Students have varying experiences at college. We all know this. But instructors attending CCV’s annual faculty retreat last week were given a much clearer picture of how social class affects student engagement and in turn, student achievement.
Speaking before a crowd of roughly 150 CCV faculty Dr. April Yee, a postdoctoral scholar at the UC Davis Center for Poverty Research, said she felt current research into questions about student engagement was incomplete. Yee said she feels this research is incomplete in that it only focuses on what the first-generation students aren’t doing and doesn’t account for social and institutional factors that may contribute to the issue. Through 400 interviews and over 800 hours of direct observation Yee learned that social class has a bearing on two very real factors that contribute to student engagement and achievement: engagement strategies and decision making.
“First generation students are at a disadvantage that compounds and accumulates over time,” Yee said. “It’s not like just one of these things works in isolation.There are engagement strategies that are different, their major selection process is different, and eventually these things fold on top of each other to create disparities in academic success.”
2015 Faculty Excellence Teaching Awards
Each year at the faculty retreat CCV gives Faculty Teaching Excellence awards to instructors whose dedication to their students is deserving of formal recognition. Students, staff, and faculty nominate instructors for the award, and the final recipients are chosen by a college-wide committee. This year, nearly two hundred nominations were submitted. The 2015 Faculty Teaching Excellence award winners are:
Lee Dowling teaches online and at CCV’s Winooski and Middlebury academic centers.
Genevieve Jacobs teaches at CCV’s Winooski Academic Center.
Traci Jensen teaches at CCV’s St. Albans academic center.
Yee explained how in her research she came to learn that students from middle class backgrounds often have a more interactive approach to student engagement. They participate actively in class, they form relationships with faculty, they seek out additional help when needed and used more college-provided resources to find success. These students, she said, had a sense of entitlement to these things because they had understanding that they were paying for an education and should use everything that was available to them.
First-generation students, on the other hand, tended to use fewer types of independent strategies, Yee said.These approaches included long hours studying alone, reading and rereading text books, and only approaching teachers for help when something bad was happening. For the first-generation student, Yee said, these strategies can feel like personal growth, as if he or she is taking responsibility for their education.
“It wasn’t that first generation students were less engaged and middle-class students were more engaged,” she said. “Middle class students participated in more types of engagement; they had a broader repertoire of engagement practices.”
Yee said that although the first-generation students were as engaged as the middle-class students, the system itself tends to benefit interactive engagement and ignore independent engagement. As such, she said, the differences in approach ultimately lead to disparity in academic achievement.
“Middle-class engagement strategies are recognized and rewarded while first-generation strategies are largely invisible and ignored,” she said.
Yee said her research also revealed the affect social class has on decision making in the academic world, and more specifically, on a student’s ability to decide on a major.
Yee said that for the middle-class student, the choice of major was often made based on what interested them and what they enjoyed doing. The decision, she said, often involved help and guidance from parents. However, for first-generation students majors were often chosen based on security–whether the degree would lead to work–and whether the student thought they’d do well in specific classes. Yee said that for these students parental input was often absent in the decision-making process, citing an incident in which a student was told by her mother “you’re an adult, figure it out.”
This difficulty in choosing a course of study, Yee said, oftentimes leads to academic struggles that can surface from not knowing or seeing the connections between classes and subjects and careers.
“Academic uncertainty, being undecided, was a qualitatively different experience for students from different social backgrounds,” Yee said. “We can have as much statistical research that we want that [tells us] how many students are undecided versus not, but in the day to day it means the difference between being a little adventurous [in choosing academic options] or total anxiety.”And while there may be no silver bullet to these issues, Yee said there are things that instructors and institutions can be doing to narrow the gap between these types of students. As a start, she said, instructors can make interactive engagement a requirement. But, she said, it’s also valuable to find ways to recognize and reward independent engagement strategies. To help address the decision making issue, Yee said instructors can introduce themselves in the class and talk about how the class connects to the broader picture and why it’s exciting to them and how it’s helped in their career.
In the brainstorming session that followed CCV instructors weren’t shy in sharing their thoughts about engagement and what they’ve seen in the classroom. Erica Marks, an instructor from the College’s St. Albans center, noted the importance of setting clear expectations for students and making certain they are aware of and understand those expectations.
“If I as a teacher don’t make sure my students know what my expectations are, and I don’t ask them, how am I going to know if they understand them,” she said.
Other instructors offered up recommendations such as providing examples of the types of work that is expected, carving out class time to meet individually with students, and even offering to meet students off-campus in a coffee shop on a Saturday. All of these are solid techniques, and Upper Valley instructor C.J. Record also acknowledged the level of responsibility instructors have in the situation.
“If we’re expecting A from an assignment, and our students all turn in Q, that’s not a problem with the students.”