Why I Should Teach Freshmen…At Least Occasionally

Jeanne Slattery

Jeanne Slattery

— Jeanne M. Slattery

I’m teaching an inquiry seminar to freshmen this year. This is only the second time in more than 30 years where all of my students have been freshmen. Let me tell you, it’s been a learning experience.

Relative to my more advanced students, my freshmen are more outspoken, enthusiastic, and fidgety, but less socialized to typical classroom norms. They are more easily bored, as they often can’t create meaningful connections to the material. More to the point, my freshmen don’t know many things that I assume they  know. They have difficulty navigating and using D2L, don’t know how to use what I have assumed is fairly simple technology (e.g., taking screenshots to demonstrate task completion), and are struggling to complete assignments on time. As part of one assignment, I ask my students to fill out their academic planner. The first several planners I saw were completed for only my course or only the week in question. They have difficulty recognizing why using a planner would be useful.

Today my students had three brief articles assigned on study strategies and their relationship to learning (Fondas, 2014; Schwartz, 2015; University of Texas at Austin, 2015). I wanted them to think about how to become more successful learners, but I also planned to use this as an opportunity to further discuss information literacy. I gave them the option of using the ABCDE or CRAAP tests to evaluate their articles.

One group discussed the UT-Austin article, a press release on a study of adolescent cell phone use in the schools, which Beland and Murphy presented at a conference earlier this year. This group included some weak students, but also several who are above the class mean on tasks completed so far. What conclusions did they draw about this article?

  1. They thought that this May 2015 press release was of marginal currency. Randy Potter observed that they would be correct if we were discussing the current presidential campaign, a kind of article many might have read and presented on in the past. For the kinds of articles assigned, however, their article was plenty current.
  2. They believed that the report was biased because a professor was writing about cell phone use — and probably had an axe to grind. My students had difficulty separating research from opinion (this press release described Beland and Murphy’s research). My students can question the methodology or the interpretation of findings, but the fact that the research was written by a professor does not necessarily make it biased.
  3. They were concerned about the statement, “Low-achieving students benefited most from the ban, with test scores increasing by 14.23 percent points of a standard deviation — a gain that was double compared with that of average students” (para. 6). This statement about differential responses reinforced their previous conclusions about the researchers’ bias. In fact, discovering where results apply and with whom is important and one of the essential tasks of psychological research.
  4. One student observed that the original research was done in England and questioned whether findings would generalize to the US. So there was some good news, as she recognized that findings may not generalize across cultural groups or contexts.

What did I hear? Many students are suspicious of academics, particularly when their findings counter my students’ expectations and biases. Many have a difficult time distinguishing between research and opinions. They are unable to judge the currency of sources. They have difficulty understanding interactions among variables.

I am not making fun of my students. I believe my students’ problems are really developmental issues that I need to recognize and respond to. More students than I expected have undeveloped study skills, don’t recognize and use what I see as typical strategies for success, and evaluate the literature based on their biases rather than more objective criteria. These students have difficulty discerning why something is important without being told directly (Berrett, 2015). These seem to be problems reported nationally.

So why should I teach freshmen? Doing so builds my respect and empathy for my colleagues who teach freshmen every day. Working with freshmen may help me become more effective in teaching all students. Doing so reminds me of what our students don’t know, but need to. It reminds me of how far my seniors go over the course of their college careers.

And they do go far.


Berrett, D. (2015, September 21). The unwritten rules of college. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/The-Unwritten-Rules-of/233245/

Fondas, N. (2014). Study: You really can ‘work smarter, not harder.’ Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/05/study-you-really-can-work-smarter-not-harder/370819/

Schwartz, K. (2015). Taking notes: Is the pen still mightier than the keyboard? KQED News. Retrieved from http://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2015/08/18/taking-notes-is-the-pen-still-mightier-than-the-keyboard/

University of Texas at Austin. (2015, May 18). Mobile phone bans lead to rise in student test scores. UTNews. Retrieved from http://news.utexas.edu/2015/05/18/mobile-phone-bans-lead-to-rise-in-student-test-scores

Thanks to Melissa K. Downes who, as always, poked and prodded me to think more carefully about my writing and assertions.

Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She is interested in thinking about what makes teaching and learning successful, and generally describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has written two books, Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy, an Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill (with C. Park). A third, Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Research and clinical perspectives, will be coming out in 2016. She can be contacted at jslattery@clarion.edu

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3 Responses to Why I Should Teach Freshmen…At Least Occasionally

  1. drolivas says:

    Thank you for sharing, Jeanne! It’s interesting how sometimes there seems to be a “them v. us” mentality in students (and –gulp!–in faculty!), that we need to overcome (I believe). Several of the reactions you report seem to suggest what I have observed in more than one occasion. It is not easy to switch to a “we’re all in the same boat” mindset, but, shouldn’t that be more prevalent? I mean… Don’t we all win when our students really understand, internalize and are able to use the content from our classes? If so, are we (faculty members) not here to help them? How can we make sure they realize that too, so we can work together in this short trek (I know 4-6 years doesn’t feel short, but…)?

    Liked by 1 person

    • jslattery22 says:

      Maybe one of the questions here is how to all get on one team. I felt that way today in my more problematic section, but they were concerned about how their faculty are treating them, whether we faculty expect that they can succeed.


      • drolivas says:

        Yep… how do we change the perspective so we can treat each other more as partners that can trust each other because of our common goals… your words about expectations remind me of the “self-fulfilling prophecies” or the “pygmalion effect”! A lot of food for thought!!

        Liked by 1 person

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