Curriculum requires college professors to use real-life examples

Curriculum requires college professors to use real-life examples
Curriculum requires college professors to use real-life examples

Anaheim, California – A 2024 Student Voice Poll Inside Higher Ed and Generation Lab found that 35 percent of college students believe their academic success would increase if their faculty members got to know them.

An initiative at the State University of New York at Oneonta, presented by three faculty members at the NASPA Student Success in Higher Education conference in Anaheim, California, creates a community of practice among faculty members to encourage them to share their own stories with students.

The program, entitled “Pedagogy of Real Talk,” promotes vulnerability, authenticity and empathy in the classroom and, in turn, encourages students to reveal more about themselves to their teachers and classmates.

The background: The term “Pedagogy of Real Talk” (PRT), developed from a book of the same name by Paul Hernandez, focuses on creating an inclusive, relevant, and engaging course that centers on the student experience.

Through this pedagogy, content is reframed to help students see themselves through their own lens and perspective (the so-called terministic screen), which fosters their sense of belonging and connection to both the instructor and the institution.

This is achieved through vulnerability, empathy and compassion, thereby inspiring the teacher to adopt more creative teaching approaches.

The pilot: The first group of teachers began working on the curriculum in 2022. Professors Katie Griffes, Kim Fierke, and Valerie Rapson were part of the first group. Each year, teachers focus on one of the three pillars of the PRT, starting with vulnerability, then empathy, and finally compassion.

Faculty participate in a four-day workshop led by Hernandez, monthly cohort support meetings, a half-day mid-year retreat, and other regular meetings and reflection exercises. Faculty members receive a stipend from the institution for their participation and work.

Each faculty member is committed to leading one “Real Talk” with their students and one alternate lesson or class each semester that connects course content to students’ terminology screens.

The actual lecture is not tailored to the student (so no lecturer stands up and says, “I’m going to give a real lecture”), but is more of an aspect of a larger lesson. The conversation is centered around a universal theme such as success or frustration and is not presented in a rosy light, but often depicts a struggle or failure.

For example, Rapson, an assistant professor of physical sciences, begins her algebra-based physics class with a discussion about her passion for science. Her curiosity about extraterrestrial life initially led her to astrophysics, but working with young women who were hesitant to study science sparked her desire to become a teacher.

Fierke, an assistant professor of sport management, tells her students that at a previous institution, she was often passed over as head coach of the women’s basketball team; referees would speak to her older male assistant coach first during games.

These conversations demonstrate the instructor’s care and passion for his or her subject and his or her personal connection to the field, which in turn can inspire students to make similar statements.

Alternative teaching, on the other hand, makes learning more personal and links it directly to the student’s everyday life or social concerns outside the classroom.

Even in her algebra-based physics course (part of sports science and sports management, which athletes often take), Rapson created an assignment for the class to create their own equation for their sport of choice. For example, students calculate the speed or distance of a football kicked across the field or a javelin thrown. This still teaches them physics, but in a way that is more meaningful to them as sports fans.

Be real: Although the initiative has been proven to contribute to positive academic success for students, it can be uncomfortable for the professor to speak openly with them. This is especially true in academic cultures such as STEM subjects, where knowledge, rather than commitment, is emphasized as the most important quality of a professor.

Additionally, not every class is suited to a real lecture. Some, like Griffes’ communications classes, naturally lend themselves to in-person examples, but other large lectures or STEM courses can be less personal, so it’s important to work with other faculty members to find what works well, faculty members shared.

Another challenge was setting boundaries in class if students became too comfortable and ensuring that teachers could refer students to experts on campus who could address any needs that arose.

The impact: As the pilot project is still ongoing and the group is entering its third and final year of development, there is no formal evaluation data on PRT yet.

Anecdotally, teachers have found that students are more likely to stop by their office, stay after class, or engage during class to talk about their problems and feelings. In class, students ask more questions and are more motivated to come to class. Learners also make stronger connections between the content and their daily lives, which further encourages engagement.

Professors have found that PRT applies outside of the classroom as well, both in their behavior when interacting with students on campus and in counseling sessions or at orientation. Griffes is the women’s tennis coach at Oneonta and has found that genuine conversations encourage her team to be vulnerable with each other and put aside their assumptions about themselves.

In the future, instructors hope to better understand the impact that real conversations have on students in different courses and whether this practice creates connections outside of individual courses.

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