FSEM Showcase

NEW FSEM Leadership

Martin Blackwell

Dear Colleagues, 

I’m taking over the leadership of the FSEM Program from Dr. Ranjini Thaver from here forward. I’m  lucky to be leading such a vibrant program and I’ve tried to latch on to all of the successful efforts made to make FSEM work at Stetson with a new Canvas site available here….  (links to an external site)

Your FSEM Faculty course page contains much of the information you need to know to prepare for fall 2021. The FSEM Handbook is located there, for example, as well as a new archive of important documents which shows where we’ve come from over the past ten years.

The Frequently Asked Questions document is my attempt to get out ahead of the curve with the coming semester. But I am available at [email protected] if you have any additional queries or need for clarification, of course.     

(Soon, I’ll be back with a calendar of events for the coming year among other things.)  

Sincerely yours, 

Dr. Martin Blackwell
Director of the FSEM Program
Visiting Professor of History
Department of History
Stetson University
DeLand, Florida 32373

FSEM Showcase

Giving Students a Voice in their Curriculum

As an incoming first-year student, Giansy Paul never imagined she would be asking Political Science majors at Stetson about the changes they’d like to see in their curriculum.

Giansy Paul

Paul signed up for a First Year Seminar (FSEM) last fall called “The Voice of the People,” examining the role of citizens in a democracy and whether they are informed enough to participate effectively in political decision-making.

Along the way, she became part of an innovative project to gather opinions from political science majors at Stetson about potential changes in their department’s curriculum. These suggestions are now under review and could lead to revisions to better educate the students for the 21st century.

“I think what my class did was something that I don’t think most colleges do, which sets us apart from other colleges,” said Paul, a student from Miami who plans to double major in Political Science and Public Management.

“By participating in the Deliberative Poll and watching the political science majors discuss their curriculum was another reason why I was like, ‘Yes, this is where I’m supposed to be,’” she said about attending Stetson.

David Hill, Ph.D., Chair of the Political Science Department, talks with students in Elizabeth Hall.

The project was the idea of her FSEM professor, David Hill, Ph.D., chair of the Political Science Department. Hill wanted to use a cutting-edge method of gathering opinions to hear from political science majors about possible revisions in their curriculum.

The FSEM students used Deliberative Polling, a concept developed by Stanford University Professor James Fishkin who noted that citizens often are uninformed about issues when they answer public opinion polls. Because of that, polls can reflect people’s quick impressions based on TV sound bites and news headlines.

Deliberative Polling, on the other hand, takes the time to educate people on issues, bringing them together to discuss the issues and then asking for their opinions.

David Hill

And this is what Professor Hill’s FSEM class did last semester. A random sample of 38 political science majors gathered in small groups on Nov. 19 to hash out the proposals, such as whether to begin requiring a Political Philosophy class, as many other colleges do. The FSEM students served as moderators, keeping the discussions on track.

“We were very pleased to sit and observe, as faculty members, a group of 18- to 22-year-olds have a very serious conversation about curriculum,” Hill said, adding that Political Science Professor Eugene Huskey, Ph.D., and Assistant Professor Steven Smallpage, Ph.D., also attended the event.

“We weren’t talking about politics or social problems. We were talking about curriculum within the Department of Political Science, and to watch a group of college students do that so seriously and enthusiastically was really great,” he said.

The students generally supported the proposals, which also included developing tracks, or areas of concentration, within the major. And especially gratifying, Hill added, was watching the students gravitate “toward the more academic rigorous options.”

“We’re still sorting through the responses, but we’re going to very seriously consider what the students told us that night,” Hill said. “What makes this really unique to me is using the FSEM students to do the Deliberative Poll.”

He hopes to use Deliberative Polling again within the department and said the process showed how First Year Seminars can be used in “innovative ways that can contribute to the university’s mission.”

“Certainly, the end product here was improving the Department of Political Science and making our curriculum more appropriate for the 21st century, which is what we’re trying to do to provide the best education for our students,” he said.

Ranjini Thaver, Ph.D., professor of Economics and Director of the First Year Seminar Experience, praised the project for allowing students to take such an active and important role within the Political Science Department.

Ranjini Thaver, Ph.D.

“What is fascinating about this project, in particular, is that the FSEM students, in their very first semester at Stetson, were allowed agency and leadership in developing a rigorous, engaging and timely curriculum,” she said.

“This project also demonstrates how a rich, content-driven and unique FSEM experience may acclimate students to the demands of higher education, while at the same time, instilling within them the importance of effective writing, speaking, critical thinking and information literacy,” she added. “Our education is best when students are so passionately engaged in their studies, that they welcome learning new ways of thinking and being!”

Ajah Conage

FSEM student Ajah Conage said she initially thought it was “a little weird” to ask students about their curriculum. But the experience changed her mind.

“The students are ultimately the ones taking the classes. They are the ones who have to make these decisions,” she said. “It was a good idea that I think maybe other universities could try.”

Published originally at Stetson Today February 1, 2019

FSEM Showcase

FSEM Updates: October 2018


Dear FSEM Colleagues:
This email message is long overdue. I have been working relentlessly to understand the subtle and overt aspects of the FSEM course and program; the learning curve is steep, but I am enjoying the process.

Now that I feel a little more comfortable in my position as the director of the FSEM Experience, I would like to consider arranging intentional conversations with you about short- and long-term strategies to tackle  the what, how, and why of FSEM  within the context of the Quality Enhancement Plan. I believe small group settings is best for such discussions, and I will send out emails to small cohorts of +/- 6 faculty members to meet with me during October and November. In the interim, however, I would like to draw your attention to 3 time-sensitive items:

    1. After considerable thought, a decision has been made to cover some transportation costs associated with FSEM fieldtrips. If you are taking students on a field trip, you may provide transportation receipts (or mileage) for up to $100 for reimbursement. Please be aware that this support applies only to this year’s FSEM cycle because we anticipate having some money left in the budget. I will initiate discussions with the Provost’s Office for future years’ travel-related support. Please email me separately with questions or comments.
    2. Our end-of-FSEM-semester workshop and celebration of our work this semester is scheduled for Friday, November 16th from 2:30pm-4:30pm. Details will be sent once the agenda is confirmed. In the meantime, if you would like us to consider any agenda items, please email me separately.
    3. The FSEM program has not assessed two of its core learning outcomes (effective writing and oral competency) for many years, and it has not assessed two others (critical thinking and information literacy) ever. Our plan is to organize a series of workshops in the spring semester to address these learning outcomes. However, I have learned this week that in order to meet certain assessment targets, the writing and oral competency outcomes must be assessed across FSEM sections this semester. The effective writing outcome sampling will hardly impact the classroom environment, while the oral competency sampling process will involve videotaping, which will influence the classroom dynamics.  Depending on the level of interest, I will organize a one-hour meeting with faculty who would like some guidance on how to assess these outcomes this semester; please email me separately if you are interested. For details on the assessment processes, see the messages below from Megan O’Neill and Lisa Coulter and email them and me with questions or comments.


I write to you in my role as Director of Assessment. As part of Stetson’s ongoing assessment of general education learning outcomes (GLOs) this fall we will be assessing the Speaking outcome ( see attached Rubric) in the FSEM courses. Within the next week, we will obtain a random sample of students in FSEM from Institutional Research who are chosen to provide samples for this assessment. I will contact those of you who have students selected in order to discuss the logistics of how this will be done. Thank you for your help in this important work.

I write to you in my role as Writing Program Director to remind you that we’re intending to assess FSEM writing this fall. This is the next (and almost last) step in the four-year assessment project we took on when Stetson’s writing requirement changed. So far, the assessment results have been promising; we’re still developing the big picture, but I assure you that our efforts–your efforts–are not being wasted. We’re doing good work, and I appreciate your involvement and your attention to student writing.

A quick reminder about how assessment works. By the middle of next week, FSEM instructors will get email from me with a student name and ID number. You’ll pick the assignment from that student that best suits the assessment purpose (in this case, it should be an assignment that both makes a point and offers some sort of research). You’ll render the assignment anonymous, and you’ll email it to me. In the rare cases when two students have been selected from your course, I’ll ask you to email me both artifacts (still anonymous) and let me know which one belongs to which student. That will take care of it for now; in coordination with the University Gen Ed Committee, we’ll gather for reading and scoring during the spring semester workshops. More details to come about that. 🙂

We have a really great opportunity this year. Stetson is participating in the VALUES Institute, which essentially means that a cadre of trained faculty associated with the AAC&U will also be scoring the samples, separately and apart from our own scoring. They’ll send us their results and we can compare the two sets of score data. The benefits of this kind of norming are obvious, and the Provost is very eager to see what we can do with this opportunity. For this round of assessment, then, faculty submitting writing samples will have a bit of additional thinking to do. In addition to providing the assignment sample itself, the VALUES Institute asks also for your assessment of the difficulty of the assignment, how you yourself would score it using the Written Communication rubric, and how much the assignment is worth in terms of total course grade. Fortunately, their form is easy to understand and complete.

When I email you with the names of your selected students, I’ll attach the form and ask you to fill it out. That document gets emailed to me with the writing sample.

Thanks for being a part of this work. Don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have anything to ask me or tell me!

Enjoy the second-half of your semester!

Thank you for your commitment to the community of learning!

Ranjini Thaver, Ph.D. (Economics)
Director of the FSEM Experience
Professor, Department of Economics

FSEM Showcase

Stetson Announces Four Academic Appointments

Stetson recently announced four new academic appointments designed to enrich students’ academic experiences, help them compete for elite scholarships and fellowships, and help the university plan for the expansion of science programs.

Noel Painter, Ph.D., Stetson Executive Vice President and Provost, announced the appointments for three current faculty members and a one-year special appointment of an outside academic advisor.

The appointments include:

  • portrait seated at a desk

    Tim Elgren, Ph.D.

    Tim Elgren, Ph.D., dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Oberlin College, was named Special Advisor on Strategic Initiatives and will lead a study to explore how Stetson can expand programs in the sciences and health sciences.

Stetson will construct a new science building on the DeLand campus and expand the sciences, thanks to an $18 million donation last spring from longtime Stetson Trustees Cici and Hyatt Brown.

Elgren, who is also a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Oberlin, will serve as Stetson’s special advisor during the 2018-19 academic year while he is on sabbatical from the Ohio college. (Read a Q&A with Tim Elgren as he discusses the yearlong science study.)

  • Megan O’Neill, Ph.D., director of the Writing Program and Jane Heman Language Professor, has been named the Director of the Core Academic Experience. O’Neill said this new role will draw upon her writing expertise.
Megan O'Neill at the podium during Convocation

Megan O’Neill, Ph.D.

“In many ways, the growth and visibility of the Writing Program at Stetson is the impetus behind my appointment to the Core Academic Experience leadership role,” she explained. “Our core General Education experiences, FSEM and JSEM, are writing intensive; the capstone research courses in the College, with impressive senior expectations in the Schools, are also writing-intense. What the Provost has asked me to do is deepen, enhance, and integrate the Core Curriculum courses, using writing but not limited to that essential skill.”

Improving those skills will give students “an increasing sense of security” about the value of their Stetson education, she said. Students should be able to clearly see how they developed key skills and interests while at Stetson, such as mastering writing and research skills, through such courses as the general-education curriculum, First Year Seminar (FSEM) Program, Junior Seminar (JSEM) and Senior Capstone.

“My goal for Stetson and our faculty is to ensure that we can provide a four-year education that makes forward progress in connected, integrated ways. That task takes a lot of listening, sharing thinking, and reflecting, which is essential if real change is to be created,” she added.

  • Ranjini Thaver, Ph.D., professor of Economics, has been named Director of the First Year Seminar Experience. In this role, she will work closely with O’Neill as the director of the Core Academic Experience to foster an integrative learning process among Stetson students, faculty, staff and other constituents.

Ranjini Thaver, Ph.D.

During this academic year, Stetson celebrates the 10th anniversary of its signature First Year Seminar (FSEM) program and is well positioned to adopt an integrative strategy to facilities students’ progress from novice to mastery of effective writing and research skills from their first through their senior year and beyond, she said.

One goal is to present FSEM as the first of three common learning experiences that also include JSEM and the Senior Capstone.  With writing, critical thinking, and information literacy as linchpins of the three core learning experiences, FSEM is positioned as the foundational course of each student’s unique, integrative learning journey from first year to graduation and beyond.

To facilitate and make transparent this trajectory, the FSEM Program will promote and reinforce shared understanding of FSEM learning outcomes by all stakeholders through focused workshops and other year-round events. Paramount to facilitating coherence across the arc of the student’s tenure will be purposeful scaffolding of these outcomes to make the nature and reach of skills gained more transparent to the concerned and engaged Professional Stetson Hatter Graduate.

“I will work with the Core Academic Experience Committee to adopt an integrative and interwoven core learning process,” Thaver said. “For the FSEM program, this means intentionally creating coherence and consistency in a student’s academic learning, from admission, into the FSEM, and pulsating all the way through the rest of the curriculum, and ultimately, beyond Stetson.”

  •  Grace Kaletski-Maisel, M.S., assistant professor and Learning & Information Literacy librarian in the duPont-Ball Library, has been named External Scholarship Advisor.

Grace Kaletski-Maisel, M.S.

This new position will help students apply for prestigious and competitive scholarship programs, such as Rhodes Scholars, who receive full financial support to pursue a degree at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, and Fulbright Scholarships that provide for international graduate study, research or teaching through a worldwide exchange program.

“The goal of this position is to enhance Stetson’s advising capacity in providing new student research opportunities and promoting competitiveness for elite scholarships, fellowships and awards,” Kaletski-Maisel said. “I’ll be working with faculty to recruit more students who want to compete for distinguished scholarships or who demonstrate promise, working with those students to identify opportunities that fit their individual strengths and interests, and providing support to students and their mentors throughout the award application process.

“As a librarian, I am passionate about connecting students with the information and resources they need to be successful. I am excited to apply this passion to scholarships that will help students achieve their personal and professional goals and enhance Stetson’s national reputation,” she added.

Reproduced from Stetson Today

FSEM Showcase

FSEM Growth Highlights

In 2006, seven (7) FSEM courses were offered. By 2008, the number of sections more than tripled, and by 2010, FSEM courses had increased by almost 400% since inception. Recognizing first-time-in-college student transition into the academy required intentional support, the FSEM Program was designated HatterQuest,  the academic component of Stetson’s Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP, 2011-2020). The FSEM has since evolved to become a critical component of students’ academic transition to and through Stetson University.

Over the past decade, the number of sections topped at 59 in step with planned enrollment growth (above). To facilitate rising enrollment, class increases in number of students per seminar led to a decrease in sections (e.g. 53 sections in 2018).

Since  implementation of the QEP, the University has witnessed positive gains in first term GPA sand resultantly, reductions in academic warning or suspension (below).

Similar gains in student’s ability to predict their Stetson grades were observed, demonstrating better understanding of collegiate expectations.

To date, Stetson University has offered 163 unique FSEM courses taught by 123 unique FSEM instructors. Teaching Apprentices, introduced in 2011, serve as peer student instructors for select courses.

FSEM Showcase

Happy 10th Anniversary, FSEM!


August 17, 2018. 1:00-4:00 PM
Lunch available at 12:30 PM
Allen Hall

Stetson University celebrated 10 years of offering first year seminars as part of its curriculum with a celebration workshop.

By the end of the workshop, participants will be able to:

  1. Recognize and appreciate the history and visionary nature of the FSEM program
  2. Articulate the place of FSEM in the Stetson Core Curriculum
  3. Identify available resources for students, and resources and mentoring support for instructional faculty
  4. Use tips and strategies emerging during the mentoring session by  seasoned faculty for newish/newer FSEM instructors

Provost Painter welcomed 40+ FSEM instructors at Stetson University during the kick-off the workshop of the FSEM 10th Year of Celebration.

Introduce new FSEM Coordinator
Longstanding professor of economics, Ranjini Thaver, was enthusiastically welcomed as the new FSEM coordinator by Megan O’Neill, associate professor of English, director of the Writing Program,  and new director of the Core Academic Experience.

As coordinator, Dr. Thaver will present the FSEM as the first of three core learning experiences; collaborate with diverse campus constituencies to ensure best experiences by students; provide professional development around first-year student transition and best practice in learning that attracts Stetson’s top instructors; and work with FSEM administrative staff support personnel to provide administrative oversight of the FSEM Program.

Welcome, Ranjini!

Dr. O’Neill will provide clear vision, leadership and administrative oversight of Stetson’s core academic experience- FSEM/JSEM/Senior Project with Writing as the linchpin – that communicates Stetson’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. She will collaborate with academic leaders at Stetson and beyond to ensure and provide purposeful pathways for the core learning sequence, coherence of learning outcomes, and intentional scaffolding across curricula.

Welcome, Megan!

During the introductory remarks, FSEM instructors raised several questions about the definition of the core academic experience, FSEM’s relationship to senior project,  and resources to support FSEM.

Tenth Year Celebration and Recognition: The First Annual Spirit of FSEM Award!
The inaugural Spirit of FSEM Awards recognized FSEM instructors who made significant contributions to the program. Gregg Sapp and Phil Lucas, professors of religious studies were the  2018 award recipients.

Dr. Sapp was recognized for his pioneering role in bringing the FSEM concept to Stetson’s curriculum.

Dr. Lucas was recognized for his significant contribution as FSEM coordinator.

The place of FSEM in the Stetson Core Curriculum
Workshop facilitators discussed where FSEM’s learning outcomes scaffold from developing to matery across the common learning experiences in the Stetson curriculum.

Reminder of student learning goals and introduce some changes
First Year Seminars have the following goals:

  • to provide courses exclusively for first-year students
  • to improve writing skills by focusing on writing in a range of genres within a particular field of study and in ways that emphasize clarity, coherence, intellectual force and stylistic control
  • to introduce students to the excitement of studying and interpreting primary sources
  • to enhance students’ abilities to read and think critically
  • to instill, through practice, the ability to express themselves cogently
  • to enhance students’ ability to communicate their ideas in professional oral presentations

and the following learning objectives:

  • ability to compose and revise written texts that employ an appropriate voice to coherently express relationships between ideas from multiple sources, illustrating awareness of rhetorical context and purpose
  • using technology as appropriate, the ability to know when there is a need for information and are able to locate, evaluate, and effectively and responsibly use that information for the task at hand
  • ability to speak in an understandable, organized, and audience-appropriate fashion to explain ideas, express feelings, or support a conclusion
  • having identified a topic of inquiry and gathered relevant data, the ability to synthesize and evaluate those data to reach an appropriate conclusion or conclusions
  • ability to analyze an issue or phenomenon in ways that go beyond a single paradigm


Refresh on May workshop accomplishments and ongoing questions for new leadership
Dr. O’Neill highlighted accomplishments achieved since the May 10 , 2018 FSEM Workshop which focused on recommendations  for the future of the FSEM Program.

  • Recommendation #1: Present the FSEM as the first of three core learning experiences
  • Recommendation #2: Establish FSEM Leadership Team
  • Recommendation #3: Create a tiered faculty development model
  • Recommendation #4: Establish faculty role in FOCUS planning
  • Recommendation #5: Foster environment that attracts our top faculty
  • Recommendation #6: Revise General Learning Outcomes: Remove GLO 8.1


Several FSEM resources were highlighted during the workshop:

Tiered faculty development
During this session, fashioned in the spirit of a tiered faculty development model, new/newish FSEM instructors were mentored by seasoned faculty on approaches to FSEM, how to address concerns and challenges, and share  innovative ideas. Discussion primers included:

  • Ways to make the first week of classes count
  • What has worked and what has not worked over the years for you
  • Ways you have changed your learning environment with the changing student body
  • That which is constant in your class and that which is constantly in flux
  • The role of teaching apprentices (TAs) in your class
  • A notable component of your syllabus, such as your writing, speaking, or critical thinking, assignments
  • Anything else that you deem would engage newer FSEM faculty in some meaningful way



Julia Metzker, executive director of the Brown Center for Faculty Innovation and Excellence, facilitated a timeline activity for participants to populate with significant FSEM events. To prime participants for this activity, Dr, Metzker requested instructors to recall events in their history with FSEM that they considered significant, such as courses they taught, workshops they attended, cool things students did, etc.  Participants identified some interesting FSEM milestones:

  • 2006 –  FSEM concept introduced by Gregg Sapp
  • 2009 – Writing and Information Literacy learning outcomes assesssed
  • 2009 –  David Musser begins service as FSEM coordinator
  • 2010 – 34 FSEMs sections taught
  • 2011 – Phillip Lucas begins service as FSEM coordinator
  • 2011 – number of students enrolled in FSEM since inception crosses 1,000
  • 2013John Pearson begins service as FSEM coordinator
  • 2015 – Maria Rickling begins service as FSEM coordinator
  • 2017 – Rosalie Richards begins service as interim FSEM coordinator
  • 2017 – 54 FSEM sections taught
  • 2018Ranjini Thaver begins service as FSEM coordinator
  • 2018 – 163 unique FSEMs taught by 146 unique instructors since inception

The timeline extended to 2023 to establish new grounds for creating five year outcomes for the FSEM of the future. The timeline will be available at future workshops and brown bags. Over the course of the year, instructors will vignettes to add to the timeline in celebration of the 10th anniversary of FSEM.

Send additional vignettes to [email protected]

A first year seminars catalog  showcasing courses offered during academic year 2009-2010, the first year FSEMs were officially offered, was also circulated.

The workshop concluded with cupcakes to recognize 10 years of FSEM at Stetson University.



FSEM Showcase

First annual Spirit of FSEM Awards Announced

The new Spirit of FSEM Awards recognizes FSEM instructors and stakeholders who make significant contributions to the FSEM Program at Stetson.

Phillip Lucas, professor of religious studies, receives Stetson’s first Spirit of FSEM Award. Lucas served as FSEM coordinator 2011-2013.

Gregory Sapp, professor of religious studies, receives Stetson’s first Spirit of FSEM Award. Sapp served a significant role in bringing the FSEM concept to Stetson’s curriculum.

FSEM Showcase

May 10 Workshop focuses on the Future of FSEM


May 10, 2018, 12:30-4:00 PM
Lunch available at 12:15 PM. Catering by Santorinis!
Sage Hall 222


Stetson University



Megan O’Neill, CLC Chair)
 review FSEM recommendations from CLC for approval or further discussion


(Roundtables) (Julia Metzker)

  •  How might we reinvigorate the FSEM mission, the faculty who teach them, and the students who take them?
  • How might the first few weeks of the semester be structured to best assist in students’ transition to the expectations of higher education at Stetson?
  • How might we develop feasible strategies to promote consistency of FSEM quality and expectations?


2:45–3:00 PM  BREAK








(Megan O’Neill)

  • Position description, responsibilities, characteristics; consensus












After Party At Elusive Grape

Announcements FSEM Showcase


Salvage, a Craft Activism Fashion Show is a collaboration with Stetson University students where they have created clothing based off of the stories of survivors of abuse. They have selected the most powerful quotes and screen-print onto t-shirts as a form of Statement Art. This runway of artistic expression will be set behind music and spoken words.

Domestic Abuse is an issue we hear about more than often, but what we don’t hear much about is what happens to the survivors after they have left the situation. Most times they are faced with other issues of homelessness, addiction, mental health or a continued cycle of violence. We rarely have the opportunity to hear their stories. It is from their stories we can learn how to support them as they rebuild their lives.

Find below a link to Madison Creech’s FSEM Fashion Show to take place on November 16 in the Artisan Alley Garage .

Facebook link:   Salvage: A Wearable Art show

Madison Creech is a Brown Teacher-Scholar Fellow in Creative Arts at Stetson University. Madison’s work highlights a number of key learning areas at Stetson: FSEM outcomes, the Brown Teacher-Scholar Fellow Program, FSEM class, community engagement project.

Madison is a multimedia artist with a dedication to mixing digital fabrication with traditional textile processes. Textiles not only inhabit all aspects of our lives today, they also have an engrained material language that is informed by history and culture.

For tickets and more information:

FSEM Showcase

Making It OK to Ask for Help

The First Big Grade

By about this point in the semester, freshmen may be starting to feel like they belong in college. Then they get back their first big grade. For some, it’s a lot lower than they’re used to seeing.

I talked about this pattern with a former dean of first-year students at a liberal-arts college that I visited last week, right around the time that students were taking midterms. “Students who end up at a top-level liberal-arts college tend to be at the top of the academic food chain in their high-school environment,” he says. They may have a vague sense that their new classmates were also standouts, he says, but “the reality of what that looks like doesn’t hit them until this point in time.”

Realizing that the study habits that got students into college might not be enough for them to succeed there is a pivotal moment. The way they — and their college — react to this early academic feedback can set the tone for the rest of their time on campus.

The power of the first big grade is a well-known phenomenon that plays out at colleges of all kinds, says Natasha Jankowski, director of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment. And most colleges are doing something about it, she adds. The problem? In the bulk of cases, colleges have an early-warning system that kicks into gear — encouraging students to meet with an adviser, for instance — after they receive midterm grades. By then, the semester is halfway over, and only so much recovery is possible.

But there are things that colleges — and even individual professors — can do proactively, Ms. Jankowski says. Professors can prepare students for the kind of evaluation they’ll face by giving quizzes or providing “a sample of a well-written paper” or a rubric of how they’ll be graded.

It also helps, Ms. Jankowski says, if students talk with other students — particularly upperclassmen who can reflect on their own transition to college, and perhaps encourage freshmen that they need not go it alone. “A lot of times, for high-achieving students, there’s this stigma of, I shouldn’t need the help,” Ms. Jankowski says. A college can combat that, she says, by creating a culture in which seeking help is “just part of the experience.”

How do you help students acclimate to college-level work? Has your college found ways to ease the stigma of asking for help? Email me at [email protected], and your response may appear in a future newsletter.

Students Crave Conversation
A recent Twitter thread by Adele Perry, a history professor at the University of Manitoba, caught our eye. “It’s time for my annual reminder that students ask questions that are answered in the syllabus because they want to talk to you,” it began.

Frequently-heard faculty gripes about such questions are missing the point, Ms. Perry suggests. Sometimes, students aren’t even interested in the answer. Their question is merely a pretext for what they really want: a conversation.

That got us thinking about higher ed’s main mechanism for student-professor conversations: office hours. Over the years, The Chronicle has run columns arguing that professors should require students to attend office hours, a behavior correlated with academic performance; and asserting that since faculty can — and do — respond to students around the clock over email, office hours are obsolete.

Are office hours a good way to ensure that students get the kind of connection with professors that Ms. Perry reminds us they may need? If so, how do you structure them to be effective? If not, what do you do instead? Write me at [email protected], and your comments may be included in a future newsletter.

The Common Curriculum
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni recently released its annual analysis of colleges’ curricular rigor, concluding that in many cases, it’s lacking.

The council’s notion of rigor hinges on a particular definition: whether or not an institution’s general-education curriculum requires students to take courses in seven subjects — composition, literature, (intermediate-level) foreign language, U.S. government or history, economics, mathematics, and natural science. It is these subjects, the council wrote, that create a common intellectual framework and help students “meet the essentials of educated citizenship.”

As in years past, more than two thirds of the over 1,100 colleges in the survey failed to require four or more core subjects. There were just 24 that required six of these subjects. One of them was the U.S. Military Academy.

As it happens, we asked readers of this newsletter a few weeks ago to share with us whether their institutions were taking a fresh look at their core curriculum. Among the respondents was Christopher T. Mayer, associate dean for strategy, policy, and assessment at West Point.

The 24-to-27-course core curriculum there “requires a philosophy major to take a three-course core engineering sequence and a mechanical engineering major to take the core philosophy course,” he wrote. As a result, he said, cadets learn about each discipline’s content and mode of inquiry.

West Point is also unusual in other ways, Mr. Mayer wrote. All the students live on campus and share the same core physical and military curricula. “Thus,” he wrote, “cadets not only have a common academic experience, but also a common physical and military experience.”

Still, West Point revised its core curriculum a few years ago to allow cadets to have a bit more choice. They can select their third science course, or their foreign language, and which engineering sequence they want to take.

Cadets might sometimes grumble, Mr. Mayer wrote, but they’re there on full scholarship and tend to lack the consumerist mind-set common to other students. “Because their life is so regimented in other ways,” he wrote, “most are fine with the structure provided by the core.”

Coming Attraction
Next week, The Chronicle will release a special supplement looking at innovative teachers. You will be able to read about 10 of them — devoted faculty members from diverse fields and types of institutions whose approaches can be adapted to other classrooms. They are the kinds of instructors who constantly revise their teaching to find what works and who deeply want to connect with their students. Look for their stories on starting on Monday.

As always, please feel free to share thoughts or suggestions with us ([email protected], [email protected], and [email protected]). If you’ve been forwarded this email and would like to sign up to receive it, please do so here.

— Beckie and Dan

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