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'Teaching Nonmajors'

July 25, 2008

Many professors dream of inspiring students to share the excitement that attracted their instructors to a discipline. The reality is that this isn't always going to happen. Many times, of course, professors teach students whose interests are elsewhere and who are enrolled just to fulfill a requirement. A new book offers advice on teaching these students. Teaching Nonmajors: Advice for Liberal Arts Professors (State University of New York Press) is by P. Sven Arvidson, a senior faculty fellow at the Center for Excellence in Teaching at Seattle University. Arvidson responded to e-mail questions about the book.

Q: What are the most common mistakes in teaching students who aren't majors -- and how can they be avoided?

A: First, don’t coast the first day or week of class. Assign work right away and get to know the students and have them get to know each other. Make them reflect and communicate publicly about why they are in the course. Second, assignments are the backbone of a course. Boring assignments, boring course. Challenging assignments, exciting course. Third, lecturing past 15-20 minutes in a row taxes attention. Break up lectures, even if only for a moment. Fourth, it would be a huge mistake to be relatively unavailable for nonmajors. End each class with some announcement of your availability.

Q: Many courses for those outside the major have a reputation as being watered down courses ("Physics for Poets," etc.). You talk about the importance of rigor even in such courses -- how can you keep expectations high when students don't have the interest level you'd see from majors?

A: I can’t imagine “Physics for Poets” in a liberal arts department, but I can imagine “Poetry for Physicists.” You should assume the interest is ready to sprout, and you need to find the right kind of nurturing to make it so. That is, you must clean up assumptions about your students by getting to know what their interests are, and when possible relate course examples, feedback, assignments to these interests. Also, it would be a mistake to assume that all creative writing majors are equally motivated about creative writing, or that the aspiring physicist is uninspired by the novel opportunity to write poetry.

Q: You write that instructors who complain about unprepared students don't deserve sympathy. What should such instructors do?

A: My main point concerns students who don’t complete the assigned reading before class. This directly subverts lecture and discussion, and leads to other prep problems. Many professors require a written, graded assignment with each new reading assignment. In critical thinking oriented courses, an unprompted 200 word position paper handed in at the beginning of class makes sense. Goals of another course may stress the skill of summarizing the reading rather than taking a position. In a leadership or communication based course, oral quizzes of randomly chosen students may be better. Penalty or real value for final course grades makes completing this assignment almost assured. A faltering student is immediately evident and can be taken aside and encouraged to prepare for class. I can’t imagine trying to teach unprepared students. This common problem is easily fixable.

Q: What are the best strategies for holding students to high expectations?

A: I’ll talk about assignments. For higher student achievement on assignments, at least two things must happen. Students must become confident, trusting in their emerging ability and in the professor. And the professor must set high goals and be willing to support them. For example, if students have been writing reading-linked assignments and getting feedback almost each class day, then they can see their own progress, become self-assured, and rely on a developing line of communication (through these minor assignments) with the professor. Simultaneously, the professor must be willing to give class time to discuss the more challenging assignment and provide expanded availability.

Q: Given your reflections on teaching non-majors, should colleges approach non-major requirements in different ways than many do now? What are the best college policies to encourage students to approach a range of disciplines?

A: I don’t think wholesale change is needed and I believe most students know they are going to take “core” courses outside their main interest and generally look forward to the challenge. In my city, a short bike ride takes you from a leading state university to a leading liberal arts university. Students know that the latter has required courses in theology, philosophy, history and so on. So students self-select, in part, to be subjected to required courses outside their major. Urban, rural, church-affiliated, state-funded, each school has a unique character and the variety is healthy for higher education and for students. Periodically considering institutional change to the “core” is important, even if few changes are made. Harvard recently faced this problem publicly and divisively. Nevertheless, I believe that the main players involved on both sides of that drama, and most of the rest of us, think that having the local discussion every decade or so is healthy for each constituent group, professors, students, administrators, and the larger community.

 

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