John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Higher Educators Going Back to Class

John N. Gardner

There are moments when I would like to think that every college and university has got their first-year seminar down pat. After all, this course genre has been around since 1982. But, not at all. This course type is so dynamic that many institutions are constantly rethinking this course, as they should be.

The course should be a metaphor for the larger host institution. The course should change as the country changes, the students change, the institution changes. This is so because this is the one course in the curriculum that is all about both the institution and the student—their interface and what happens or can happen when you put the two together. I rarely see an institution go about this rethinking process with sufficient intentionality.

I have recently come to observe one university’s approach to first-year seminar redesign. This is Missouri State University West Plains. How are they approaching this? They are sending their faculty and staff back to class to redesign the class. What does this mean?

It means that first of all, the University appointed a task force that will spend an entire academic year redesigning this course. Who’s on the task force? Faculty, librarian, student affairs, admissions, IT, advising staff, academic department chairs, an instructional designer, the current course leader, an IR professional, the current course director, and Title III staff, 17 people all together. An ideal size group for expertise and multiple perspectives, balance.

And how have they organized this process? Well, just like a class. Actually, it is more like a seminar. I would define a seminar as a learning group where all members are more or less equal in their influence on the rest of the group. All members are to be teachers of the group. All members are learners. All get to speak. They have a syllabus. They have a convener. They have a set of questions they are pursuing on topics they have decided they want to learn more about. They have collected a treasure trove of resource literature. They have made each other assignments. Each will teach all what was learned in the homework. They have created an intentional division of labor with specialized responsibilities. They will also visit some other institutions to observe alternative models. And they are going to several national conferences to further their learning.

They have decided to have fun in the learning process. Each one listens politely to the rest of the group members. And they are punctual and willing to honor the value of each other’s time by showing up on time, and getting right down to business. And they are being paid a stipend for taking this task so seriously. How’s that for a work environment? Institutions invest in what they value.

Ultimately, one of the most important things this group will do is to decide what it wants to learn, what questions it wants to pursue. So they are starting by asking:

  • Who are the students we are serving? What do we really know about them?
  • What do we know about the multiple course versions our institution has had over 17 years?
  • What has worked well, we are satisfied with, ain’t broke, and doesn’t need fixing? How do we honor our past, particularly the hard work of our course leaders, while at the same time being free to move forward in new directions if we should so choose?
  • How can we assess the effectiveness of our multiple previous and current versions of this course?
  • When we have determined all of the above, what do we want the purposes of our new course to be?
  • How will it connect to the institutional mission?
  • Once we have accomplished the above, this will drive what we want our goals and objectives to be.
  • In turn that will drive course content and pedagogies for delivery.
  • How do we get student input on what they think they need, what has worked, what might work in the future?
  • How do we keep our colleagues not in this redesign process apprised of our process?
  • How do we begin preparing the administration of the directions we are moving and the resources we will need?

And these are only the starting questions. I suspect that once again this process will prove that the questions are more important than the answers.

I wish this kind of process were underway for all first-year seminars.

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