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?