When coursework is relevant, students thrive
WATERLOO – The “Aha!” moment. According to Merriam-Webster, it is a moment of sudden realization, inspiration, insight, recognition or comprehension. Roxanne Heimann, an oral communications instructor at Hawkeye Community College, had hers while reading over a former student’s take-home essay portion of his oral communications final.
“I asked students to tell me how they would use what they learned in class in their future careers,” Heimann said. “The response from a diesel mechanic student stopped me in my tracks.”
The student said that while he really liked the class and thought that Heimann was a good instructor, he didn’t see how what they learned in class would help him in his job. Furthermore, he said he really didn’t see the purpose for most of his classes and, therefore, didn’t plan to return the next semester.
“In that moment, I told myself that this was not going to happen again,” Heimann said. “I will never have a student leave my class thinking that it isn’t relevant to his or her future.”
Heimann found that she wasn’t alone. Anna Laneville, a writing instructor who teaches the freshman-level composition class, was looking for ways to make general education classes more relevant for students, particularly for those enrolled in career and technical education (CTE) programs.
Both instructors approached their dean about what they were seeing in the classroom and how it impacted student persistence and retention. Their dean encouraged them to address the challenge head on.
“You can sense in your classes whether or not you are connecting to your students,” Laneville said. “When feedback from students shows they don’t see why they had to do an assignment, it extends beyond lack of interest. It means that they don’t understand why the content is worth knowing.”
Regardless of the industry, employers consistently say they are looking for employees who can effectively communicate, both written and verbal.
To that end, Heimann and Laneville began by reaching out to CTE instructors to solicit their input on topics for papers and speeches for students enrolled in their programs. This first step not only made a difference in student engagement, it opened up lines of communication between general education and CTE instructors. They found instructors were eager to collaborate.
“By building a bridge between general education and CTE, we are able to better support our students,” Laneville said. “Students are getting more out of their general education classes. They are making connections so that they see the importance of what they are doing, and that makes them more likely to stay enrolled.”
Heimann recalls an agriculture student who was struggling with a topic for a persuasive speech. The teacher reached out to an agriculture instructor who suggested till versus no-till farming. The student was so enthused about his topic, he went from dreading the assignment to being excited to share his work. By the end of the class he was selected as the most improved speaker.
“It has been a very positive experience,” Heimann said. “The CTE instructors felt they were being heard and they were very eager to participate. It’s a culture shift at the college and energizing for us as instructors to see the light bulb go on for our students.”
These results led Heimann and Laneville to propose taking collaboration a step further. What if they paired their freshman composition and oral communications classes for students in CTE programs? The assignments for the two courses could be shared and sequenced so that students effectively see the connections between their CTE and general education classes.
“Not only can we work with CTE instructors to help students select topics related to their future goals, but we can take that a step further and promote deeper-level learning,” Laneville said.
In a paired class, for instance, a construction and design student could write an argumentative essay in composition class about asphalt versus concrete in building roads, and then use the same topic to make a pitch to city stakeholders for class credit in the oral communications class.
“This way students are getting more out of our general education classes,” Laneville said. “They are making connections, getting real life experiences, and gaining a lot of knowledge on a particular topic of interest to them, all of which makes it more likely that they will stay the course.”
Laneville and Heimann will launch their paired course during the spring 2019 semester. The same group of students will take both classes simultaneously. The four major assignments required in each class will build off of each other, leading to more informative research, professional interaction, and student-led workshops.
The paired class is just one of the initiatives underway at Hawkeye Community College to connect CTE and general education. The college launched a professional development opportunity this semester for instructors to observe other classrooms. Additionally, a program called “teaching squares” is connecting groups of four instructors who work together to learn more about each other, observe what they do in the classroom, and better understand how students learn in different environments.
“It is very eye-opening to see your students in their natural environments,” Heimann said. “I have learned so much talking to different programs, getting great project ideas, and stepping outside my comfort zone to address community needs and help make those connections for students.”
Start with one small step
Not everyone will be able to pair classes right away. Start by trying one new thing to make connections between general education classes and CTE classes.
Scheduling is a challenge
Pairing courses isn’t easy. Some CTE programs don’t have room for taking more than one general education course a semester. It will take some high-level views of the way classes are scheduled to make it happen.
Get buy-in at all levels
Use results from your small successes to get buy-in at all levels. People get excited when they see positive results and know they are supported by higher-level administrators. This support will also be necessary for bigger, campus-wide initiatives.
Don’t be too intimidated
Don’t think you have to accomplish everything at once. Start small and let it go from there. With small successes, you will see it really is doable and from there you can easily build momentum.