First Day Activity: What Do Employers Look for in College Grads?

In the weeks preceding the start of a new term, I am often asked by colleagues about my teaching strategies for the first day of class. With the recent spate of articles from pedagogy-themed websites like this one or this one, if they weren’t before, faculty today are acutely aware of the significance of the first day impression. While contending with their own first-day jitters, instructors are advised to tackle a myriad of logistical issues (e.g., the syllabus, enrollment, classroom policies, learning management procedures); establish a safe, welcoming, and stimulating classroom environment; and, as if instructors were not already short on time, deliver an inspiring lesson that establishes instructor credibility while kindling student interest.

Ellsworth Blog

In my situation, as a professor who exclusively teaches general education courses, I also face a classroom with some students who have elected to take my course, not because it represents a field they are genuinely interested in or are pursuing professionally, but because it is require for graduation. Some students, questioning the very relevance of general education, may utter the all-too-familiar question, “When will I ever need to know this?” For these students, I have adapted the following activity for my first-day classes to help them think critically about the course’s role in their educational goals and answer this question for themselves.

Activity Instructions

I welcome students to the class, introduce myself, and then ask, “Why are you here? Why are you in this class?” After the nervous giggles dissipate and my continued silence affirms my interest in a response, students volunteer the same types of answers: to get a degree, to fulfill the graduation requirements, or to be better qualified for a job. Occasionally, I may even get a student who expresses interest in the course topic or theme. I follow-up by asking: “If you are here in order to qualify for a future job, I imagine you know what employers in your field are looking for in college graduates, right?” Some students may offer up an idea or two but, in my experience, most students have never considered this question. What do employers want in their new college graduate hires?

At this point, I invite the class to divide into groups of four or five students. I hand each group some markers and a sheet of large paper from a flipchart. I explain how I would like each group to introduce themselves and then use the internet to find a credible source (legitimate website, news report, scholarly journal article, etc.) that describes the qualifications employers are seeking in college graduates. Students can look at this question broadly as applicable to all college graduates or look specifically at their major field of study. After reading the source material, students are invited to share their findings with their group and compile a list of their top seven qualifications on their flipchart. Once completed, each groups hangs their chart up on the wall. After each group has finished, I invite the students to roam the room and read each of the charts while looking for common themes.

When the students have returned to their seats, I ask students to share their findings: What were some common themes among the groups? What surprised you? Depending on the sources, the qualifications will differ. However, if students seek out credible sources on Google, the top two listings include this report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers and this report from the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Both of these reports stress the importance of skills and attributes such as the ability to write and speak clearly, solve problems, be creative, think critically, and cooperate on a team. Students, especially first-year students, are often surprised that these reports rarely mention grades or G.P.A. After making this realization, I ask my students to share why this information matters. How should it impact their approach to the course?

I explain my belief that the course theme is of secondary importance to the skills and attributes the assignments, readings, and activities will help them develop. I invite students to pull out their course syllabus. I ask them to read through it looking for ways the course will help them develop the attributes they identified as being important to employers. Through this lens, students may look at a writing assignment as a way to develop critical thinking and writing skills and not as “mere busy work.” Reading assignments are recast as opportunities to hone analytical skills; a group project is an opportunity to work as team and to develop oral communication skills. Through this activity, students are able to think critically about their general education courses and understand its’ value in preparing them for the workforce. While this activity is especially useful for faculty teaching general education courses, it could easily be adapted for use in introductory major courses as well.

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Brant Ellsworth is an Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Humanities and the faculty liaison to the Center for Teaching Excellence at Central Penn College. He is the editor of the Children’s Folklore Review, which publishes articles on all aspects of children’s traditions, and past winner of the W. W. Newell Award from the American Folklore Society.

 

Building an Inclusive Classroom: Knowing Your Students

This is the third installment of the six-part series on inclusivity in the classroom.  The other installments include: Building an Inclusive Classroom: A Starting Place and Building an Inclusive Classroom: Reflecting on Privileges. You can also read more about the ways our faculty use inclusivity practices in their own classrooms in Inclusivity in Practice.

Let’s talk about Maria.  If you talk to Maria’s professor, he will tell you that she is an excellent student: she comes to class early, turns in her homework, and participates in class discussion.  He’ll talk about her essay where she compared different models of masculinity in Gilgamesh and her oral presentation on “bad boys” in Greek mythology.  He might also say that he encouraged Maria to take his class on reading poetry in the spring.   Hi!  My name in Melissa, and I once spent a semester during my undergraduate career as Maria.  I’m not sure why this professor called me Maria (despite initial attempts to correct him): did he misread my name on the roster, did I not pronounce it clearly on the first day, or did I just “look” like a Maria?  I’ll never know.

Inclusivity Blog

I bring up this minor (and now humorous) interlude of my undergraduate career because it illustrates a few important point about “knowing” your students.  First, the professor was not really interested in knowing me as a student or a person, since the first way you demonstrate that interest is by knowing and using someone’s correct name.  Second, the professor did not listen to me when I tried to correct him further demonstrating that our relationship was merely about my course output.  And finally, this moment clarified for me that he didn’t really know any of his students.  At all.  We were all “Maria” in that course.   If “Maria” had been a student who needed additional support and relationship-building in the classroom, she probably wouldn’t have succeed in this course.  If “Maria” was an easily embarrassed student, an introverted student, or an at-risk student, she probably would have dropped the course or stopped coming entirely after a few weeks of being called the wrong name.

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A Quick Technique for Making Your Lectures More Active

While reading a recent interview with Christine Harrington, executive director of the New Jersey Center for Student Success, I was reminded of how some practitioner-scholars in the more technical academic fields experience discomfort with the pedagogy of active learning, although they needn’t. In these instances, faculty feel obliged to present very specific information to students, usually in response to precise disciplinary/workplace expectations or to satisfy accreditation standards that mandate specialized knowledge objectives.

Practitioner scholars

This obligation, whether philosophical or prescribed, can exacerbate the friendly tension that may exist in faculties between “those liberal arts types” and “we practitioner-scholars.” In my experience, practitioner-scholars feel obligated to define instruction as delivering information to students, even while accepting the premise that active learning almost always facilitates stronger outcomes.

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Week One: Silence

By Judith Dutill, Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence

Excitement. Anticipation. Enthusiasm. These are all words I would use to describe how I feel in the weeks and days leading up to a new term. Yet, despite my eagerness, even my widest smile, best jokes, and most engaging team building icebreakers are sometimes met with silence so great, the only thing that can be heard is the sound of my proverbial bubble bursting.

I know that if I hunker down and weather the first few days or weeks of awkward silences, things might pick up once we all get to know one another. But what if it doesn’t? (And, sometimes it doesn’t.) I have found that it is better to work on getting my quiet classes talking earlier in the term than if I let the inactivity persist to the point that silence is what ultimately defines our time together.

Now that a new term is underway, if you feel like you are the only one in the classroom with something to say, try one (or several) of these techniques to get your quiet classes talking…

On-ground classes

  • Keep students moving; try setting up learning/activity stations around the classroom, have students work in small groups before reporting out to the larger class, let students share ideas by writing on the board or creating a post-it wall.
  • Ask students what they need to get more engaged in the class. Use an anonymous survey or poll at the end of class to capture feedback.
  • Use positive reinforcement; notice and acknowledge when class is going well, thank students for their participation and responses.
  • Begin class with a discussion icebreaker such as a current event or a provocative image or news story.
  • Assign student discussion leaders; allow students to create the prompts and facilitate the discussion.
  • Create homework assignments that will connect with the next class meeting’s discussions so students are more likely to arrive prepared to discuss the day’s topics.
  • Use classroom games such as Jeopardy, Bingo, or poling games such as Kahoot.

 

Online classes

Quiet classes can occur in any modality. If you have a quiet online class (which I currently do), you may need to think creatively to get them talking.

  • Reach out to students via email as a reminder that the discussion board needs attention from the class.
  • Ask students what they need to get more engaged in the class. Use an anonymous survey or poll at the end of class to capture feedback.
  • Model a post by creating a starter thread for student reply.
  • Post a mid-week discussion or deploy a mid-week poll (use a polling tool such as Poll Everywhere) on a current event/relevant controversy.
  • Assign student discussion leaders; allow students to create the prompts and facilitate the discussion.
  • Provide multiple discussion prompts so students can find their way to the discussion topics they are most interested in.
  • Use the Groups tool in Blackboard to create small group discussions. Students may be more willing to open up at the beginning of the term with a small group versus the larger group.
  • Encourage students to end their discussion post replies with a lingering question. This will provide other students with a springboard for their replies.
  • Encourage students to share relevant examples by posting multimedia in their discussion posts.
  • Engage students with activities other than discussion boards; try using a VoiceThread asynchronous video discussion, building a class Wiki, or deploying a PlayPosit interactive video (tip: students can also create PlayPosit videos for their peers).

What techniques do you use to get students talking? Tell us about it in the comments section!

Ending the Term on a High Note: Punctuate, Synthesize, and Reflect

By Judith Dutill, Instructional Design Technologist

Joshua Eyler, Director of Rice University’s Center for Teaching Excellence, recently shared his blog post, The Final Class of Semester, emphasizing the importance of meaningfully punctuating the time we have spent with our students.

This made me think about my own classroom tradition of ending the term by asking students to write and share haiku style poems that encapsulate their biggest takeaways; I typically use this activity in introductory-level courses. Many students bring humor to the table and it is a great reminder, before we part ways, that we enjoyed the time we spent learning together.

My favorite haiku from ENG 110:

Public speaking is

Not as scary as it seems

If you breathe and smile

Memorable to me not just for its optimism, but also the affectionate debate over the number of syllables in the word smile that ensued.

Share your favorite end of term traditions in the comments section!

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Teaching with Current Events

By Judith Dutill, Instructional Design Technologist

On September 11, 2001 I was a junior in college studying communication and working as the program director for our campus FM radio station. It was a frantic and confusing day on campus and I spent most of the day working at the radio station, making sure we stayed on the air. September 12, 2001 was just as frantic and confusing; I remember feeling especially homesick and scared. I wanted to be with people (and going home was not an option for me), so I made sure I went to class, Survey of Mass Media.

My professor walked into the room waving a copy of The Wall Street Journal. The headline read: “Terrorists Destroy World Trade Center, Hit Pentagon in Raid with Hijacked Jets.” My strongest and most vivid memory of this time is from that day when the professor shared with us that this was the first six-column headline The Wall Street Journal had run since Pearl Harbor. The professor explained why this was significant and for the remainder of the class we engaged in dialogue about the events of 9/11, all framed around the role of media during times of national crisis and tragedy. It was not lost on me that we were living history (and my professor emphasized this), but more importantly there was comfort for me in this dialogue. The conversation the professor facilitated brought order to chaos; everyone in the classroom that day shared the same fear and confusion but theory and knowledge became our flashlight to see through the darkness.

The events of the past month remind me of this time. There is confusion and fear, misinformation and disinformation – but we can bring order to the chaos and comfort to our students by inviting current events into the classroom and structuring our discourse, to the extent that it is possible, around the unprecedented events of the day.

Noliwe M. Rooks wrote an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled Knowing When to Teach Current Events which offers faculty five questions to ask ourselves when determining whether or not a current event should be brought into the classroom:

  1. Does including the topic allow me to teach students something that, within the context of the overall aims of the course, I think is important for them to learn?
  2. Am I familiar with enough scholarly sources to contextualize the moment or event beyond what is readily available in newspapers and social media?
  3. Is more gained by my teaching this topic than by my leading a town-hall meeting, urging students to organize a panel, or allowing them to discuss the issue during the first few minutes of class?
  4. Is this my “lane”?
  5. If I introduce a new topic into the course, am I prepared to teach students what they don’t know but may need to know in order to fully understand it?

Current events can bring life to your classroom discussions and may even light a spark that creates moments of learning so significant that fifteen years later (or more) your students will still remember them. What more could an educator ask for?

Do you bring current events into the classroom? Tell us about it in the comments section!

 

We are having a paper fight! Ready. Set. Go!

By Benjamin Lipschutz, Business and Accounting Instructor

How do your students learn? How is it that they take their prior knowledge and experiences, combine that with what they are currently being asked to intake, and create real and meaningful knowledge? Experiential learning theory explores this process by breaking into steps how individuals learn. According to researcher David Kolb, experiential learning starts with learners having a concrete experience. They do, see, feel, read, or hear something that passes all their filters and actually leaves an impression. They then require a reflective observation period to mull over what has just occurred. When they have internalized what has happened, they can go through abstract conceptualization and truly learn from the experience. Finally, through active experimentation, they can test what they have learned. This cycle repeats, leading to growth.

A question remains: What does this really mean, and how can/do we apply this in our classrooms?

Let’s start at the beginning. We often ask our students to read text, watch a video, or review presentations to gain a scaffolding of understanding, and then we fill the spaces through our instruction. However, Kolb theorizes that “learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” (Kolb, 1984), and that the acquisition of abstract concepts that can be applied flexibly in a range of situations is most readily imparted through new experiences.

One classroom activity that truly encapsulates this learning model is the “paper fight.”  I ask for eight volunteers from my class of 30 students. I split them in groups of 4, place them on opposite sides of the room and give each a small stack of paper. I then declare that we are having a paper fight. Go!

What happens? Usually, the students hesitate, but then organize themselves and start throwing paper at one another. Some crumple and launch the paper, others throw the entire stack, some throw at their own group, and others throw at the opposite group. In general – it’s chaos. However, it is a CONCRETE experience. I capitalize on this experience the students just had and lead an in-depth discussion about what just transpired. Too often, this time for reflection, understanding, and convergence of ideas is cut short, and students are left floundering with partially formed ideas that fall by the wayside. There must be facilitation to point out and smooth over any inconsistencies between the experience and their understanding and we have to provide adequate time to allow this to happen.

Some probing questions I use to help students come to a conclusion about the previous fight are: Who won? Why did they win? What was the goal? What was the purpose? What were the objectives? The abstract conceptualization comes into play by allowing them time to reflect on the experience and then come up with a novel idea or concept — in this case, a new mission, vision, strategy, or objective.

I then allow for a round of active experimentation. I run a second round with another 8 students, but allow them 30 seconds to strategize. The process begins again. This activity continues with me slowly incorporating more information and details and highlighting the various aspects of management I am teaching in the unit’s lesson.

Key Takeaways 

  1. Experiences are the basis for learning
  2. Allow enough time for true reflection and understanding before moving on
  3. Encourage and give theopportunity to create their own opinions
  4. Create an activity where they can test out their idea.

References:

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development (Vol. 1). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Benjamin Lipschutz is an instructor in the School of Business at Central Penn College. He holds degrees in Accounting, Business, Business Education, and Special Education with PA State certifications in Business Education and Special Education Pre K-8 and 7-12. His focus is in student centered learning and engagement and he enjoys teaching at all levels, from students here at Central Penn College to kindergartners with Junior Achievement.

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