Monday, November 17, 2014

Reaching the Range

In a group discussion recently, several professors brought up the challenge of teaching a class in which the range of student preparation levels stretches from “coulda gone anywhere, if not for money and family issues” to “not yet reading at a college level.”  When you have students at either end of that continuum, and at all points in between, in the same room at the same time, reaching all of them isn’t easy.

College professors traditionally aren’t really taught how to teach, except by example.  But the examples are usually drawn from graduate school, in which you can usually take a certain level of academic preparation and interest for granted.  (At least, I hope so!)  I recall some very talented lecturers in grad school, and some competent discussions, but I don’t recall ever being taught how to reach undergrads who struggled to read the text, when they bothered to try.  That does not seem to have changed in most fields.  (I’ll tip my cap here to the rhet/comp folk, who have made a point of reaching students where they actually are.)

Some of the academic departments try to attack the issue by gatekeeping.  Putting prerequisites on courses is a way to screen out the most academically challenged.  But outside of courses in which the content builds in a linear way, like the algebra sequence, it’s gatekeeping for the sake of gatekeeping.  It tends to create certain academic ghettos into which developmental students are herded, because they still need full-time status and they still want to make progress towards graduation.  It often starves the walled-off courses of the enrollments they need, if they’re going to run.  And based on both anecdotal feedback and pass rates, it seems to make much less difference than its proponents want it to make in the classroom.  Besides, if we want to speed up completion rates, gatekeeping is the last thing we should be doing.

Ideally, some targeted professional development to help faculty work more effectively with the students they actually have.  That way we wouldn’t have to choose between open access and high success.  This is where I’m hoping my wise and worldly readers can ride to the rescue.

We’ve all endured professional development workshops or events in which the living envied the dead.  The usual sins run the gamut from “field-specific to a field that isn’t mine” to “irrelevant for the students we actually have” to “would be nice, if we had triple the budget we have.”  And that’s without even getting into the more reductive versions of The One True Faith or There’s An App For That.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen, or found, or developed, a professional development resource that was actually helpful in the specific challenge of reaching students across a wide range of preparation levels?  Ideally, one that isn’t specific to a single discipline?  I’d love to provide faculty access to something that would actually help, and that would help across a wide spectrum of disciplines.  We aren’t moving to selective admissions, and the range isn’t getting any narrower, so anything that’s actually useful would be appreciated.