Just Don't Lie to Them

I decided to use Ken Bain's What the Best College Students Do as the text in my Spring semester first-year seminar.  This is a one credit freshmen course in which students get the continued support they need to stay on track.  For years we dropped freshmen after the first semester.  They got 16 weeks of support and orientation and then they were out the door and on their own.  The new core, however, assures that advisors have good contact with their students at least once a week through the entire first year.

I like using Bain's book, too, but mainly because he avoids the usual claptrap and lies about how to be a successful in college.  He doesn't tell you how many hours you should be studying for how many hours you sit in class (a widely-spouted statistic that isn't even believed by the professors who say it).  Nor does he offer note-taking gimmicks or tricks for figuring out the answer on multiple choice tests.  I mean, really.  The moment we talk about such things is the moment we lose them.  They know it's a lie.

Instead, Bain delves into the research about what we really do know about deep learning.  More importantly, he gives students some ways of determining whether a professor or a course is worthwhile to them in terms of what really matters.  Here, for example, are some of the questions that Bain thinks students ought to ask when determining which professors or courses to take.
  • Is the course clearly organized around identifiable questions to be answered or abilities to be mastered, and does it help students to see the importance, beauty and intrigue of these questions and abilities?
  • Does the course allow students to engage in those higher order thinking activities in pursuit of those questions or abilities, receive feedback and then try again before anyone "grades" their work?  Do students have a chance to collaborate with others struggling with the same questions, problems or abilities?
  • Does the classroom encourage speculation and an opportunity to exercise new skills even before students are well-versed in a discipline?
  • Does the course challenge existing ways of thinking and seeing the world?
  • Does the instructor truly believe in the students' ability to grow and develop their dynamic powers of mind?
There are others, but these are darned good ones to ask, especially on the first day after students have been frog-marched through the syllabus policies and the professor perfunctorily asks, "Now then, any questions?" 

After all, there's still time to switch sections.


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