APR Update: What the Best College Students Do

by Deborah Gentry, Ed.D., CFLE, NCFR Academic Program Liaison
CFLE Network

When the book What the Best College Teachers Do came out in 2004, I read and reflected upon its content, discussed its main ideas with colleagues, and made sure I attended teaching symposium where author Ken Bain served as keynote speaker. If my memory is correct, I referenced the book in a column in a past issue of this newsletter. A sequel, of sorts, to the book has recently made an appearance in bookstores last year: What the Best College Students Do. I am reading the book for a second time and facilitating a discussion group about it on my campus this summer. In doing so, I am asking myself and others about the kind of student we were as an undergraduate and/or graduate student, what kind of student we would seek to be today if we could re-do our college years, what kind of student we have urged own college-age children (if we have any) to be, and what kind of student we receive the most reward from teaching.

In the chapter "Making the Hard Choices," Bain (pp. 228-231) suggests the best college students (who are "deep" learners rather than "surface" or "strategic" learners) seek out academic programs and courses for which the answers to the following are affirmative ones.

  • Is the course built around clearly identifiable questions to be pursued or abilities to be mastered, and does it help students to see the importance, beauty, and intrigue of those questions and abilities?
  • Does the course allow students multiple opportunities to engage in those higher order activities in pursuit of those questions or abilities, receive feedback, and then try again before anyone "grades" their work?
  • Do students have the opportunity to collaborate with other learners struggling with the same problems, questions, and abilities?
  • Does the class encourage speculation, and an opportunity to exercise new skills even before students are well-versed in the discipline?
  • Does the course challenge existing ways of thinking and seeing the world?
  • Does the course expect students to grapple with important questions, mount their own arguments, exchange ideas, accept challenges, and defend their conclusions with evidence and reason?
  • Does the course and professor provide the kind of support that students need as they struggle with important, intriguing, and beautiful questions? This support may take many forms: intellectual, physical, and sometimes even emotional.
  • Do students come to care about the inquiries, the promises and invitations of the course, and about whether their existing paradigms feel challenged and do not work?
  • Do students in the class generally feel in control of their own education, or manipulated by requirements?
  • Do students believe that their work will be considered fairly and honestly and in keeping with standards that are important beyond the class?
  • Does the course encourage and help students to integrate the questions, concepts, and information broadly with other courses and with their understanding of the world?
  • Does the course offer inductive opportunities to learn, moving from specific examples to general principles? Or does it offer only general principles to be memorized and regurgitated?
  • Does the instructor genuinely care about the intellectual, emotional, and ethical well-being of students, and help and encourage them to think about the kind of world they want to help create and live in, and the meaningful philosophy of life they would wish to forge?
  • Do students believe that their work in the course will matter, that it will make a difference in the world?
  • Does the instructor clearly believe in the students' abilities to grow, to develop the dynamic powers of their minds, or does the teacher assume that abilities are prepackaged, with little or no chance to improve?

After considering this long list, I am going to venture to add a few additional questions: As students conclude their studies in a program or capstone course, are they given an opportunity to reflect on their growth and development as learners/new professionals as well as the contributions the program of study has made to this growth and development? Do faculty and administrators associated with the program recognize the cumulative achievements of their graduating students? Within the Family Science program of study at Towson University, the answer to both questions is "yes." Here is what takes place in that program to ensure such reflection and recognition come to fruition. (Note: This academic program has NCFR CFLE approved status.)

According to Karen Eskow, Ph.D., CFLE, Department Chairperson, undergraduate students undertake an important sequence of courses in their last three semesters: a community service learning course, an internship, and a capstone course that involves developing a family life education program and an accompanying paper and presentation, all of which abide by the CFLE Content Areas. During the capstone course, students complete an exit survey as well as an exit interview with the department chairperson. Among the questions asked is one that inquires about a student's intention to apply for CFLE certification upon graduation. Chairperson Eskow reports that 80% of graduating students express such intent. As the exit interview comes to a close, each student is given a folder containing a CFLE Abbreviated Application form and directions for completing and submitting it, the NCFR publication "Careers in Family Life Education," and a departmentally designed Certificate of Achievement denoting his/her completion of NCFR CFLE approved coursework.

I suspect that many readers of this column are college teachers. For you, the summer months likely afford you a slower pace. Maybe this will allow you to devote more attention to research pursuits and scholarly writing. Or, you will focus upon developing new or redesigning existing programs and courses. Hopefully, you will undertake activities that will energize and inspire you. Such activities might include reading about teaching and, then, reflecting upon what you do in the classroom and why. Or, perhaps you and fellow colleagues will devise ways to better publicize and promote your NCFR CFLE approved program of study. As a result, may these endeavors attract "the best college students" to come learn with you next fall and beyond.

Bain, K. (2012). What the best college students do. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.