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Educator Explains Value of First-Year Programs

Submitted by on November 1, 2011 – 10:37 amNo Comment

Dr. Norm Stephens (left), SFCC president, welcomes Dr. Constance Staley to South Florida Community College, along with Dr. Leana Revell, vice president, Educational and Student Services, and Dr. Christopher van der Kaay, Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) director.

What’s the mindset of incoming college freshmen? What do they expect from their college experience, and what are they prepared to devote to their own success? These questions were addressed by Dr. Constance Staley, the keynote speaker at South Florida Community College’s 2011 assessment day and the author of the textbook SFCC has adopted for its new first-year experience program.

Dr. Staley is a professor of communications at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs (UCC), and an award-winning author of college first-year experience textbooks. For 17 years, she has been the director of UCC’s freshman seminar program. Dr. Staley’s textbook, Focus on Community College Success, is the instructional resource for SFCC’s Guide to Personal Success (GPS), now under development.

First-year experience programs, like GPS, build motivation, focus, and resilience in students who tend to be walking contradictions, according to Dr. Staley. These students can be distracted and stressed out, scatterbrained and bored, hands-on and passive, overly confident and insecure, with fragile self-esteem and “Velcro” parents clinging to their every move. Often uncertain about their purpose in college, they drop classes whenever they meet the smallest obstacles and juggle competing demands for their attention. An overwhelming majority – 83 percent – come to college expecting to spend only five hours a week or less on homework, as they did in high school, and are caught off-guard by the degree of self-reliance they must bring to their college classes.

“College is where the training wheels come off,” Dr. Staley said.

Dr. Staley noted that college students often doom themselves to failure by setting goals too low and, when they don’t meet them, lower their expectations of themselves instead of raising their standards. If they can be encouraged to aim higher, they become motivated to put more effort into their courses and inevitably reap the rewards. In the process, they gain a realistic perception of the effort they must expend to succeed in college.

Dr. Staley encouraged instructors to value effort over ability to combat a pervasive misconception among college students: if they do not immediately succeed in some endeavor, they must not be good at it, and, therefore, should give up.  In reality, the more effort they put into their work, the more likely they are to succeed.

Toward this end, one exercise Dr. Staley conducts is to measure what her students intend to invest in her class. At the beginning of each term, she gives students index cards on which they use red, yellow, and green dots to indicate the amount of effort they intend to devote to preparing for each class. “They take this very seriously, and they are very honest – painfully honest,” she said. In the first few weeks, students’ cards are peppered with red and yellow dots, indicating that they intend to put minimal or no effort into preparing for their classes. At the same time, students are creating a visual illustration that powerfully reveals the small effort they are into their own education, which they, in turn, can relate to their lack of success. “It inspires them to do better,” Dr. Staley said.

Another exercise, which Dr. Staley includes in Focus on Community College Success, is to conduct entrance and exit interviews with students at the beginning and end of each term.  Each student completes a form that asks questions about his or her personal background, study habits, and the time her or she intends to devote to class. The information gives Dr. Staley a clear vision of the student’s expectations and allows her to counsel them if they are off-track.

Some challenge lies in reshaping each student’s attitude toward study by replacing bad study habits with good ones. For example, Dr. Staley said, recent studies contradict the prevalent notion that people accomplish more through multi-tasking; instead, they devote less time and mental energy to each task. Many college students work in a state of perpetual distraction, but a 10-part survey on metacognition, found in Focus on Community College Success, helps them understand how they think, study, and learn. Students answer questions like, “I quiz myself as I’m studying to see what I understand and what I don’t,” and “I know where I study best: at home, at the library, at my computer, etc.” This gives them insight into how they learn and what they need to improve upon. “Metacognition is knowing the limits of your own learning and memory capabilities, knowing how much you can accomplish within a certain amount of time, and knowing the learning strategies that work for you,” Dr. Staley said.

“Motivation has to come from within,” she continued. “The best we can do is to help them figure themselves out, so they can discover what motivates them.

Although the short-term value of first-year experience programs is in transforming unfocused, unmotivated freshmen into successful college students, the long-term value is that students acquire the attitudes and working habits that bring success throughout the rest of their lives.

“GPS is not a class,” Dr. Staley said. “It’s a way to see their college experience and the world.”

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