The first year is critical – Jane Holbrook

Students leaving campus
Who will stay?

Coming into campus on Monday morning was a shock, but a nice one. We don’t get a lot of downtime on our campus but the last two weeks of August and days leading up to Labour Day are usually pretty sleepy; many folks are on vacation and it’s hard to even find a coffee shop open. The throng that I biked into at the main gates Monday morning at 8:15 was a bit disorderly, but the excitement in the air was electric. And it’s the first year students, all fresh faced and enthusiastic, frantically looking for their classrooms and with high expectations that generate the most excitement.

The first couple of weeks of term are exciting but then, of course, the realities of a five course load, weekly assignments (lab reports, readings …) and then midterms set in and those first year students are often challenged to just make it through first term. Our IAP statistics show that our first year retention rate (percentage of students who return to second year here after first year) is close to 92% (UWaterloo IAP), well above the reported retention rate of 80%  for four-year public US institutions (see National Student Clearing house report ) and higher than most other Ontario universities where retention rates hover around 87% (CUDO – Common University Data Ontario). This isn’t the old case of “look to your right, look to your left, one of you won’t be here next year” that we were admonished with as students in years gone by, but if 1 in 10 students do not return after first year, this is a definite loss to the university community and setback for that young person.

Universities have recognized that students face a number of challenges in their first year and provide orientation programs, peer mentoring, study skills sessions and other supports to help new students handle the emotional and educational transitions that they will be experiencing. However, even with these programs in place, our instructors who teach first year courses have a critically important job ahead of them. Studies show that although a student’s personal situation (family background, economic stresses, etc.) and prior academic performance in high school affect first year retention, student engagement in this critical first year is also a major contributor to student retention (Kuh et al., 2008). Creating rich and engaging classroom experiences for first year students in large classes when students are coming in with a wide range of skills is a challenge, but by integrating active learning into large classes (CTE tip sheet – Activities for Large Classes), considering student motivation (CTE tip sheet – Motivating Our Students) and providing frequent, formative feedback to students, instructors across campus are helping to keep students engaged and successful.

Welcome first year students, and kudos to those great first year instructors who work hard to keep them here!

Kuh, G.D, Cruce, T.M., Shoup, R., Kinzie, J. & Gonyea, R.M. (2008) Unmasking the Effects of Student Engagement on First-Year College Grades and Persistence. The Journal of Higher Education, 79 (5), 540-563.

Classroom Demonstrations for the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences: Don’t Let Physicists Have all the Fun! — Dylon McChesney

chemistry demonstrationIf you have a background in science or engineering, there is a good chance that you took part in a classroom demonstration at some point.  Perhaps in high school you helped your chemistry teacher explode or set something on fire (this is the type of teaching that tends to produce audible gasps).  Or, perhaps, in an introductory level university physics course, you did something riskier, like students who volunteer to lay on a bed of nails while their professor smashes a brick on their chest with a sledge hammer as in this example from Harvard). By the way, don’t try anything like this at home, folks!

When you witness somebody survive the force of a brick-smashing sledgehammer while lying on a bed of nails, something abstract like force suddenly becomes concrete.  Nobody will appreciate this more than the volunteers who find themselves indebted to their professors’ lifesaving knowledge of physical laws.  Such demonstrations clearly promote interactivity in the classroom: rather than passively soak in formula after formula, students become active and engaged with the material.  This is good pedagogy because active learning has many benefits, including increased memory retention. For an extensive review of the benefits, see Prince (2004).

Science and engineering make it natural for teachers to incorporate demonstrations because demonstrations are not that different from experiments.  And while an element of risk might ramp up entertainment value, it is fortunately not essential for promoting active learning.  Most demonstrations don’t require students to sign waivers in case they are harmed.  Regardless of risk factors, physicists (as a paradigmatic example) seem to have an advantage with respect to integrating demonstrations into their classrooms that are both inherently interesting and able to concretize otherwise theoretical material in immediately obvious ways.  In the arts, humanities, and some social sciences, the objects of study are typically more abstract.  Rather than looking at the physical world, students in these fields examine ideas and cultural forces—to the chagrin of some, this subject matter can be difficult to connect to the “real world” and, even more disappointingly for others, does not involve burning, smashing, or blowing anything up.  Demonstrations in the arts are perhaps less natural because the elegant but mindless operations of the natural world are not always directly considered.

The above might look like an excuse, but it’s not.  No matter what you teach, there is going to be some way to involve students in demonstrations, as long as some creative interpretation of the word “demonstration” is allowed.  Teaching economics?  Have some of your students volunteer to make trades (with, say, different pieces of fruit) in order to help them understand Pareto efficiency.  Teaching political science?  Split students into two groups that have to accomplish a co-operative task: one in Hobbes’ state of nature, and the other a sovereign state.  Teaching poetry?  Print out poems you have covered and cut them into pieces, then have volunteers race to reconstruct them based on memory.  Teaching game theory?  Have volunteers play a prisoner’s dilemma involving cookies instead of jail time, and see if player strategies veer away from Nash equilibria over time when outcome information is accessible to each successive set of players.

The possibilities for using demonstrations outside of science and engineering might not be endless, but they are plentiful.  It is to our students’ benefit to incorporate demonstrations and promote active learning, so if you are teaching in the arts, remember that you have access to a wide range of pedagogical tools.  After all, a demonstration is just a way of translating a concept into an experience, which is a central aim of teaching.  So don’t let physicists have all the fun!


Other Resources

Dylon McChesney is a Graduate Instructional Developer in the Centre for Teaching Excellence.

Image courtesy of Penn State News

Launching the new Instructor Resources Repository in the LOR of LEARN

The summer
is a great time for catching up on projects that get lost in the flurry of the busy fall and winter terms. With the roll out of LEARN (replacing UW-ACE) and all the associated changes and transitions that we have been facing, one part of the old UW-ACE system that is in my prevue and that was getting short shrift is the Instructor Resources Repository (IRR). However, with LEARN more on course and the slower pace of the spring term, I’m glad to say that we have almost completed the migration of the IRR to the Learning Object Repository (LOR) in LEARN. Continue reading Launching the new Instructor Resources Repository in the LOR of LEARN