I teach in the First-Year Writing program at DePaul, and during Autumn Quarter especially, my classes consist mostly of freshmen. I love to watch how their demeanors evolve throughout the quarter as they become more confidently part of DePaul’s academic community—but joining this community isn’t natural for everyone (and wasn’t for me when I was an undergraduate student).
So as I’m submitting final grades for Autumn Quarter, pouring over my course evaluations, and thinking about the fast-approaching Winter Quarter, I’m reflecting on how I can better help the students that don’t as easily find their groove in my classroom and others.
David L. Kirp spends a great deal of time looking for ways to help these students out—both in K–12 and higher ed contexts. In August, he tackled higher ed with “Conquering the Freshman Fear of Failure,” and in October, he focused on middle and high school demographics: “Nudges That Help Struggling Students Succeed.” In both op-eds, Kirp suggests there are relatively easy ways that we can “nudge” and help students “conquer” barriers in education.
Kirp’s suggestions are rooted in social psychology and the belief that educators can impact students’ academic futures by changing their mindsets before and during college. Drawing on work by Stanford psychologists Carol Dweck, Gregory M. Walton, and Geoffrey L. Cohen, Kirp suggests that if we help students to think about intelligence and success in college in new ways, we could help put them on the right path.
How do we do that? One of Dweck’s research projects tackled it in two ways. A set of incoming freshmen read upperclassmen accounts of how they learned to navigate the university. Another set of freshmen were provided with research that shows intelligence isn’t a static trait, but instead something that can be developed with hard work. The effects were great for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. And the best part: both activities were 40-minute online exercises.
Kirp acknowledges that these interventions can’t fix a broken system, or make up for some disadvantages university students face, but they could help.
So I’m thinking through ways I might apply these strategies—small-scale—to my own classroom during Winter Quarter. I’ll have my next set of students write letters to a future section in which they share their experiences writing in my course and tips for navigating my class. And I’ll continue emphasizing how great writers aren’t born, but developed, and that many (including myself) really need to get terrible first drafts out of our systems before things come together.