Not waving but drowning


Teaching first-year students at my institution is some of the best and the hardest teaching I do.  I said this in a faculty meeting last week and was later given a comeuppance by my provost.  "Why did you say it was hard?  We are trying to get people to volunteer for the First-Year program."   I guess I was just being honest.  The fact is teaching 18-years olds really is hard work.  They are at once earnest, hopeful and--with rare exception--almost completely unrealistic about what it takes to achieve any of their goals.

Two small assignments I've tried to implement in my First-Year Seminar this spring provide a window into the way my students think about school and how to be successful.  This week, for example, I had them complete a goal-setting paper in which they were to define their long-term goal (and how a college degree will help them reach it).  Among the life goals were
  • Make millions of dollars.
  • Become a millionaire Major League Baseball player.
  • Medal in the Olympics.
  • Own a Fortune 500 company.
To be sure there were a some more modest and attainable goals.  And more than one student included the goal of marrying a beautiful spouse or wonderful partner with whom to spend their life and raise a family.  Many simply said they hoped to earn enough to support themselves and their families in a career they enjoyed. 

The second part of the paper had them define semester goals relevant to their larger goal.  These were all wonderful ideas, but they were also roadmaps to failure:
  • I will study 25 hours a week every single week.
  • I will not lose my focus at the end of the semester.
  • I will manage my time better.
  • I will go to bed every night at 10:00 pm so I am not falling asleep in class.
See?  All laudable but destined to fail.  What I discovered is that my students aren't very good goal-setters.  Asking them to set a goal they are bound to fail is demoralizing. It makes them think something is inherently wrong with themselves. So in my comments on their papers, I have been trying to show them how to shrink time-frames and create realistic, attainable goals that can be benchmarked against a few days or one week. 
  • I will study 90 minutes for the course I am most worried about in the next week.
  • I will complete a semester calendar by Friday that lists all of the due dates and assignments so I can identify three periods in the semester where I might want to work ahead.
  • I will record what I do with my time for three days and identify one thing I could change.
  • I will go to bed twice in the next week by 11:00 pm to see if it helps.
Each Monday we will assess progress on these mini-goals.  My hope is that a series of small, measurable successes will give them more mojo than a single bold, ambitious flop.  After we assess our progress, we'll tweak the goal for the week ahead, or abandon it if it doesn't seem to help.

The other idea I am trying this semester has to do with time management, something they all think they need assistance with (and who doesn't?).  So last Monday I asked them to bring in all of their syllabi.  I had them fill out a large calendar that allowed them to see their entire semester on four large sheets laid side by side.  They had to identify the "weeks from hell" or places where assignment due dates collided.  They turned in their calendars to me and I just spent an hour looking through them and making comments like this:
  • Wow, you've got four things due on successive Mondays.  Have you thought about what your are doing the preceding weekends on these dates?  Might be a good idea.  What think you?
  • Hey, look at this Friday before spring break! Three things due. Hope you weren't planning to get away early.
  • Holy cats, look how crazy things get the last two weeks!  Yet the week before looks pretty good.  The calm before the storm, I guess.  Might be a good idea to start that paper in political science a little earlier than you normally might.  What think you?
Tomorrow I'll ask them to respond to these questions.  This means, of course, I really have to pay attention to what's going on their lives this spring, and--let's face it--that's a lot of work.  I don't have to do this with the students in my other classes.  There I operate with the assumption that it's up to them to sink or swim.  The problem is most of my first-year students have never had any swimming lessons. 

No sense standing around watching them drown.


Anonymous said…
it is hard if you're doing it right. same thing for the students - it requires a great deal of work to succeed as a student and it doesn't feel good.

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