John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Why Can’t We Do the Cool Stuff?

November 20, 2013John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

This is one of the most compelling questions I have had posed to me by a student in a long, long, time. And I am thankful for it and to him. A word about the student who raised this with me and the institution where the student is enrolled.

Last week I had the privilege of visiting what was to me a very exciting place: Nevada State College (NSC), located in Henderson, a city of 250,000 just south of Las Vegas. NSC was founded and opened in 2001 so they are only 12 years old. They have hired the cream of faculty and professional staff coming out of our finest graduate schools. In contrast to many institutions I might visit, a consequence of the relative youth of this institution is that the median age of faculty at given professorial rank, of the department chairs, and many other categories of personnel is significantly younger. And a consequence of that is that many educators get an important shot at major leadership roles relatively earlier age wise than I would customarily see at other places. The College is the only publicly supported baccalaureate level college in the state. It is committed at all levels and contexts to achieving the goal of equity and for our larger society, the overarching goal of “social justice”…their phrase officially. The College is an open access institution (with the exception, for example, of their highly competitive -admissions Nursing program, a key need for the state and a significant factor in the founding of the College).

Nevada State College is a member of a national pilot cohort of twelve colleges and universities engaged for the next three years in a project provided by the non-profit organization I lead, which we have dubbed “Gateways to Completion®”, G2C®. While I was on campus one of the many stimulating sessions I had was a focus group with students, all undergraduates as per the undergraduate mission of the College. The only factors all students had in common was that all were academically successful, and most had had some experience with undergraduate faculty/student research.

The student who raised with me the question about “cool stuff” was the President of the Student Government Association who narrated his life journey that brought him to and now making his way through the College. Specifically, he had moved as a single father, at age 25, with a small child, from Louisiana to Nevada, to live with a sister, and to, hopefully, find employment. Arriving at the bottom of the Great Recession, finding employment was an extreme challenge. One day he had signed up for eligibility as a day laborer but was not successful in securing work. He had heard about the College and so the same day he came to the College to apply and begin the advising/registration process. Because he was late in that process he did not register for the full diet of traditional gateway course fare. Instead, he had the good fortune to enroll for one of his courses into one that focused on the use of film to study and learn cultural ethnography. He described this course and the impact of its professor on him as “life transforming.”

This student body president went on to argue that he thought an overarching goal for this college, and any college, ought to be the creation of gateway courses that would be “life transforming.” Of course, idealist that I am, I would and did agree. In the process of asking him to elaborate on his “life transforming” experience, he summarized his academic experience in this initial course as representing “the cool stuff.” It was then that he posed to me the nettlesome question as to why more beginning college students couldn’t be exposed to “the cool stuff” in their traditional gateway courses, and I came up way short in response.

Actually, there were really two compelling questions on the table: 1) what constitutes a “life transforming experience” that could be provided in the context of a credit bearing course in the first term of a new college student’s experience? and 2) what constitutes “cool stuff” that would be the triggers in such a course for a “life transforming” experience?

At the risk of doing these outstanding students less than complete justice in the reporting of their insights and ideas, this is part of what I walked away with:

“Cool stuff” includes a very close relationship between a faculty member and a student that ultimately effects the student’s motivation and sense of purpose for her/himself in higher education

“Cool stuff” is highly interactive

“Cool stuff” yields increased self-understanding for students

“Cool stuff” has some entertainment/stimulation value

“Cool stuff” asks students to make meaningful applications of the course content to what interests them (reflection)”

“Cool stuff” helps them understand and cope with the world in which they live

“Cool stuff” is more likely to characterize upper division coursework

“Cool stuff” is not primarily what the professor says in lecture

“Cool stuff” involves what the student does more than what the professor does

“Cool stuff” involves direct, regular, intentional, structured, academic and personal feedback from the professor to the student

“Cool stuff” is not anecdotal, coincidental: it is institutionalized and involves many faculty in all disciplines, and is encouraged, facilitated and rewarded by the institution

“Cool stuff” is what first-year students need in gateway courses and should not be held in reserve as a reward for the survivors to experience only if and when they make it to the upper levels

And a “life transforming” experience in a gateway course context involves:

  • a student realizing some kind of epiphany, at least one insight that leads to a voluntary decision to make major behavioral change decisions
  • a relationship with a professor of great influence
  • realizing a significantly increased sense of purpose and motivation to apply to this particular higher education setting
  • an awareness of what is happening to oneself in such an experience and an accompanying sense of gratitude to the institution and those people who were instruments of the transformation
  • an experience where what the student thought was a “means” to the end of degree attainment and improved employment opportunities has become an “end” in and of itself with significant intrinsic value

So what did I learn from this focus group?

  • that I can’t ask the students too often
  • that they often can phrase the most compelling questions better than I
  • that educational environments like Nevada State College are unique because they are intentionally designed for the students who actually attend them, and they respect and honor those students
  • that we can transform and successful educate at the college level students who come from highly disadvantaged backgrounds
  • that my challenge in our Gateways to Completion process is to raise the perceived significance of gateway courses so that more students experience “cool stuff” in these courses and reap the kinds of benefits I saw at Nevada State College

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