Sunday, January 18, 2015

Belonging in the classroom

or perhaps "Belonging, in the classroom"

As I mentioned in my last post (continuing a thread of non-tablet-specific pedagogy), one focus we have at Fresno State is ensuring that every individual knows that they belong and that they have our support: we're here to make sure everybody has the tools they need to succeed. We are combating several forces, among which are self-doubt and impostor syndrome. Today, I suggest two approaches to improving the student sense of belonging from day one in the classroom.

To help students, I feel like one of the more important steps to take is to break down walls that might exist between students and faculty. I was inspired by a recent presentation by José Bowen, in which he pointed out that students might not attend office hours because, to some students, the faculty office is the inner sanctum of hell.

To keep my office out of Mordor, I have taken some simple steps. For example, I try not to make intimidating decor choices. Instead, I opt not only for stocking the office with tissues for the occasional sob but also making this necessity a good conversation-starter: I love my tiki tissue box holder!

In genetics class on Friday, I took what I hope is a bigger step: spending the first day of class being a person instead of being a Professor. I avoided the first-day staple of discussing the syllabus, instead asking students to read it and come prepared to discuss at our next class meeting. Instead, we started the term with an active process: free association. I said the word "mutant," and the class responded with terms like, "deformed," "different," "X-men," and so on. Because self-deprecation could be a good way to break down apparent barriers between the Professor and the class, I followed this exercise with an admission that I am a mutant - and we spent a little time discussing how I'm different: I'm color-blind, a result of a genetic mutation. I left it to the class to decide whether I'm deformed. Thus,

Approach 1: it is important to set the mood on the first day of class - make yourself human, and be approachable.

Although I don't (consciously, at least) make course decisions to improve my student ratings of instruction, several lines of evidence (e.g. this study by Pruitt, Dicks and Tilley) suggest that student impressions are set on (or before!) the first day of class and after that won't change much across the semester, no matter what the instructor does. My approach above was intended to combine active processes, a bit of personal introduction about me, and to start making genetics relevant. Doing this, I definitely experienced a different (more genial, relaxed) mood in my classroom this semester than I have when opening with six pages of syllabus.

To continue involving the students, I then wanted to collect some formative information. So I distributed a short, written survey asking:
1) the students' initial impressions of the relevance of genetics to them or to society
2) what topics of genetics are their least favorite

After collecting these, I spent five minutes at the end of class reading aloud to the class some of the responses (anonymously). The goal here was to create an intellectually safe environment in the class by letting other students hear about each others' interests and fears.

Content of some of the select few comments I read aloud, regarding least favorite topics:

  • Punnett squares
  • Meiosis
  • Statistics

These are perennial least-favorites, so there was no surprise to me here. One could argue that I wasted time by conducting a formative assessment when I already suspected the response. However, the goal here was formative assessment for the students' sake! I wanted them all to hear that others in the class have the same misgivings about genetics.

Importantly, I was ready with responses to give to the entire class: that I had planned additional time into the syllabus so that we would go deliberately through these essential topics in genetics. We would set the groundwork understanding and using Punnett squares. We only have to use one statistical test during the term, it is used in multiple scenarios across the term, and we have plenty of time to become familiar with it. In sum,

Approach 2: engage students immediately to help students help each other feel intellectual belonging

Hopefully these approaches prove successful, which I'll be evaluating by assessing two outcomes:
Increased student presence at my office hours and sustained attendance in class.

Update (19 Jan.): after I posted the above, a student happened to e-mail me, writing, "…Thank you for helping me to calm my nerves on the first day of class. I didn't know how to approach this class or the heavy subject but your lecture made me excited for this class." Perfect validation - even helping one student means success in my book!

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