One of the greatest challenges for two-year and community colleges has been retention and graduation rates. They have traditionally been low for a number of reasons. Perhaps the financial strain is taking a toll. Maybe the student is the first generation in his/her family to attend college and he must deal with family pressures. Or possibly, she has no idea what to expect from a college experience and feels alone in a strange world. Whatever the reason, many students don’t come back, graduate or transfer to four-year colleges.
Libby Gore, instructor of learning support mathematics, is spearheading the efforts at Georgia Highlands to improve those numbers. As part of the First Year Experience for fulltime freshmen, she has designed a program that stresses trust, self-confidence, critical thinking and research skills. A key piece of the course is learning how to use technology to navigate the academic world and to succeed. “But,” said Gore, “We also try to teach students how to present themselves on social media and to understand that everything they post will last for many years. Search engines have a very long memory.”
Among the projects FYE students tackle is an electronic portfolio of their work. These may include essays, art work, articles for the 6 Mile Post and other work samples that could help students in a job search. Students also choose a service learning project and volunteer their time for a community project. This interaction teaches them the importance of serving others. They often encounter diverse people with different perspectives from their own. Thus they broaden their sensibilities to the world around them and the many human stories it holds. Students also learn how to build a website and use a desktop publishing program
One of the most important skill sets a student can get from a college education is the ability to research an idea and present something original succinctly and well, Gore said. Weeding through genuine and legitimate sources, citing them and using those sources as a foundation upon which to build one’s own argument or ideas is crucial for success in school and in the business world.
Plagiarism remains an issue in the classroom, but some students don’t realize the many ways they could unknowingly commit plagiarism. They may add photos to a presentation, for example, without crediting the source. Most students know not to lift a quote from research material without identifying it as such and crediting the author. But they may not know that they shouldn’t just use the idea of another as though it were their own. So the course covers the finer points of undertaking research for papers and essays, how and when to cite sources, and how to research topics online and in hard copy.
But one of the most important elements of FYE, says Gore, is its ability to team-build. “Creating camaraderie for students going through a new experience gives them a sense of belonging. They begin to help others on the team, and in turn, receive support from their classmates. I really believe that kind of bond can help us retain students who might be overwhelmed otherwise.”
FYE instructors provide a variety of team-building activities for students that help them get to know classmates and faculty members better.
Gore and the FYE faculty are in the process of assessing the course and evaluating its impact on retention. Results should be available by the end of 2012. This fall, the course is expanding from a two-hour credit to a three-hour one.