Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The ideal student

This semester, the team of instructors that teaches our first-year sequence is taking a fresh look at the syllabi for those courses. We've had some turnover since we last did this exercise, and it's time to incorporate the new members fully and reassess what the rest of us (including some folks no longer in the team) have brought to the table.

To start off, I borrowed an exercise that I found in a description of an earth sciences curriculum revision. The course designers think of the ideal student who has just finished the class, and ask themselves: What should that student be able to do? What should that student know?

This seems to dovetail nicely with a common topic of conversation among the faculty in my department. When we discover that a student in our upper-division courses, who like all our students has had this introductory sequence, does not know how to do something, we are frustrated. Why can't she cite her sources? Why doesn't he know how to use the library card catalog? Didn't they learn this in the first year? So one could approach answering those "ideal student" questions from the negative side: What gaps in skill or knowledge surprise us when they appear in our upper-division students?

Here's my first pass at answering those questions. Keep in mind that these are high-ability students, for better or for worse. For better: They've almost all had advanced courses (such as AP) in high school, and so can be presumed to start from a higher baseline and make more progress in the first year in college. For worse: They've often been able to conceal lacks and gaps by competence in other areas, and sometimes their schools have not pushed them because scarce instructional resources must be spent on lower-performing students.

The ideal student finishing Honors Core I and II should be able to ...

  • summarize the main points of a text
  • understand that different academic disciplines utilize distinct toolsets to shed light on "big" cross-disciplinary questions
  • defend assertions about an author's meaning and intent with textual evidence
  • understand how historical and cultural context shapes thinkers, thoughts, and texts
  • write meaningful, effective introductory and concluding paragraphs
  • outline an effective argument
  • follow that outline to produce an effective prose argument
  • construct clear, efficient sentences in formal writing
  • construct sentences with active verbs and agential subjects (avoiding passive voice and impersonal constructions)
  • avoid empty verbiage, including unnecessary adjectives, adverbs, repetition, and framing devices
  • employ effective and well-selected search strategies to find relevant information in the library, on the web, and in online databases
  • evaluate the reliability and value of information sources
  • apply the perspective of major thinkers and schools of thought to the student's own experience, beliefs, and assumptions
  • reevaluate, with an openness to revision, personal beliefs and assumptions in the light of new information, perspectives, and contexts
  • appreciate the disciplinary expertise and perspective of each member of the instructional team
  • welcome new information, perspectives, and contexts as an opportunity for personal growth
  • reflect on the student's own education as a historically-conditioned institution reflecting contested social values and visions
  • commit to further thought and exploration as a way of reconciling conflicts of perspective and value
  • exercise judgment in responding to feedback
The ideal student finishing Honors Core I and II should know ...
  • how Platonic philosophy came to shape current popular understandings of Christianity
  • how existentialism challenges claims, both ontological and moral, about essences and natures
  • how Darwin, Marx, and Freud crafted rich and compelling accounts of human nature's developmental history
  • the broad difference between idealism and materialism as accounts of reality and experience
  • the power of environment -- social and physical -- as a shaping force in experience and thought
  • the power of language and metaphor as a shaping force in experience and thought
  • that the answers to "big" significant questions are complex, historically conditioned, and multi-faceted
  • how the kinds of answers we give to "big" significant questions about humanity shape our response to current challenges and crises
I'm sure there's more -- or maybe there should be less. When the rest of the team responds and we look at it all together, I'll be interested to see how our ideal students are alike, and how they are different.

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