Teaching First-Year College Students
By Bette LaSere Erickson, Calvin B. Peters, and Diane Weltner Strommer
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006
Two of the three authors of this book wrote its predecessor, Teaching College Freshmen, published by Jossey-Bass in 1991. The many changes in higher education that have occurred in those fifteen years (not to mention the unfashionability of the term “freshmen”) fully justify the revised and expanded version.
There are three major parts of the book, of unequal importance and scope. One of these is a sort of survey of the scholarship of learning and development—Perry’s stages of intellectual development, Women’s Ways of Knowing, Kolb’s Learning Styles, Myers-Briggs, etc. This material is, I suppose, worth having, but vitiated somewhat by a perfunctory presentation. The authors may suspect, as I do, that the average new instructor of freshmen is not going to do the background reading in learning theory and personality type, even if s/he really should.
Another “part,” though distributed through the book, is clear, relevant, and pungent information on who the first-year students in today’s university are: their demographics, their expectations, their preparation. Some of the more disturbing pages of Teaching First-Year College Students explain the disjunction between what college students expect in college and what they find. They expect much what we who teach them would like: that college classes will be entirely different from high school, that they will be held to a much higher standard, that they will work and study many hours a week, that thinking and judgment will be more important than memorization. What they too often find (as the National Survey of Student Engagement, for instance, reveals) is that their classes are quite a lot like the ones they had in high school, that emphasis in testing is on memorizing data, that faculty are remote, and so on. The student voices Erickson et al quote call on college faculty to live up to what we say we are doing, which is what entering college students expect us to do.
The most useful portion of this book, and by far the largest, comprises suggestions. Some of these fall under the rubric of “Effective Instruction for First-Year Students” and some of it under “Opportunities and Challenges in First-Year Instruction.”
In the first category there are chapters on the goals of first-year instruction, preparing syllabi, grading, encouraging active learning and active reading, meeting the first class, and creating involvement in the classroom. Generally the authors favor more rather than less explanation (though aware of the danger of “coddling”--or at least being accused of “coddling”--students), suggesting that professors often fail to realize that students need more examples then they receive and need more explanation of how to write essays than is provided by rubrics that ask them to “discuss” something.
They also repeatedly emphasize the importance of active, engaged learning. One of the deterrents, of course, is the large class sizes often inseparable from freshman classes, and, in the “Opportunities and Challenges” section, they make valuable suggestions for teaching large classes. Other chapters address creating inclusive learning environments, sustaining engagement outside of class—including discussion of office hours and more intentional arrangements like learning communities and service-learning—and “Strengthening Commitment to First-Year Instruction.” This last chapter is a bit forlorn, given faculty stresses and increasing use of part-timers, and is unlikely to be read by the audience—trustees, legislators, upper administrators—who can actually strengthen the commitment. But it’s a noble suggestion, anyway.
These authors begin by acknowledging that between their first version in 1991 and this 2006 volume, millions of students have entered the first year of college, and only about half of them have graduated within six years. This statistic, almost by itself, supports the emphasis on first-year students; combined with their voices, expressing baffled aspiration and frustration, it makes the case unarguable. This book is a powerful resource and reading it would be a good start toward strengthening commitment to—and multiplying good ideas for—teaching first-year students.