Empowering Faculty to Retain Students

("Mining" the First and Second-Year General Education Experience)

by Emily Allen Williams

Article content is provided by HigherEdJobs.

Faculty have -- on occasion -- heard some first and second-year students lament that they really dislike their general education courses. Why? The classic response often rests upon students feeling that the classes have little to nothing to do with their course of study; moreover, they pervasively want to delve right into the core courses in their major. And, yes, faculty members also have heard the hallways 'sing' with the line -- "These classes are just boring and a waste of my money!"

Let's begin to look deeper into this student concern as a pipeline to retention and graduation rates via a few questions:

  • How can administrators and faculty help students evolve from "General Education-itis" towards a stronger embrace of the foundational two-year experience?
  • How does evolutionary thinking and implementation of simplistic pedagogical strategies benefit the student -- individually -- and the college/university -- holistically?
  • How can faculty work collaboratively to develop pedagogical strategies that effectively permeate a cohort of new students towards 'mining' their talents and significantly developing their knowledge, skills, and dispositions?
  • How can faculty be trained to become "agents of change" in accelerating the mission of liberal arts institutions while cultivating diverse majors and retaining students towards a marked increase in four to six-year graduation rates?

While there are no quick fixes or definitive pathways to success in these inquiry areas, there are some methodologies that faculty [who teach courses in the general education curriculum] can begin to use towards cultivating latent interests and catalyzing academic enthusiasm in first and second-year students.

When administrators and faculty sit to strategize upon the opening mechanisms of an academic year, too often, some of the simplest strategies for student retention are either not discussed, barely discussed, or totally negated. One of the major areas for cultivating student retention resides in the first and second-year experiences of students in the academy. At this required and wide-ranging disciplinary-based academic level, students have an opportunity to not only 'explore' disciplines but also to maneuver in interdisciplinary manners in classes, seminars, and experiential activities. The first two years at a liberal arts institution are, indeed, the consummate years for building students' reach as humanists while also enabling them to engage closer with basically all major academic disciplines (arts, humanities, business, sciences, etc.) that perhaps they never envisioned as possibilities towards degree completion.

What can faculty do at this amazing level of discovery -- the general education curriculum -- to catalyze the student retention process? Some pioneering colleges and universities in the last decade have significantly refitted their general education curriculum, leading to students being able to explore and maneuver various disciplines while engaging in co-curricular activities. Colleges and institutions that have yet to engage in such a revisionary approach to the general education curriculum may still achieve measures of retention success through intensive training sessions [leading to piloted activities] with general education faculty focusing on the following:

  • Teaching General Education Classes at Synergistic Levels -- Faculty should move pursuant to owning the general education curriculum as 'our' curriculum versus 'my' class in beginning to have a significant impact on students across the institution. Goals, objectives, and student learning outcomes (SLOs) should be reviewed and then redeveloped and embraced, as necessary, by all core teaching faculty. Divergent pedagogical strategies, texts, and materials that are not vetted by faculty and approved by administrators should not slip into the curriculum at the cost of skewed SLOs. New and adjunct faculty must be trained by senior teaching faculty with expertise in teaching the general education curriculum.
  • Requiring an ePortfolio -- Twenty-first century students have a strong affinity for technology and technological devices. A simplistic but highly effective means of engaging students in the learning process is through ePortfolio creation. As an added feature of all general education courses, students could be required to collect all signature assignments (designated by faculty) accompanied by their reflections on those assignments. The format for the ePortfolio would be developed in one of the first and/or keystone general education courses, used throughout the two-year experience, and transition into use for the major. The ePortfolio becomes a dynamic means for students to think actively about and record their goals, curricular, and co-curricular activities.
  • Requiring an International Experience and/or Internship -- One of the major goals in most general education programs is student acquisition of critical thinking and global awareness. At least one to two courses in a general education curriculum will involve studying and understanding of global issues coupled with critical thinking. Incorporating a global study [abroad] and/or internship into the foundation of a student's college/university experience that is tied closely to such courses -- by the end of the second year -- will have reciprocal value for students and faculty. On a broad level, students return to the campus after a semester global study or summer internship and share the experiences in a New Student Forum. On a specific level, students are catalyzed to now delve into their majors with a very early view into knowledge, skill, and relationship building.
These innovations on a general education curriculum will require work in the form of research and intensive training for faculty teaching the first and second year experience(s) courses. For institutions that have yet to significantly refit their general education curriculum, these strategies can provide an infusion of revisionary teaching blended with co-curricular activities. Faculty become engaged in teaching and learning activities at an accelerated level, which may lead into the eventual restructuring of the curriculum. Most importantly, students will move from engaging in a flat, static two-year experience to one that is multi-tiered and dynamic. Retention becomes a given rather than a reach with such a pedagogical approach. Students informed that these curricular and co-curricular activities exist during their introduction to the college/university will have the opportunity to view their general education requirements as experiences that serve as the foundation for purposeful engagement in the majors that they have come to the college/university to pursue.

It is our responsibility as administrators and faculty to create a new lens for our students towards ways of seeing their first and second-year experiences as nothing short of amazing.