As I gear up for my second year of teaching I’m thinking about all the little logistical things that I can change about my classes to better accommodate the unique needs of my students and advisees. At my regional comprehensive college many of the students are non-traditional, first generation, and/or holding down multiple jobs. Over half of my students commute to campus, either from their parents’ houses in the outlying rural communities or from the nearest city. Some of them are in my age range and have children, and many are working 20-40 hours a week to support themselves and/or their families while keeping a full course load.
These students have more taking up their time, money, and energy than my college peers or those I taught in graduate school and during my postdocs. This means that many of my students didn’t have the time or money I expected students to have as I assigned books, readings, and group activities in my first year, which directly affected their ability to learn. One of my low points Fall semester was when a student came to meet with me after failing the midterm and admitted, in tears, that they hadn’t been able to afford the textbook so they were floundering. This experience and others has led me to a few realizations that will change the way I prepare my curricula and advise students:
- Students have very little money for books. Of course one possibility would be to teach without textbooks at all, but as a new faculty I’m not quite ready for that. This year I’ve looked at my textbooks and chosen similar alternatives that are significantly (~$40) cheaper than the ones I’d been using. Some books are even offered unbound for discounted prices. Make sure your library has multiple copies on hold, and if possible stick with old editions of textbooks for a few years after new editions come out so that students can buy used books, which are often much cheaper.
- Similarly, students can’t afford to print out large amounts of paper. Lecture notes, discussion papers, and assignments all add up to a lot of printing charges. To help defray the cost you can print out and provide lecture notes and paper handouts, and allow assignments to be turned in electronically.
- Students often need higher paying jobs then we can offer for summer internships. This has been challenging for me this summer, since the college summer fellowship is only $8/hour. One of my students had to turn down the research fellowship and the other is working 3 days a week at his other, higher paying job to make ends meet. Next year I am thinking of supplementing the college fellowship to reach the pay rate of these ‘other’ jobs (bartending, painting, etc), so that students don’t need to choose between making money for tuition or getting experience in their major
- Withdrawing from a class means losing financial aid. Most of the students I advise get substantial financial aid, one requirement of which is that they maintain a minimum credit load. There is a certain set of courses (I’m looking at you, Calculus!) that many students struggle with, and ideally would withdraw from. However they can’t afford to lose financial aid so they end up with an “E” instead, and their GPA tanks. This isn’t something that I can really deal with as a teacher, but I’m trying to be aware of it as an advisor. I’ve started encouraging weaker students to take the harder core courses at community colleges. I’ve also been making sure I know what mid-semester replacement classes are available (typically 1-credit rec classes).
- Computer and internet availability is not universal. Some of my students who commute from rural areas don’t have computers or internet. Of course they can use computer labs on campus, but I’m trying to be more cognizant of the fact that it might be a pain for students to get to campus to use the labs.
- Students are frequently late or absent for ‘real-world’ problems, such as cars that won’t start, sick children, and job issues. It can be challenging to be fair to everyone when making accommodations for those types of issues So far I’ve fallen on the side of allowing students to hand in assignments or take tests late when those issues come up, but I’m not sure where to draw the line.
- Students need more time for group assignments – 1 week is standard at other schools I’ve been at, but when half the population lives off campus it takes more time to get a group together. Students want at least 2-3 weeks, which means planning the curriculum further in advance.
- Office hours are hard for commuters and students with outside jobs to attend. We all have the fine print on our office hours “or by appointment”, but rarely do students take advantage of that. I have been toying with the idea of holding office hours on google hangouts or in a discussion board online, and I’d be curious to hear how others have dealt with this issue.
Of course, many of the things I’ve been thinking about also apply to disadvantaged students at ‘wealthier’ schools. We’ve talked about this before in the context of graduate students in academia, but as professors we should be aware that similar issues occur in undergraduate populations. We also can’t assume that all of our students are comfortable enough with coming forward to ask for help, so it’s in everyone’s best interest if we make it as easy for possible for all students to access reading/study materials and us, the professor.
What else am I missing? How have you made your classes more accessible to students from a variety of financial and educational backgrounds?