Faculty as the GPS for Students

December
2010
Beth Smith, Treasurer

Once upon a time, attendees at a stadium or arena watching a sporting even knew when to cheer and when to be quiet to support the home team, but now the jumbo-tron cues the crowd to “make noise.” There used to be a day when most of us memorized our friends’ phone numbers as well as their addresses. Now each contact (not person) has an allotted number of characters of space in a cell phone. In an earlier day, everyone knew how to read a map, but now a voice from a small device gives directions, gently prodding left turns and exits on freeways. Applying knowledge learned was once an everyday occurrence, but now cell phones, GPS devices, the Internet, and other technology have changed the way we think. College students used to navigate college campuses with slightly more savvy and sophistication than today, and it’s not only because of changing demographics. It’s because they have learned to think differently about how to access and store information and knowledge and how to apply that information and knowledge across the curriculum.

Couple this information with the fact that the age of our students is decreasing1, and what we know is that these younger students rely on information and guidance stored in and accessed from somewhere other than an organic source. Sometimes, the directions from a device seem unrelated to the landscape and intended goal but are followed anyway. Students happily take directions from a GPS, yet our systems, made of actual human beings, are often hesitant to tell students what direction the next “turn” should be. Does this present an opportunity for us, or will students continue to seek devices instead of teachers, counselors and librarians who can help with the future?

Community college faculty must step up to be the GPS for our students. We have the opportunity to develop the maps that help students the most in the short and long term. From placement to prerequisites to transfer model curriculum for associate degrees – faculty professional expertise must be asserted to guide the actions of students firmly and gently, recalculating when necessary. Students are adults and will make decisions for themselves, and we need to help inform those decisions with good information every minute that students are on campus. Efforts at the state and local level can combine to ensure that students understand how to chart and navigate a course for success.

The Senate has worked on several projects recently that give local senates and faculty the options they need to guide students toward more success. Assessment for placement starts students on their college career with an understanding of what they know and where they stand in terms of preparation for collegiate level work, and the CCCAssess project will provide yet another instrument to use for assessing student readiness for certain courses. The option to establish prerequisites via content review gives students and faculty a tangible reminder of the rigor of our courses and expectations that some previous knowledge or skills are essential for success in transfer level courses. And the transfer model curriculum will give students an excellent means to plan which community college courses to take in order to both earn a degree and transfer. These state-level initiatives are excellent for guiding students, yet there is more that can be done locally.

Do faculty in your discipline identify students with an aptitude for your subject area and encourage the students to take one more class in the subject? Do you recommend other courses that naturally follow your course as a means of guiding students through a learning experience in the discipline that cannot be determined from the catalog or GE check list alone? Do faculty in your discipline know enough about the courses in your department or discipline to be helpful? Can they speak with a student about sequencing, majors, careers, local university programs in your discipline, GE requirements, prerequisites, and more? Do the faculty know why a given course is offered at the college?

Classroom faculty cannot simply teach a great course and expect students to understand how it fits within the grand scheme of educational experiences. We have to make an effort to connect the dots for students every day, and here is one way to help faculty become better advocates for education: Invite a counselor to a department/division meeting, where as many part-time faculty might be present as possible, to discuss GE requirements and sequencing as well as transfer options in your discipline. Learn about how the discipline and its courses fit within the student experience, whether the student is a basic skills, career technical education, transfer, or undecided about next steps. Discuss how this information might be communicated to students within your discipline. Counselors know the details about meeting requirements and goals, and students need both perspectives – from counselors and discipline faculty – to find their way through college.

Does your department website show students how the curricula fit together? Have you explained why the courses in the program belong together? Do your student learning outcomes or program review processes include student feedback about the program and its cohesiveness? What about contributions from GE courses to the GE outcomes? Will students naturally see the match, or can you provide guidance on why these courses are helping to create better citizens, parents and employees?

There are other competing issues at work here too – the excess unit debate, the efficiency of moving students through a program to allow greater access for other students waiting in the pipeline, giving students time to mature and explore their talents and interests, guiding versus steering, etc. These topics warrant separate attention, and the Senate has considered many of these ideas in other Rostrum articles and breakout sessions at plenary and other venues. But faculty are in the business of education, and we can’t forget that our passions lie within our disciplines and helping students see how wonderful each course is and the power of education to make a difference for students with or without a compass.

Between the work of the Senate creating state-wide options, such as prerequisites and transfer model curriculum, and local faculty providing more connections in the curriculum, students will have a college experience that is more than a matter of checking courses off a list. Discipline faculty can review the information about their courses and programs, emphasizing the bigger picture of how courses complement other courses in the GE offerings or within a program. Younger students need more time to develop and decide which path to take, and we can provide access to options that they may not have considered, maybe something off the beaten path. No device will ever replace the human aspect of teaching and learning, and we have to be sure that students begin to see their education as a collection of experiences rather than a series of turns or exits without context. Faculty must be the GPS for students.

1In Fall 1999, 47% of the students were under 24 years of age. In Fall 2009, 53% of the students were under 24 years of age. (Data from Chancellor’s Office Data Mart.)

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