Developing curricula to accommodate reality

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?

20 thoughts on “Developing curricula to accommodate reality

  1. I’ve had some students make Skype appointments when coming to campus was inconvenient – that seemed to work reasonably well.
    For office hours, I used to wonder why so few students take advantage of them. I haven’t totally figured it out, but after having a number of students tell me about their experiences with other professors, I think many students are nervous about the reception they will get if they come in with a question in office hours. I’ve tried to explain that I LIKE meeting students in office hours, that it’s helpful for me (as well as them) to work through concepts they find challenging one-on-one (or in small groups), but I can understand why someone might have reservations if they’ve had a bad experience meeting with a professor previously.

    • Good to know that Skype can work – I will have to put it in my syllabus that Skype is an option. In retrospect, I avoided office hours at all costs when I was a student myself. I’ve heard that one alternative is to host office hours in a neutral space (lounge, coffee shop) so that students don’t feel like they are invading your space.

  2. I teach at a fairly prestigious public university that has a lot of socio-economic diversity. Whenever possible, I try to facilitate the use of earlier editions of textbooks by including page numbers for readings. Students can usually buy them at half price or less. In my upper division lab course, we have been able to get four lab copies and two library copies of the very expensive text and do not require students to buy them.

    Most of my students do not print out handouts, but instead read them on electronic devices. If I want them to have a hard copy, I get it printed for them.

    It would be hard for students to make it at my institution without some form of personal computer. Many use net books or tablets that are likely less expensive than some of their textbooks.

    I’ve taught a lot of returning students, who have kids and jobs. Honestly, at my institution, this demographic tends to be more responsible about communicating any school-life conflicts with me than traditional college students. As long as students are upfront and not abusing the system, I’m happy to give them reasonable accommodations for these conflicts. My institution has a support program for returning students and provides a large number of emergency childcare hours to student parents, so I also make sure that students know the resources available to them at the beginning of the semester.

  3. Thank you for this post. These fixes are so simple but make such an enormous difference in easing the hardship on students.

  4. Regarding textbooks–it is also possible to rent textbooks for the semester for very low prices. When you are evaluating textbooks, run the ISBN through and to see if they are available for rent. It also helps to post your textbook selections as soon as possible through whatever venue is available (getting bookstore orders in ASAP, if your school gives you a web presence, sending an email to the registered students, posting a list on your office door, etc.) There are all kinds of ways to find good deals on text books, but it takes time. As in most things, time & money are a see saw–if you have less of one, you need to have more of the other.

    Regarding group work–as a former non-traditional student, I implore you to question whether or not your group assignments really must be group assignments. I have seen many projects set up as group assignments simply because the instructor felt that the students needed to learn to work as part of a team, not because the assignment required it. If most of your students are non-traditional and/or working full time, they are learning to work as part of a team in a real-world scenario that no classroom can duplicate. The dynamics of academic group work are different than the dynamics of real-world teams. Academic teams generally don’t have an assigned hierarchy and don’t have as strong of a system for dealing with slackers or personality conflicts. This makes them highly stressful unless the group just happens to have only one natural leader and no slackers. Also, if it’s clear that the only reason group work is assigned is to teach team work, it can make older students feel like you are treating them like they are high school students. Please consider weighing the benefits of group work against those realities.

    • Interesting point, thanks! I have primarily used group work for assignments such as hypothesis generation and reading, interpreting, and presenting a paper from the primary literature. In those situations my thought is that the final project and student learning will be higher because of the interaction and discussion among students. However, I haven’t looked for evidence of this, and it is worth reading up on. I did dislike group work as an undergrad, although it taught me (some degree of) patience.

      • thank goodness there is some honesty here about “group work”!!!!!! I think it is an excellent idea to see if there is any value in it for the results you expect, and also to ask the students what they think about it – maybe make it optional (they can form a group and agree to a common mark, or they can submit an individual assignment… something like that). But ask the students first, is my suggestion. If they are mature-age people as you say, they will know whether it is valuable for them or not, and/or if it is too much effort to form a group. Then you will know.

      • I also find that doing my best to set aside some assigned class time for groups to meet helps a lot. They can often do a lot of the project via email/electronic communication, but having that guaranteed 30 minutes a couple of times during class really helps. Sometimes it is hard to sacrifice that time, but it does seem to increase group communication significantly.

    • I agree that industry/workplace teams don’t always echo academic teams. But employer surveys (NACE, etc) routinely rank teamwork near the top of qualities and skills desired of new hires – in some fields it even tops technical skills, since the assumption is that everyone with, say, a 3.5 GPA will have comparable tech skills/knowledge. Being able to demonstrate the ability to work on a team though assignments or student organizations is essential.

      Teams in industry/other workplace settings may have a set heirarchy, but they may not. Either way, students shouldn’t go off to their first jobs having never worked on college-level group projects, if only because they need to understand how to negotiate different personalities and learn where/how they fit into a certain dynamic. I’ve taught students and I’ve hired new graduates and the ones who have worked on team projects are much more likely to listen, not talk; ask, not demand; and step up when they realize their interests are on the line rather than waiting for someone else to hand them the outcome they want. These are not traits I would want to have to teach someone with a college degree whom I’d just hired for a full-time position.

      Good, thoughfully crafted team assignments are clear that teamwork is an intended learning outcome and not a whim on the part of the instructor. They also have mechanisms built in for evaluating team dynamics in order to avoid the one leader/three slackers problem (e.g. software that allows for individual, anonymous assessments; forums only the instructor can see, or one-on-one meetings with students who don’t seem happy). On the flip side, students need to be willing to seek help from the instructor rather than suffering through the assignment; many of the stereotypical problems with teamwork can be nipped in the bud if someone speaks up early on.

  5. Thank you for this post. I was a graduate student at a small research institution with over 50% first generation undergraduate students. It was hard to discuss these issues with my colleagues (they did not reflect the undergraduate statistics) who thought the college experience was uniform due to their personal experiences. Most did not have to work through college, and have little student loan debt. We all have to remember that in academia, we are here to educate and learn.

    Simple things, like teaching all students how to construct an email to facilitate a positive response from an instructor, on the first day of class, have worked for me to make the students feel like they are armed with all of the tools required to communicate. I believe this is undervalued, and often the first-generation students have not been exposed to such concepts. I know it might sound silly, but I have an entire lecture on how to come to office hours, how to ask questions in an email, and how to ask questions before and after class! I give it when I am teaching a freshman level class, and I make sure to do it lightheartedly not to offend anyone. I have noticed that my office hour visits have improved in value and in number of students because there is no ambiguity in what to expect from either party.

    The lack of a home computer/internet issue is one that I think universities across the country need to actively address, especially in a time where online classes, or hybrid classes seem so appealing for cost cutting. Without significant investment in infrastructure and recognition of the extra hardship it puts on students with less than ideal means for college, you will alienate students who can’t afford computers and internet, and overload campus networks.

    • What a valuable topic to discuss with freshman! I could do something similar in the lower level class I teach – it’s mostly sophomores and juniors, with some senior non-majors – but I’m not sure it wouldn’t already be too late for it. Sometimes I would like to write in my syllabus (mostly jokingly) something to the effect of “1% off your final grade for every bit of text-speak u include in emails 2 the professor”.

      • It’s never too late. You’re doing these students a favor by including it anywhere you can; a good number of undergrads (mostly those in fields that do not require an internship along the way) struggle with writing a professional email. It doesn’t have to be heavy-handed — even something like, “Let me give you some tips that will help you get what you want when you email your professors” can go a long way. At the very least it will cut down on the amount of dreck you personally have to deal with in your inbox.

    • I, too, found it very helpful to spend some time in my freshman level course to talk about how to construct emails to professors, what to wear, etc. I found that emails from my students became a lot more formal (in a good way!) after I explained the importance of acting professional to my students. Additionally, about 95% of my students decided to dress up for their final presentations for a lab course at the end of the semester after my talk about being professional. Last year was the first time I spent class time talking explicitly about how to address professors in emails, how to dress for presentations, etc., and I noticed a huge impact on my students. I definitely plan to repeat the lecture this fall. AND talk more about what constitutes plagiarism. That’s another story, but I think a lot of freshmen don’t really realize what they’re doing is plagiarism. So I want to talk about it first thing.

  6. Two comments from my experience as a non-traditional student in classroom undergrad and in online grad school:

    First, about internet: some of your rural students STILL only have dial-up, because there Isn’t Anything Else available in their home community. In upstate Vermont where my brother lives, they have been promised cable and satellite ‘next year’ since the late 20th Century, but it’s still Dial-up or Nothing. Which means you can use e-mail just fine (and also e-mail-based groups such as yahoo groups) but anything that requires web access quite commonly fails to finish loading before it times out, creating great frustration, wasting time, and often resulting in no success whatever.

    Second, about office hours: some of us have been seriously discouraged from visiting faculty offices by episodes of blatant sexual harassment including unwanted touching and threats of academic reprisal ‘if you tell,’ or even ‘unless you cooperate.’ After my first Strength and Materials class, I never went to Office Hours for the next four years. If I needed to talk to the professor, I buttonholed him in the public hallway, even if that made both of us late for the next class. Later I learned that the women students had each had a negative experience with the same prof, and each of us felt helpless and stupid for not anticipating trouble. And most of the other profs were actually more responsible; but how were we to know?

    Skype office hours might help, but Coffee Shop or Student Union office hours — “I’ll be at the middle table under the clock from 2-4” would be awesome!

  7. I do Skype office hours (or chat through our CMS) in the later evenings (9-10 p.m. or so) because that is the time my students are most likely to be doing their homework (at least the most likely time I’m still awake!). This works out well for students because they can get answers real-time as they work on the assignments; it works out for me because I can cut off the video and have office hours on the couch in my PJs.

  8. Just another thought – some of the solutions proposed (skype, email communication for groups etc) rely on internet connection. BUT one of the problems identified by drmellivora is a lack of this type of electronic communication. Another reason to ask the class what may or may not work – each class will be different each year in their personal needs (eg one year, most students may have internet – another year a significant number may not …. that is the nature of this diverse group, you can’t make assumptions that will cover all of them – so one needs to ask).

  9. Thanks for this timely post. I am teaching this fall at a community college and have been thinking about how to structure the class so that these students can take care of their lives outside the classroom. And I am so over the days of rote memorization — I want the classroom to be more interactive with more in-class critical thinking activities, which will also lessen the amount of homework time required for those people who have families and work. Do you have any tips on how to structure a lecture class to allow time for activities and what type of activities are best?

    • I’ve done two different types activities. For equations/math, I introduce the equation, go through an example, and then hand out a worksheet where the students go through the example individually or in pairs. I walk around and help, and then we step through the example together. For concepts, I introduce the theory or principle and then hand out sheets with an example figure or passage from the primary literature. I have them work in pairs to interpret the document in the context of the concept we just talked about, and then go over it as a class. In a 75-minute class period I try to do one activity in about the middle of the class period – it can take anywhere from 10-20 minutes depending on the complexity of the activity. It does mean covering less material – I found that from an introductory textbook I was only able to cover about 3/4 of each chapter’s material. But the students really find the activities helpful.

  10. Pingback: Choosing and using textbooks | Tenure, She Wrote

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