Wednesday, December 28, 2016

First Year Seminar (FYS) - All of THAT in a 1-hour course!?

That moment of incredulous disbelief when you look at learning outcomes and then look at the parameters of a course can be overwhelming, particularly for some of the newer First Year Seminar (FYS) and First Year Experience (FYE) courses that are trending around the country.

Over the past four years, I have taught the mandatory, one-hour "transition to college" course for both cross-discipline and communication studies-only majors. The primary takeaway is that you CAN fit all of those learning objectives into a one-hour course if you take some time to creatively consider assignments and the environment you choose to create in the course.

Several years ago, my colleague, Dr. Sarah Maben (author of Communication Crossroads Blog), and I received the charge and proceeded to draft a First Year Seminar course designed to meet the many, layered (and somewhat murky) goals for the course. We're happy to share our journey and the syllabus.

We discovered a few helpful steps to managing any class which relies on a litany of pre-determined learning objectives in limited time. Here are some tips to consider if you're facing your own mountain (there is hope, it IS possible!):
  1. Let the learning objectives drive you. Before you do anything, consider WHY the course exists and what is expected of you and the students. By brainstorming from learning objectives (pre-set, in this case), we were able to fit a lot of content into a course that has limited time (1 hour) without overwhelming the expectations of a 1-hour class's workload.
  2. Don't forget assessment. Before you get married to exciting ideas or new directions, remember that you will need to assess (and report) on how you are meeting the goals of the course -- especially for those FYS/FYE courses that are part of the core curriculum. Draft your rubrics, consider how you'll measure the learning well before you commit to too many details in the course.
  3. Consider energy. It is often discussed here on Communication in Higher Education, but we cannot undervalue our ebb and flow of the semester -- it impacts us. If you're on your game, you'll anticipate typical student-based and professor-based workflow and the "traffic" of the semester. This is especially important in an FYS/FYE course. Read up on when students traditionally get homesick, overwhelmed, euphoric, or re-vitalized and try to work WITH that information. You cannot control when midterms are, but you can certainly avoid three major assignments in one week, therefore saving your sanity and the students' stamina.
  4. Think about consistency. One of the best things we can offer our newest students is a clear understanding of what to expect. This lessens their anxiety and helps them to feel comfortable. I try to have a schedule where students aren't surprised when an assignment is due, that they know "Thursdays are journal days" or that we have guest speakers on a certain day. We also build up to big assignments and maintain a daily schedule that allows them to "get in the groove" of class. They know we'll open with check-ins and reminders, so they learn to be on time and have notetaking materials ready at the start of class, for example.
  5. Set them up for success. In a FYS/FYE course, consider what students need to know in ALL of their classes. Teach transferrable skills. This makes some of those drier learning objectives easier to digest and embrace. For example, a big gap in my students' knowledge in Junior-based courses included effective writing and knowledge of Blackboard. For that reason, we teach the newest students how to navigate Blackboard and require regular writing assignments with meaningful feedback to help lay a foundational skill set that transfers to their other classes. The same is true for our final group project, it works to emphasize critical thinking, data analysis, effective oral and written communication, and teamwork (that is very different in college).
  6. Environment. Know how you want to approach any course that may feel "full" of learning outcomes or objectives. For my FYS/FYE class, I want to provide a safe space to question, share concerns, learn, explore and grow into an understanding of university life and skills for success. For that reason, I prefer to meet the 1-credit course twice a week (to catch any of those breakdowns and to be there for the students as a resource. We finish by mid-semester, but I trust they are very prepared at that point to launch into the final 8 weeks of the term with the resources they need. I maintain their office hours and schedule optional times to check-in (Lattes with Dr. Lora) so they remember that I am still a resource if they need to talk about how to prepare for finals or get a refresher on our time management strategies. 

Overall, those learning objective lists can serve as a great nudge to be creative, be conscientious, and use a layered approach to maximize the limited time you may have with the students.

See the latest version of the FYS syllabus here: FYS Fall 2016 Communication Studies.

Share your strategies. How do you handle meeting the layered outcomes in your courses?