FYS at Midterm

This year’s First Year Seminar is a substantially different ball game in the best possible way. It really is easier the second time around. It’s the power of editing rather than creating from scratch. Filling a blank page is way more difficult than editing something that’s already there, even if what’s there is total crap. I’m much more comfortable as a teacher in this class, and I’m more willing to take some calculated risks. I like to think that I have something to do with how well the class seems to be going so far, but I know that there’s only one of me and 19 of them. They have as much to do with the success of the class as I do. Still, I did a few things at the beginning that I think made a difference.

Early on, I committed to “debunking” my students expectations and fears. I handed out 3×5 cards and asked them to write their expectations of class on one side and their concerns about class on the other. I addressed every comment in class. Two things came up that I thought were especially important to address and then I was very up front about them. Firstly, one student mentioned that he expected class to be very hands-on. There is a constant tension in our FYS classes between the students, who expect class to be about going canoeing and hiking, and their professors, who know that there are learning objectives we’re meant to address. I was clear that class would be very hands-on, but that hands-on doesn’t always look like playing in the woods. Sometimes hands-on means discussion and other times it means group work and still other times it does mean playing in the woods. Second, one student admitted that he feared this class would be a waste of his time. I looked my collective class in the face and told them that if they came in to class thinking that it was a waste of time and there was nothing of value, they undoubtedly would learn nothing and find class to be a waste of their time. If, however, they chose to come to class and to participate and find something of value, well, it might never be their favorite class but it definitely wouldn’t be a waste of their time. I really think this primed them early on to approach class with an open mind. I have had no attendance issues and every student is passing the class. (So far, anyway.)

You can see that I have committed to being very honest and open with my students in challenging them to take charge of their own educational experiences. While we ask our students to do deep reflection in class, it can be very uncomfortable to dig deep in the presence of someone you feel you don’t know very well, so I committed to being personally open with my students, too. On the first day of class, I let them ask me anything they wanted to know about me. I did, of course, keep some appropriate boundaries, but I tried to be a good interviewee and answer the question they asked as well as including any relevant surrounding information. I have also used our out of class experiences such as hikes to have real conversations with students so we get to know each other a bit better. It’s been very personally rewarding, and I think it’s made a difference in class.

I have read a few books in the last year that really helped me to grow into FYS. First up is Discussion as a Way of Teaching by Stephen D. Brookfield and Stephen Preskill. Last year in the final evaluation of the class, my students thought that the discussions were really great. I didn’t agree. I resorted to a lot of think-pair-share with handouts so I could evaluate their contributions for participation and preparedness later and it was basically the same all the time and I was bored with it. This book gives a lot of different suggestions for ways to facilitate real discussions. The book is geared more towards classes which are mostly discussion, which my FYS is not, but there are tons of tips that are applicable to any course with discussion as a component. As a class we created a discussion charter early on to establish norms. While I still use some form of paper record for evaluation, I often change up what happens on the paper. Sometimes small groups are the only discussion. Sometimes I have the small groups come up with discussion questions for the whole class (sometimes on themes pre-determined by me and sometimes not.) Sometimes we just talk as a group. I’ve used their method of having a big framing question on the board for class, as a sort of answer to “why are we doing this?” I’ve also adapted their method of gaining feedback on the previous day’s discussion, called a CIQ  or Critical Incident Questionnaire, for gaining feedback in general.

discussion as a way

I also love and use Gamestorming by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown and James Macanufo. In particular, their approach to affinity walls is something that I love to use for my FYS. I have also used Brainwriting, an approach to brainstorming that is a sort of mash-up between an affinity wall and one-sentence stories, Trading Cards, for getting-to-know-you, and Memory Wall, for wrapping up the semester. The games are divided into categories like Games for Opening, Games for Exploring, and Games for Closing, which is helpful if you’re looking for an activity to fill a niche. The term “game” is kind of a misnomer, though. Really, these are just active learning activities that require that the participants put in at least as much work as the facilitator. In other words, exactly my kind of teaching.


While I haven’t actually read Facilitating Seven Ways of Learning by James Davis and Bridget Arend, I saw Bridget Arend’s keynote at LOEX and promptly put the book on my Amazon wishlist. We all intuitively know that different modes of instruction have different strengths and weaknesses, but rarely do many of us think strategically and critically about the modes we fall into. Lecture is good! For certain things! Service learning is also good! But not for the same things as lecture! I credit her keynote for breaking open a piece of FYS that I knew wasn’t working. I revised by starting with a mode – Problem Based Learning. Add in a community based problem for connecting to the campus community, assign groups for a bit of diversity, slot library instruction neatly in the gaps, and, you guys, I hesitate to say this too loudly but it’s working!

seven ways of learning

I don’t want to celebrate too ecstatically without proverbially knocking on wood, but I’m really happy with my decision to teach FYS again this year. It’s not something I thought I would ever do, but I’ve learned a ton, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity. Would you teach FYS at your college?


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