by Ann M. Pearson
I heard it again this year. That part-anxious, part-excited chatter all over campus on the first day of classes. College isn’t the same as lower grades where everyone makes a big deal out of the first day of school. Nonetheless, looking at the clusters of old friends and lone students feigning nonchalance, I concluded these college students also felt that unnamed anticipation of a new beginning. Everyone is at the starting line with so much potential. No one begins an endeavor that is as expensive and time-consuming as college can be with the desire to quit and fail. So why does that happen?
We’re all so busy with our important roles at the College, it can be far too easy to forget to listen to our students; as an administrator and a part-time faculty member, I have to make listening a priority. We need to listen deliberately to determine why all that first-day optimism and enthusiasm isn’t still pushing students forward to completion.
Many students silently wander off the college path despite their initial anticipation for the challenge and promise of higher education. Most grapple with the transition to a college setting that assumes students are responsible for the majority of their own learning and progress. The Students’ Voices Project initiated at San Jacinto College calls for faculty from all disciplines to address the critical issue that students often cannot articulate why they do not succeed—whether on an individual assignment or for an entire course.
As new participants in complex disciplines, many students feel lost. They don’t know what they don’t know and certainly can’t describe the problems they have adapting to the work of college. Students who learn mindfulness combined with self-reflection experiences can be more deliberate learners. And faculty can develop strategies and assess the incoming student reflections to reinterpret course design and class structure.
The Student Voices Project goal is to improve student success as well as to hone teaching design and delivery through the inclusion of carefully planned and strategically timed classroom activities for students to reflect on their strengths and challenges in particular disciplines. Students discover how to discuss methods they have found helpful in working with difficult material while building communities of learners. Faculty then lead students to develop the necessary skills to employ effective strategies through routine events in the classroom. The project provides a brief time of intense communication about the most important element of the course—learning. Content that students do not understand and assimilate—no matter how well prepared by faculty—does not contribute to academic success. Students must have a voice to explain what they do know and to name what they can and cannot do along the way, and faculty must hear this voice. Without this specific reflection and response model, many intelligent and able students will continue to struggle, and a significant number of these frustrated students will not accomplish their original goals of college success and completion.
Faculty from various disciplines are implementing creative methods to listen and respond actively to their students’ voices while simultaneously addressing high academic standards of rigor for discipline-specific content and student engagement. The focus is on asking students for brief, specific information that is both timely and relevant. The artifacts faculty have gathered include sketched interpretations of complex philosophical treatises and before/after reflections on an early science exam. Upon comparing their projected test scores and the actual grades, students can reflect on how well they anticipated their level of preparation and/or how they could improve their study habits in the future. So far, the results are promising. The dichotomy between what faculty expect and what students deliver is under serious examination, and through deliberate collaboration, the gap between the two is narrowing from both sides.
D. Jean Clandinin in Engaging in Narrative Inquiry (2013) explains the crucial importance of assessing personal stories to understand ourselves and move forward: “…narrative inquiries begin and end in the storied lives of the people involved” (p. 18). And yet our students’ stories are so often rough drafts that need the help of experienced editors to present their full potential. The Student Voices Project is just such an editor to help students listen to their own stories while they are writing them. This act of true listening is courageous and unfamiliar for students and faculty alike. Faculty give over some control; students risk the possibility of failure or embarrassment. This is not business as usual.
Speaking only amongst ourselves in general terms about student behaviors and learning may give faculty a broad canvas upon which to consider alternative teaching and learning methods. What this indefinite overview does not provide, however, is accurate and realistic information about the very individuals in each of our sections with their unique personalities, aspirations, and learning histories. These are the voices we need to hear.
Ann M. Pearson is Assistant Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at San Jacinto College (TX), where she’s currently working with Accreditation & Assessment. She was an English faculty member for 25 years, with 7 of those at SJC. She occasionally returns to the SJC English Department as an adjunct faculty member.