Tuesday, November 30, 2010


It Made Sense on Paper...

A few years ago my college tried one of those ideas that makes sense on paper, but that crashed and burned in the real world. I was reminded of that today in discussing a proposal that would have repeated the same mistake.

We treated a group of new students as a single cohort. They all took the same sections of every class together, and the instructors for the various sections coordinated assignments for maximum reinforcement. The idea was to bundle everything good into a package, and to see how successful we could get a given cohort to be. They got some of the best instructors, they had opportunities to bond with each other, and they even had special group exposure to various extracurriculars. In theory, they should have been super-integrated into the life of the college, what with all the bonding and suchlike, and their success and satisfaction rates should have gone through the roof.

They hated it.

It was one of those (retrospectively) glorious exercises in perspective. From the college’s perspective, the idea of group bonding, integrated instruction, and deliberate exposure to extracurriculars should have added ‘good’ to ‘good’ to ‘good.’ To the students, though, it felt like High School II. In high school, they saw the same people over and over again from class to class; they were actually eager to break away from that at college. Instead, they ran into this program which made them feel like they had walked into the 13th grade. While their course-level academic success was actually pretty high, they bailed from the program (and the college) at the first opportunity, transferring early.

I feel bad for the students, of course, but as a learning opportunity for the college it was extraordinary.

The college had taken for granted that anything that helped students succeed was good. If the research suggested that student bonding helps, then let’s encourage that. If the research suggested that linked courses were good, then let’s link everything. If some is good, then more must be better!

But the students themselves made a distinction between high school and college, holding the latter to a different standard. While some level of support may have been helpful, too much became infantilizing. They wanted some autonomy, even if that came at the risk of some level of distance. In fact, the distance was a bit of a selling point.

We’re having a similar issue with some faculty and some dual enrollment programs. Dual enrollment programs come in many flavors, but the ones that raise hackles are the ones that offer struggling high school students from struggling districts a chance to take classes here. The idea is to get them out of a dysfunctional setting, and to whet their appetites for college. It’s a way to reduce the high school dropout rate and increase our enrollments at the same time.

The jury is still out on that, but some of the college faculty have started objecting that it makes the college feel like high school. I’m beginning to wonder if there’s something to that.

Wise and worldly readers, have you had projects on campus that looked good on paper but that just didn’t work? And for that matter, in the age of writing on screens, is there an updated way of saying something looks good on paper?

We tried that cohort thing too and it was a complete disaster at my CC.
How's it working for the students?

I'm a middle-aged woman who will lose a full letter grade off my degree courses if I don't meet with my advisor to discuss my life goals and allow my degree professors to track the grades I get in all my classes. I totally get the whole "this isn't high-school" thing.

But the faculty makes the atmosphere, they aren't simply subject to it, the way the students are. It doesn't sound like the whole program needs to be scrapped, if it's working for the students. I think that college faculty have more of a responsibility to just deal with high-school students than college students have to deal with high-school teachers. I think the faculty have found an argument that's worked before...
I think context is important, here. I work in a seminary and we do the cohort thing--everyone in lock step their first year with intro course faculty working together to create a cohesive experience. Students love it but then they showed up at seminary hoping to bond.

I was a dual enrollment student and I heard that complaint from faculty. They would literally make it part of their syllabus to tell dual enrollment students not to act like this was high school. I'm not sure we were the problem but in any case, I lied about my age to avoid the stereotype. I was 18 for three years running.
So, I assume this comes with zero assistance in acclimating to the new culture and expectations, with most students being first in their family to attend college?

...yeah, that's gonna seem a lot like high school.
The idea of linked courses has been kicked around where I am, but not to the point of making students take every class and "forced" extracurriculars together. The discussion stemmed from the "learning community " concept- let's get a group together and have "make" them cohesive. I brought up the fact that we already have that with our Allied Health programs and other limited enrollment majors.

My proposal involves two sections that would incorporate subject matter from one into assignments in the other. Like History and English or Sociology and Speech.

We had success with a more limited version of this at a CC-like uni on a small island, and were actually toying around with stepping it up right before I left- cultural differences probably account for a lot of the relative satisfaction/dissatisfaction in my situation vs yours.

My doctoral program uses a cohort model. It was a major factor in nearly driving me out the door my first year there. Talk about wanting out of high school.
Oddly, that exact program works wonderfully well in a lot of MBA programs...

Our failure. We have classes that (generally) meet 2 days a week (MW/TTh; 75 minutes per meeting) or one day a week (typically in the evening). So utilization of classrooms on Friday is, well, light. So we tried a schedule in which classes meeting in the morning (but not the afternoon) would be WMF (50 minutes).

Students hated it. Enrollments in those classes were smaller than expected (I, for example, had an intro econ class at 11 MWF and one at 2:30 MW. The 11:00 class had about 20 students, the 2:30 class had 50). Attendance on Fridays averaged about half of what it was on MW.

We tried this for one semester, and then gave it up...It may be that we should have persisted, but the response from students was quite discouraging.
We are doing this now at the school where I work. A couple of things I've noticed as part of the experience:

1. Recruitment is very important. Students should be able to self-select and not be automatically dumped into a cohort. But the people driving enrollment in the cohort really need to understand what it is about. Not all students are likely to succeed in a cohort environment, and not all of them want it. If your advising folks aren't clear on what it is about, or if they're simply looking for numbers over goodness of fit, then the result in the classroom will be disastrous. This has been a challenge for the cohort at my school so far.

2. It requires a lot of flexibility and extra work on the part of the faculty, in order to make it pay off. I put at least twice as much time and energy into designing and conducting the "cohort" section as I do into my "regular" section for the same class. I also put untold hours into preparation over the summer, working with the other people who are teaching in the cohort, all uncompensated of course. (new assignments, reorganization of material, interweaving course content, etc.) I don't honestly mind that (too much) because it has been fun and intellectually stimulating, but at a minimum, I want a chance to do it more than once so that I can see some pay-offs, given the start-up costs. It also would be nice to provide some kind of compensation, release, or at least recognition of the extra efforts involved in creating such a cohort program.

Based on my experience, I think it is a worthwhile endeavor, but it takes a great deal of commitment, planning and communication among (usually) disparate parts of the University in order to make it work. Everybody involved had better be prepared to put in that effort, or it will be a total mess.
"Wise and worldly readers, have you had projects on campus that looked good on paper but that just didn’t work?"


And I wonder if one of our failures was funded in a similar way to your failure.

Your HS comments make a lot of sense to me. Who, in their right mind, would go see a "counselor" for help in planning their classes at a community college?
When I was in grad school at a Flagship U, I taught in a program we offered in the summer for incoming at risk students who had been admitted for the fall. The idea was that students would get a jump start on college by starting in the summer, living in the dorm, and taking classes designed to introduce them to doing college-level work.

The problem was that they were all in the same classes, which consisted exclusively of students in the program. Predictably, the class felt just like a HS class, since there were no "regular" students to make the classes feel like college classes, and TAs by themselves couldn't do much to inculcate a genuine college feeling in the students.

Matters were made worse by the fact that attendance was mandatory for participation in the program (they'd be sent home if they had too many absences). This made it feel even more like HS...and also eliminated the stress-relieving technique of "skipping."

The no-skip policy also made it hard on TAs used to teaching college students, as unhappy students don't show up and become problems (IME); they skip or just drop the class.
I taught for two years at university in a former Soviet country that used a similar cohort system. I hated it. At least at that campus, it was designed to promote conformity. Students rarely had a chance to meet students outside their cohort, so they were rarely exposed to divergent viewpoints. They could not choose their own classes, or select between different sections of teachers. There was enormous pressure to keep the group together, not to help individual students succeed at their own goals at their own pace. All in all, I thought it was horrible. If I had wanted to teach high school, I would have gotten a degree in education.
Adults don't want to have their schedules micromanaged. A lot of on paper to reality failures fail to take this into account.

I currently teach in a soft cohort model at a university. The trick is to make it only 1 class per term AND to offer some flexibility of sections/classes after the first term. Ours starts with a year long course (yes, complaints but works well enough), then tracks into 3-4 sophomore level options (that change by term) and then into 5-10 related upper division gen ed electives. There will be 5 friendly faces if you track it well enough.

My sister went to a HS-CC program. Crappiest part of that? They (the advising people in the program) steered her away from night classes even if there weren't feasible day alternatives. Why go to CC for high school if it is going to be mini HS?

One CC I've recently been a part of has a formal agreement with the school district to run on the same schedule. When the term is an extra 10 days long, you can bet faculty feel like they are teaching at high school. (well, there were other reasons too, but the longer schedule than any of their academic peers didn't help.) Blah.
I thought these two comments interesting, placed side by side:

Oddly, that exact program works wonderfully well in a lot of MBA programs...

I taught for two years at university in a former Soviet country that used a similar cohort system. I hated it. At least at that campus, it was designed to promote conformity.

This explains why the MBA students like it, no?
May I suggest, "It seemed perfect in powerpoint"
I fight every day against the idiocies of the highschool mindset in my cc students. The last thing they need is to revisit highschool, even if it's familiar and comforting. Especially if it's familiar and comforting.

For most of them highschool was about being stupid and accepting assignments along the lower end of the class continuum. There they learned a bad way to learn, a bad way to see themselves as students, and a bad way to see school and teachers.

Dual enrollment is becoming a big deal here, but it's simply an elaborate way of shaking money out of local school districts that we can't shake out of the legislature or from the trustees who set our tuition. Educational value of a cc for an unmotivated 17 year old negligible but damage to the older students incalculable.
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