A Typical Phase II Week


The day starts quietly.  A few students chit chat, but most are on their phones. When the clock ticks past 8:00 I wait patiently.  They know it’s on them to get started.  I made that clear weeks ago as we started Phase II.  Eventually someone breaks the silence with a tentative “I guess we should start.”

I smile, and say nothing.

It’s Monday.  Their schedule for the week calls for finishing up the disciplinary area discussions (this week is social sciences), updating their issue map, and doing some investigatory work at the library.

It’s an 8:00 seminar, so they tend to move slowly, but by 8:05 they’ve arranged themselves into six familiar small groups.  Each group was responsible to teach one of the prescribed essays to the others.  In a now familiar pattern they summarize, venture an analysis of the author’s main point, and share a pithy quote or two.

I’ve still said nothing as some move up to the white board.  On the board they write the titles of what they’ve read. They know by now that they must do some sense-making.  They know to ask, “why did the FYS gurus select these readings?” and “how do they fit together?”  They might try to form a thesis that connects them all, or use them to update their understanding of the meaning of “Social Sciences”.

It’s not a bad conversation. In fact, it’s an impressive conversion because it’s all them.  My role has been to offer a question or two with respect to the strategies of a critical thinker:  have they looked at all sides; are their representations fair; can they check on data?

What did they find?  This set of readings reinforced their new favorite word:  it’s another layer of context that helps them see the world more broadly.  Thanks to Battersby and Bailin, a bit of interleaving, and memory retrieval!

Not everyone has participated, only about 3/4.  We have one group who vigorously collect notes as if everything said is gospel but they only talk in small groups.  My PC, who mostly moves around the room, sits with them.  She encourages them hoping they’ll offer a comment.  No success today.

I focus on a pair of guys who are still finding the entire FYS experience tiresome.  After class I remind them that treating them as adults comes with adult consequences for poor choices.  The profess to hear me, but I have my doubts.


Wednesday follows a similar “slow start” pattern, but they do get going by 8:05.  While our PC displays the latest version of their issue map and pipes some music into the room from her computer, they break into different groups and approach the white board.  Two groups head for the periphery – they each work on variables that are underdeveloped on the displayed product.  A group in the center takes a renewed look at some of the existing questions.

The conversations are excellent; their regular practice with this tool is paying off.  I can hear all of the subgroups and occasionally interject a question.  I also recommend (once or twice) that a subgroup share a particularly good insight with the others – insights that I can see should influence the thinking of the others.

That is one of the dangers of doing an issue map efficiently, with each group working on a small part – they get more done but they often miss these connections.

Two or three students have appointed themselves scribes and are busily recording the conversations.  When they’re done they have an updated map, a strong shared understanding of their problem, and a plan for exactly what questions they intend to take to the library on Friday for a “research day.”


I meet them at ABL.  My PC took some initiative and reserved a few of the study rooms so we have dedicated space to work.  As a few students meet to form up their groups I remind them that today has two objectives:  they’re to investigate their lines of inquiry, yes, but they are also to get acquainted with the resources available to them in a major University’s library.  I pointed to the reference desk and said, “when you get stuck, go visit a reference librarian.”  Heads nodded as they dispersed throughout the library.

I parked myself near the reference desk.  I didn’t check on them as doing so would communicate a lack of trust.  I have high expectations that they’re doing as they say, and if they have questions, they know where to find me.  Frankly I am more interested in developing their sense of confidence in navigating the library than I am in vetting every document they find for “rigor.”  It’s a tradeoff I’m willing to make, for now.  (It pays off when they have to do this individually in Phase III… and I can work with them one-on-one regarding what they pick.)

A few do come down, but I direct them to the reference desk.  (Later Matt Flaherty told me that their questions were good – they knew what they were after, but usually needed help finding or refining the right search terms.)

My PC did circulate a bit and found everyone working – they were finding resources appropriate to a first year undergraduate, she thought.  They also decided that one day wasn’t enough.  They’ll be back on Monday for a second day of digging.  We have Wednesday off, so their plan is to publish their findings to each other starting on the following Friday.

Watching them leave I called out to a few of the quieter ones.  “Worth it?”, I asked.  An affirmative nod or two, and even an emphatic “yes” from one of my recalcitrant cynics.

I’ll have to remind them that their Phase II schedule also includes a formal paper.  The FYS learning objective calls for writing to share insights, so early on I told them that the prompt was to write what “you think is most important to share with the class.”  It could be on the disciplinary areas, the process of inquiry, the class’s messy problem, or some combination of the three.  This was supposed to be due next week, but they’re a bit behind (for good reasons, so I don’t mind).

While I was sitting at the desk I wasn’t idle.  I sent them an email with a self-development activity for the weekend asking them to write and upload the second installment of their PSP and I asked my PC to begin thinking about taking a day – soon, likely the week after next – to help them with the ins and outs of registration.  There’s a new system.  It’s good and doesn’t look hard, but a little coaching can’t hurt.

Our plan keeps changing to account for the pace of learning, and that’s fine. The schedule matters less than their desire to persist as this challenging task. But my sense of the whole (my planning) tells me that it would be wrong to let it go too long.  I’ll step in a cut Phase II off if I think we’re robbing students of the individual attention Phase III is designed to provide.

As Richard Kamins just reminded me: FYS is a process, a laboratory, an on-going experiment and that we instructors need to model the same flexibility we’re asking out students to embrace.


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