports ASAP. We will see how these go… I fear a bit the upcoming session, to be honest: do these young minds have enough ideas to debate? Not sure…

The tripods were a big flop. I bought some that seemed sturdy, but the flip charts were too big — my mistake: tried to get the most paper with the least money! Most students stopped using them within 15 minutes. They placed the flip charts on the floor and continued writing on them (while others sat in a circle near them). Fortunately, the class meets in a residence hall and the room offers enough space to form groups.

I have found myself using the IF discussion process in other settings. I used it in two upper-level classes to get students’ input concerning course policies. I split the class into groups; assigned groups different policy areas (e.g. attendance & participation, evaluation of student work, class conduct, etc.) and asked groups to (a) think of concerns; (b) potential approaches to address them; and (c) consequences of contrasting approaches (policies). Students did a pretty good job!

–Maria Villar

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