In September, I was accepted into the Faculty Diversity Intership Program (FDIP) at the Los Rios Community College District in Sacramento, California. The goal of the FDIP is to recruit prospective community college faculty members from a diverse range of backgrounds and prepare them to be successful as community college instructors. The program has two phases. In the fall, interns attend a series of 6 half-day workshops which cover a variety of topics related to effective college teaching as well as issues specific to community colleges. These workshops prepare participants to make the most of the second phase of the internship, where they spend a full semester in a community college class observing, and eventually co-teaching with an experienced instructor. I have just completed the fall workshop series and will devote this post to reflecting on what I learned during the first three workshops. I discuss the second three workshops in a subsequent post.
The first three workshops were led by Dr. Marybeth Buechner, a former biology professor at Consumnes River College who is now the Dean of Planning, Research, and Institutional Effectiveness at Sacramento City College. Marybeth’s workshops focused on developing an understanding of how students learn, effective curriculum design, and on understanding how community colleges actually work. Here is an overview of each of the workshops:
In this workshop, we were introduced to both the California Community College system as a whole, and to the Los Rios Community College District specifically. We focused on understanding how community college programs are structured and how they relate to other educational institutions in the state (K12, CSU, UC). Dr. Buechner also introduced some ideas from cognitive science that can be utilized to make teaching more effective.
- Community colleges in California are significantly impacted by policy decisions in both the state government and at public 4-year institutions. For example, recent policy changes at the state level mean that community colleges will be taking on an increased role in adult education (i.e. GEDs) and will also be able to begin offering certain bachelor’s degrees. Course design in transfer-level courses is heavily influenced by policies at CSU and UC, who make the final decisions about which transfer courses they will accept.
- Students have significant differences in what classroom methods best help them learn. When designing leaning activities, you should consider what would help different types of learners, rather than solely using methods that would have appealed to you as a student.
- Many students come to the community college under-prepared for college level work. Many of these students must take remedial math and English courses. Additionally, many of them come from highly-structured high school classrooms, where they may not have learned how to independently structure their studying and learning habits. The consequence of all of this is a mantra that was repeated throughout the workshop series – “If you’re going to ask your students to do something, make sure you teach them how to do it.” This means that if you tell them to study for an exam, you should give them suggestions about how to do that. If you tell them that they need to think critically when answering a question, you need to demonstrate what that looks like.
In week 2, the major focus was on backward design. This is an idea that I’ve discussed on the blog before. In short, you design your courses and individual lessons by first identifying measurable learning outcomes, then deciding how you are going to assess whether students achieve those outcomes, and finally choosing which learning activities to use. After discussing backwards design and how it is implemented at Los Rios, we worked in discipline-based groups to apply our knowledge of course design to developing a course about coffee. This was a great opportunity to get hands-on practice making decisions about how to structure a course. It was also really cool to see what different groups of interns came up with. In my group, comprised of scientists, we developed a course that used coffee to explore ecology, genetics, biochemistry, and pharmacology. In contrast, the business group developed a course on entrepreneurship (using coffee shops as an example) and the social sciences group developed a course that used coffee to examine the social impacts of globalization.
- At Los Rios, using backwards design isn’t merely a suggested good practice – it is built into official policies about how courses are developed and evaluated. All courses must have a course outline that describes the student learning outcomes (SLOs), assessments, and activities that will be used in the course. This outline also describes how the course relates to other courses – for example, if you want to list a prerequisite course, you must justify it by explaining which of the course SLOs require the skills taught in the previous course.
- When thinking about designing a course, it is important to have high expectations of your students. According to Dr. Buechner: “You should never lower your standards. Your job is to raise your students up to meet those standards.”
- When thinking about course policies, you should carefully consider the consequences – it is important to decide where to draw the line between policies that could give too much leeway to undeserving students and policies that come down hard on students who deserve a second chance. For example, deciding that no late work will be accepted means that students who procrastinate or shirk their work will be held accountable, but also that the student who couldn’t finish the assignment because their kid was sick will also be punished. Once you’ve chosen a policy, enforce it consistently.
In week 3, we divided our time between three different activities. First, we talked about assessments and associated class policies. Then, we had an open-ended discussion about the impact of student and faculty diversity on the community college classroom. Lastly, we were treated to a panel discussion with 4 current Los Rios faculty members – three experienced full-time faculty (in math, economics, and business) and one first time adjunct faculty member (in biology).
- With assessments, it is critical to make your expectations clear to students, well in advance of the date of the assessment. This might mean showing them old exams, doing “exam style” practice problems in class, or talking with them about how they might study for the exam or prepare an assignment. For written work, I particularly like the idea of having students grade examples of bad, mediocre, and excellent work, so that they can really internalize what’s expected of them.
- Make sure that your grading lines up with your learning objectives. For example, if developing excellent written communication skills is not an objective of your course, then you shouldn’t be deducting large amounts of points for poorly written (but correct) assignments.
- You need to consider in advance how much you are willing to bend the rules for students in extreme circumstances. This issue can be largely circumvented by building flexibility into your grading scheme (see here for a nice discussion of this).
- It is a bad idea to make assumptions about a student’s preparation, prior experiences, or motivations based on their membership in a particular group. During our discussion of diversity, several Black interns, who grew up in poor neighborhoods in the Central Valley, talked about the push-back they had received from community members while trying to do well in school. After hearing this, another Black intern, who was older and had grown up in different part of the country, stood up and said that she had actually received a large amount of support from her community while going through school. This really highlighted the dangers of thinking of any group of students as being monolithic in terms of the types of experiences they bring into the classroom.
- Some cultures teach students to be quiet and well-behaved in the classroom. It is important that, as teachers, we don’t automatically interpret this behavior to mean that these students are doing well with the material.
Dr. Buechner’s workshops served to give me a much deeper understanding of California community colleges – their curriculum, their relationship to other institutions, and their students and the challenges they face. The workshops also opened my eyes to the many ways course design and policies can help students succeed or contribute (often inadvertently) to students failing.
Be sure check out my follow-up post, where I discuss the final three workshops of the series, which primarily focused on effective practices in the classroom.