Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Intro Course

A new study finds that community college students who take an introductory course with an adjunct professor are less likely to take subsequent courses in the same discipline than students who took the intro course with a full-time professor.  

It’s the sort of finding that raises as many questions as it answers.

At a basic level, it suggests that there’s an institutional payoff to using more full-time faculty, as opposed to more adjuncts.  Some of us (hi!) have been arguing that for years, to limited effect. The battle continues. If nothing else, the study offers some hope of quantifying the relationship, and thereby of pricing it.  It’s hard to win economic arguments on moral grounds, at least internally.

But it isn’t just about the employment status of the professor, as important as that is.  It’s about the importance of first impressions, including in the classroom.

Large universities have long treated introductory classes as cash cows.  The model of the 300 student lecture, with discussion sections led by graduate students, persists because it’s cheap.  But the message it sends to incoming students -- you’re on your own -- isn’t terribly welcoming.

It wasn’t meant to be.  It was built on the assumption that higher ed was a seller’s market, and that the burden was on the student to show that he -- historically, it was a he -- belonged.  We’ve all heard the apocryphal story of the freshman orientation that starts with “look to your left, look to your right, only one of you will make it.” The old “weed ‘em out” approach was built on the assumption that there’s a surplus of students, and the job of intro courses is to gatekeep.  They were admirably well-designed for that purpose.

That purpose doesn’t make sense anymore, to the extent that it ever did.

Community colleges and small liberal-arts colleges share the distinction of featuring small sections of introductory courses taught by actual faculty.  They haven’t always made as much of a fuss about that as they could. They should.

But the employment status of the professor, and the size of the class, aren’t the only relevant variables in introducing students to college.  

It’s pretty well-established in the student success literature, for instance, that banning late registration would help.  If it were up to me, and if the short-term economic loss weren’t prohibitive, I’d love to close registration (with plenty of notice, obviously) at least three weeks before the term started.  Then we could spend those three weeks making sure that every student has financial aid ironed out, textbooks acquired, work schedules adjusted, and the like, so professors could jump right in and start teaching substantively on day one.  The last-minute chaos that stems from last-minute registration impacts the classroom directly. I give faculty a lot of credit for managing it as well as they do, but they shouldn’t have to. In fact, one of the most compelling arguments for OER -- other than cost, of course -- is that they allow every student to have the materials from the first day of class.  By removing an excuse, OER allow the faculty to be stricter about insisting that students do the reading and the homework from the outset.

Still, I’m glad to see some community-college-based data on intro courses and staffing.  It’s a start.

Wise and worldly readers, if you could tweak something about intro courses, what would it be?