By Patrick Beauchesne
(Author’s note: The content of this article are my own views only and don’t necessarily reflect the views or opinions of everyone on the Foundations Steering Committee or the participating faculty.)
Some Context to get us Started
In this reflection piece on the Foundations program, I’d like to speak to both our students and our faculty members at UM-Dearborn. To the students, I hope this post gives you some insight into the program and helps you understand why the program exists, why we feel it’s helpful, and how we’re working hard to learn from you and with you. For the faculty members reading this reflection, whether you are part of the Foundations program or not, I have two comments. First, I want to thank you for caring so deeply about our students. I have sat on many committees in my time here, and I am consistently proud and inspired by the dedication and care that so many of you show towards your students. Many of you have inspired me to question my own practices and how I “see” my students. Second, I hope to inspire others to take risks and play with new pedagogical practices, particularly because we are experiencing a deeply concerning period in higher education.
Our current “moment” in higher education is precarious (for students, staff, and faculty) and challenging to say the least (Gannon, 2020). Students across Michigan, and the nation, are frequently required to bear an unreasonable and punishing level of debt to simply attend university, without any guarantee of a living wage once they emerge from this system. The decline in state funding and the subsequent corporatization of academia has contributed greatly to this problem (Gannon, 2020).
In many ways, we instructors are asking simply too much of our students. In large part, this is why I became involved with the Foundations program. This experience has profoundly reshaped how I view my role as a professor. I no longer see myself as the person imparting knowledge in a largely unidirectional way. Rather, I see myself as a guide, with particular sets of skills and knowledge to be sure, but now the learning is much more cooperative, rooted in empathy and trust. But more on that later!
My first year at UM-Dearborn was an illuminating one, to say the least. I had the privilege to earn my PhD at UC Berkeley, and to teach there on multiple occasions before coming to UM-Dearborn. My perspectives on what constituted a college student and professor were greatly shaped by my time there. While some of the challenges UMD students face were shared with me before I began teaching here, I hadn’t really internalized them – I still saw all students as effectively the same. I assigned work and taught my classes just as I would have at UC Berkeley, and I quickly found out that this was not a fair or wise decision on my part.
Although “college students” writ large face many challenges today the students I had at UC Berkeley were privileged in many ways: they attended many of the best local high schools, they didn’t have to work full time simply to attend university, and most weren’t first generation. Many of their parents were doctors, higher degree holders, or professors themselves, and therefore had an intimate knowledge of how to navigate the university and its bureaucracy. Additionally, UC Berkeley is internationally recognized as an excellent public school, and it attracted, and continues to attract, a huge applicant pool, so programs don’t struggle for students. Pedagogically, disciplines could structure and scaffold their majors in ways that slowly built up disciplinary knowledge and study skills. These realities strongly shaped how I designed my courses and importantly, the workloads I could assign. As I began my course designs for UM-Dearborn, I essentially kept these practices and foisted them upon our students here. It didn’t turn out so well for them, or me.
I want to interject here for a moment to make something very clear. I genuinely believe that our students are just as capable, just as deserving of success and just as bright as the students I taught at UC Berkeley. What we’re discussing here are the problems caused by, in many cases, vastly different contexts and circumstances. Given the freedom (or at least alleviation) from financial burdens, from having to work a full-time job and with proper guidance (particularly for first generation), our students could meet the same expectations I placed upon the UC Berkeley students years ago.
I want to also acknowledge that very often the “first gen” experience is only framed in negative ways (Ives and Castillo-Montoya, 2020). This is not my intent here. Below I describe many of the challenges first generation students face, but I don’t want to let that color our perceptions in an overly negative light. The problems are real, yes, but it’s vital we remember that our students can fit it and find a sense of belonging. Ives and Castillo-Montoya (2020:168) argue compellingly that first generation learners “lived experiences, when connected to academic content, that can contribute to their academic learning, advancement of disciplines, self-growth, and community development” in amazing ways. Paul Hernandez (2015) also spoke eloquently about how given the right tools and guidance, first generation students can thrive. How we think about first gen students, how we design our courses, and how we speak to those students matters a whole lot. When we shift our mindset from a deficit model (where we consistently emphasize what they “can’t” do) to one of care, these students can achieve great things. Now returning to the story…
Back at UM-Dearborn, I began to realize that my thinking was flawed because I saw my students struggling. I saw the confusion. I saw the feelings that what I was asking of them was simply too much. Many had never written a scientific or argumentative paper before. Most had never been asked to read over 100 pages in a week. I would love to say that my first reaction was one of empathy and a desire to understand why they struggled, where others hadn’t. But to be brutally honest, my first reactions were a mix of frustration, confusion, and even a sense of opposition or hostility towards my students. Why couldn’t they do this?! Why weren’t they applying themselves?! I’m not asking that much of them!
I think this is a normal reaction in many ways, and it says a lot about how most of us professors are trained in graduate school. We want to get to “the content,” impart our knowledge, get into great debates and discussions. But when students struggle with reading and writing, and even talking in class, our vision for what teaching would be like starts to crumble, and we often react in this way. I know I’m not alone in this; I’ve spoken to countless colleagues across multiple institutions and frequently hear the same frustrations. If I’m being honest, I still have moments when those feelings rise to the surface, but fortunately, my general orientation to our students no longer remains in that space.
I recognized at the end of my second semester here that things needed to change, including how I thought about our students. The more I talked with them, the more empathetic I became, and the more open I was to shifting my mindset from one of “why can’t they do this?” to “how can I help them do this?” Not only was I rethinking what it meant to be a professor, but “what does it mean to be a professor at UM-Dearborn?”
Finding Foundations – How My Relationship with Teaching and Students Changed
When I was asked to join the initial committee that would create the Foundations program, I saw an opportunity to relearn what it meant to be a professor, a chance to re-envision what my role and relationship was with my students. For those unfamiliar with our mission (CASL, 2022), the Foundations program was created to solve multiple problems. A central problem that the administration had noticed for years prior to the creation of this program was that student retention (for first year students), particularly from the first to second year, was problematic (something on the order of 20% of students didn’t return for their sophomore year). The problem wasn’t just limited to sophomores; nearly as many didn’t come back as juniors. The retention problem was even more accentuated for transfer students. Clearly, we were losing a lot of students. Some of the root causes were financial – and as faculty, the financial realities of college are something out of our control. We knew though that the “retention problem” wasn’t solely caused by students running out of money – for many, their initial experiences on campus did not align with what they expected, and they left.
It is vitally important to note though that our proposal to create the Foundations program was not solely to shore up enrollments. As we argued in our formal request, we saw a moral and ethical case for the creation of this program. Many of the students who were leaving were first generation students and those from historically underrepresented groups – students who would most benefit from a college education. For many of these students, however, there was an engagement gap, where hard work alone did not guarantee success. Our analyses at the time revealed multiple reasons why students might interrupt or discontinue their college education, but two main classes of contributors stood out: 1) access/feelings of not belonging, and 2) a sense of lacking the required skills/preparedness. We saw an opportunity to offer these students the tools and experience to be active, successful members of the University community.
Numerous studies have identified a number of risk factors, such as first generation status, related to sentiments of not belonging. These studies have identified students reported unfamiliarity with campus norms and bureaucracies (Chen, 2005), financial stress (Robb, 2017), lack of social capital and social connections (e.g., feeling isolated, confused, or “lost” on campus)(Moschetti & Hudley, 2015), and impostor syndrome (feeling that one is not qualified or doesn’t belong in college)(Ramsey & Brown, 2018) as major reasons for why students feel like they don’t belong and consequently, leave the university.
On the issue of preparedness, one of the factors that often trips students up is the substantial increase in workload from high school, or even community college, to the university level (Hunter 2006). Researchers have found that students who are at a high risk for dropping out often hold themselves solely responsible for their success or failure in college, perceiving personal work ethic as more important than using campus resources or connections (Moschetti & Hudley, 2015), which if engaged could greatly bolster the likelihood of success. There is commonly a resistance to asking for help, particularly since students often see us as experts who will judge them if they need assistance. We knew from other research that a “high impact practice” (AAC&U, 2022) like a first year seminar, or travel abroad, or undergraduate research could have genuinely transformative results for many of our students. And so, the Foundations program was born.
The Foundations program was created with four main goals in mind (termed ‘Outcomes’ below), which are rooted in solving many of the common problems students face when first setting foot on this campus.
Outcome 1: Student Understanding of the University
- How is university different from high school or community college?
- How is knowledge constructed in academia?
- What does it take to do well?
Outcome 2: Creating Connections
- How can faculty become mentors in this first experience on campus?
- How can we break down, or at least weaken, the power dynamic between students and faculty so that they see us as approachable and as allies?
- How can students find ways to connect with each other?
Outcome 3: Practical Skills for University Success
- How can we develop critical thinking skills in ways that students find relatable?
- How do we improve basic study and research skills?
- How do we prepare them for the workloads and complexity of higher level courses?
Outcome 4: Campus Resources and Long-term Planning
- How can we connect our students to the support systems we have on campus?
- How do we help them engage with other High Impact Practices so that they keep up the momentum we begin in Foundations?
- How can we help them begin planning their careers?
The questions I’ve outlined above aren’t exhaustive, but they should give you a good sense of the mindset and framework we had when we designed the program. Put plainly, we want to make students’ early experiences on campus relevant to their lives, practical, supportive, and more in line with a partnership/mentorship model. Our faculty members achieve this in many ways, but these outcomes are shared among the faculty who teach within this program.
The program is new, having only launched in the Fall of 2020, and during the Covid-19 lockdowns no less! However, we did hear back from students after the first year and their thoughts on the program are encouraging. Students reported feeling their Foundations faculty were often more approachable than their other instructors. They also felt they made better connections with other students, even though they were all remote! We heard that the course content was often more interactive and engaging than other courses, that they learned a lot about themselves, and that the reflection/metacognition components that many of our courses use really made them think about the process of being a student in new and useful ways.
Our faculty members also reported many positive experiences; mainly the freedom to experiment with pedagogies they often felt would draw scrutiny or critique in their home disciplines. For example, some of us experimented with “ungrading,” oral exams, metacognition exercises, scaffolded assignments, and so on. The Foundations faculty often described a deeper engagement and connection with their students.
One of our ongoing goals now is to continuously listen to students and faculty about their experiences in the Foundations program. In a few years’ time, we hope to have some quantitative data to demonstrate the effectiveness of the program, but the qualitative data we’ve begun to collect is promising. We won’t solve all the problems our students face, but we are a critical component of the overall solution. It’s also my hope that what we’ve done in this program being to spread to other courses and programs. It’s certainly affected all of my own courses in ways I didn’t anticipate when I began down this path.
In closing, I’d like to encourage all my colleagues to experiment with different ways of teaching. As I see it, there is very little to lose, and a great deal to gain. As my own pedagogy becomes more rooted in empathy, trust, and partnership, my teaching has become so much more joyful and fulfilling. It’s not perfect by any means – I still struggle with problems of student effort and motivation, and with my own frustrations when a new and exciting assignment (at least to me!) falls flat. This journey has certainly required a lot of work, but it’s been deeply rewarding. The benefits to my students, and to me, are real. I am dreading the grading process less and less, as I continue to shape and reshape my assignments so that they are more meaningful to my students, and to me. I have also experimented with ungrading, and to my great surprise, the student reactions have been overwhelmingly positive, although I shouldn’t be, given that traditional grading practices are often the source of much anxiety for students (Stommel, 2021).
For the curious types, please feel free to join our campus Ungrading working group by emailing Prof. Emily Luxon (firstname.lastname@example.org). The new practice-based learning model (CASL, 2021) that is rapidly gaining steam on campus is also exciting and will provide new opportunities to rethink our practices. Finally, for those interested in joining the Foundations program, or simply to learn more about it, please feel free to email me directly (email@example.com).
AAC&U. (2022) High-Impact Practices. AAC&U. https://www.aacu.org/trending-topics/high-impact
Chen, X. (2005). First-generation students in postsecondary education: A look at their college transcripts (NCES 2005-171). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2005/2005171.pdf
Forrest Cataldi, F., Bennett, C. T., Chen, X. (2018). First-generation students: College access, persistence, and postbachelor’s outcomes (NCES 2018-421). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2018/2018421.pdf
Gannon, Kevin M. 2020. Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto. West Virginia University Press
Hernandez, Paul. 2015. The Pedagogy of Real Talk: Engaging, Teaching, and Connecting with Students. Corwin Press
Hunter, M. S. (2006). Fostering student learning and success through first-year programs. Peer Review, 8(3), 4-7.
Ives, J., & Castillo-Montoya, M. (2020). First-generation college students as academic learners: A systematic review. Review of Educational Research, 90(2), 139-178.
Moschetti, R., & Hudley, C. (2015). Social capital and academic motivation among first-generation community college students. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 39, 235-251.
Ramsey, R., & Brown, D. (2018). Feeling like a fraud: Helping students renegotiate their academic identities. College and Undergraduate Libraries, 25, 86-90.
Robb, C. (2017). College student financial stress: Are the kids alright? Journal of Family and Economic Issues, 38, 511-527.
Stommel, J. (2021). Grades are dehumanising, but ‘ungrading’ is no simple solution. The Campus. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/campus/grades-are-dehumanising-ungrading-no-simple-solution
CASL. (2021). A Practice-Based Learning (PBL) model for the College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters. UM-Dearborn. https://umdearborn.edu/casl/about/casl-faculty-and-staff-resources/practice-based-learning-pbl-model-college-arts-sciences
CASL. (2022). Foundations program. UM-Dearborn. https://umdearborn.edu/casl/undergraduate-programs/foundations-program