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Where I’ve been and what I’ve learned, part 2

Posted in Higher Education, and Student Success

How far would your school go to help first-year students thrive? Would it strike a couple hours off of their class schedules? Would it set aside time every single week for everybody to get some exercise? More on that in a minute.

In my last post I talked about my visits to Malta, Germany, and China and what struck me as novel about their university systems, policies, and technologies. However, there were also many things that sounded familiar.

These running, if not totally-universal themes included some that you have probably encountered if you work in higher education, faculty professional development or research related to either one of those fields. Here are the ones that stood out the most:

  • Lack of training in pedagogy before faculty begin their full-time careers in teaching. This is one that I heard of across multiple contexts – that teaching training typically begins after you’re on the job, not before. It follows that faculty need high-quality professional development opportunities, as well as a robust set of supports in their institutions for completing them. I was impressed, particularly at Goethe and the University of Malta, at the professional development resources in place, ones that go well beyond the occasional one-off workshop or reading group. It was also good to hear about different ways to recognize the work faculty put into these; a certificate, for example, might strike some as merely symbolic, but these make professional development progress tangible, and help win recognition for the effort that good professional development requires. This brings us to the next nearly-universal issue, though…
  • The difficulty of fitting time for development into faculty workloads. Overstuffed work portfolios are not just a U.S. thing. At each institution I visited, I heard about similar juggling acts: research, of course, plus service and leadership. Then, teaching and all of its associated sub-tasks such as mastering new technology, creating courses, updating materials, and grading (always the grading). Especially when it comes to substantive development experiences that unfold over the long term – multi-stage certificate programs, learning communities – faculty just do not have the time, or just as importantly, the mental space, for everything.
  • Diversity and access. Even if these terms aren’t the exact ones used, most of us seem to be coming around to a new understanding of higher education not as something reserved for a few, but as something to distribute as far as we possibly can. No one I spoke with seemed remotely invested in the idea of winnowing students à la the old “look to your left, look to your right” stories about how few students would survive to the end.
  • Virtual and augmented reality for education. While interest in educational technologies usually  seems to vary by setting, discipline, and even individual, this is on everyone’s radar. People spoke enthusiastically about the potential for things like immersive VR to make learning more compelling, add fun and novelty to challenging material, and enable realistic practice in ways that couldn’t be accomplished before. There’s also a lot of activity involving other completely experimental uses whose outcomes can’t possibly be predicted at this stage. But, I also picked up on something I talked about in this post from earlier in the spring – that there is a lot up in the air as far as basic knowledge about learning with this kind of technology. VR for education looks nearly guaranteed at this point to take us some interesting places, but I don’t think anyone has a handle on exactly what those are yet.

Beyond these four points, there was another, harder to pin down but unmistakably familiar theme: the challenge of working with students whose skills at self-regulated learning aren’t yet up to the demands of being at the university.

I suspect that we in the U.S. have a subtle, perhaps even unconscious bias toward seeing “foreign” students as honed, relentlessly disciplined academic machines. Or, if not this extreme of a stereotype, we hold a general sense of uneasiness that “their” students have it together in a way that our students do not.

It is true that United States students rank relatively poorly on math and related subjects that tend to reward an effort-oriented, growth mindset. So maybe there is a little truth to the idea. But only a little, because that narrative of unfocused, unprepared students plays out in other cultures too.

From what I’ve seen and heard, faculty everywhere are working really hard to keep students moving and to help them develop into more independent, intrinsically motivated learners. And they get pushback, especially in required classes or any time that the application of a concept isn’t immediately apparent. This phenomenon spans nations and cultures (and if the story where Socrates supposedly complains about kids these days is actually true, spans thousands of years of history as well).

In some ways, the hallmark of being a traditional-aged college student today is the set of challenges wrapped up with being an emerging adult. This relatively new concept in lifespan psychology has to do with making the transition from a sheltered and guided life into an independent one (something my colleague Melikşah Demir has shed a lot of light through his work, for example, here and here ). Emerging adulthood works differently in different cultures. But across many cultural settings, college traditionally aligns with the onset of adult life, setting up a real test of coping and self-care skills.

Schools in the U.S. have worked hard to smooth these academic and personal transitions with supports of all kind: first year seminars, University Colleges, residential communities built around common interests or background, programs that engage faculty in the issue. These help, but it is still surprisingly hard to move the needle on the problem of students who fall off track, who can do the work but can’t yet handle taking care of themselves.

It’s on this issue that I have one of the most distinct memories of what I saw in Tsinghua, something that happened on one of the cross-campus walks from the conference center to the campus hotel.

Surprised by the number of young students out and about on a late Saturday afternoon, I asked my guide whether students typically had classes then. She said no, but that it wasn’t unusual for the outdoor spaces to be busy at that time of day because there were no classes scheduled from 4 to 5 pm for first-year students. This was reserved as exercise time for them, and while this wasn’t mandatory or supervised, most got in the habit of doing something physical in the late afternoons. In addition to this, the whole school had Thursday afternoons free from class, also reserved for sports and physical activity.

What I wouldn’t give to be able to adopt those policies here! Especially given the neurological, cognitive and psychological benefits of aerobic exercise, and the alarming rise in the numbers of college students dealing with significant anxiety and depression – something that both strains university resources to the max and creates heart-rending crises for affected students – I wish it were on the table, at least. Exercise isn’t a magic bullet, but it is about as close to one as you are going to find in mental health, and although the policy would no doubt play out differently in a much more individualistic culture and in much more decentralized university structures, perhaps bringing in some version of it could do some good.

As my guide and I talked about the benefits of this practice, and the care it showed to the needs of younger students, it was clear that once again, we had common ground: These newcomers to higher learning don’t always feel confident, often do feel anxious, and without the right kind of support they can easily go adrift. Of course the cultural context matters, a lot. But leaving home to join in the company of other high achievers, tangling with the hardest academic problems you’ve ever encountered while experiencing more autonomy than you’ve ever had before, presents all our emerging adult students with some similar problems.

We faculty around the world can learn from one another as we strive toward that shared ideal of more learning for everyone. I’m incredibly grateful for the chance to do this kind of sharing over the last semester, and hope to go deeper on my next visits.