Help first-generation and other students unfamiliar with higher education navigate the business of being a student with transparent course materials, agency, and guided learning through your course design.
As a first-generation college student, neither of my parents (or their parents) attended college. The small and private, four-year liberal arts college I attended may as well have been another planet and the way I talked about campus culture another language. They were as mystified as I was about what I could expect in my higher education journey.
My own experiences as a first-generation college student continues to shape how I teach today. In this blog, I share six important ways to support our learners in tangible, meaningful ways.
My First-Generation Student Experience
My first year of college I felt like a fish out of water. Though I excelled in high school humanities AP classes, I found myself drowning academically. I was well-prepared for my English and Philosophy classes, but I barely passed statistics. I failed my first big speech class presentation due to lack of time and expectation management skills and fumbling with the presentation slides technology.
These and other challenges compounded to create a perfect storm. Suddenly, I was on academic probation as my GPA fell below the required 3.0 to keep a much-needed partial scholarship. I dropped out for a semester to figure out what to do. What went wrong? My first year on campus, I struggled to get a grip on fitting into both the social and academic culture of higher education. I had to work to pay for my books, my car, and any other expenses incurred outside of housing and food (which I paid via loans my first year, as students were required to live on campus). When I did return to college my second year, I didn’t take out any loans for food and housing and worked nearly full time to support myself by renting a room near campus. I was determined to graduate within four years to mitigate my student loan debt.
I never felt that I belonged or realized the secret my peers knew as they seemed to navigate college with ease, working “smart” rather than the “hard” path I was on. What did my fellow students know that I did not?
Textbook Affordability and Ball State Students
Other students at Ball State face a very similar scenario to the one I faced and are daunted by the high cost of course materials and other challenges related to navigating the business of being a student and fitting into higher education culture.
- From the Ball State Fall 2022 Satisfaction Survey, financial hardship is the #3 reported challenge for BSU students, with 65% reporting difficulty with financial hardship and 35% reporting moderate to serious difficulty.
- Affordability of instructional materials and textbooks is the #4 challenge for BSU students, with 58% reporting difficulty and 26% reporting moderate to serious difficulty.
“Soft” Skills to Navigate the Academic Journey
Today, I recognize what I was missing 20+ years ago when I began my college journey: the necessary “soft” skills to be a successful student, such as prioritization and budgeting. As I currently progress through my doctoral degree, I make several “audits”: who in my classes can I reach out to if/as questions arise? Should I buy, borrow, or rent the books? Is the professor open to dialogue if I need to talk out how I’m feeling about the course? Today, I hold myself accountable through a support system of peers in my cohort, such as meeting via Zoom for Pomodoro writing sessions. I have a personal laptop and iPhone to engage in the materials for the course, and I’m well-versed in academic technologies to support my learning.
I also have a strong grasp on how to strategically read the course materials to master the course objectives—a vast difference between pouring over every word in an assigned reading simply because it’s assigned. These skills—not “inherent” intelligence—set me apart as a thriving student. Throughout my undergrad experience, I thought intelligence was a straightforward equation for success.
Demystify the Business of Being a Student
The conversation around textbook affordability should also extend beyond, well, textbook affordability. It’s also about demystifying how to be a successful student, especially as students grapple with accessing and engaging with our course materials. First-generation students in particular may feel unmoored as they traverse choppy waters. Do they have the guidance and tools they need to find their way through their courses successfully? Ball State students may feel overwhelmed in saving for textbooks or may have to wait for financial aid to come through to access the books as a rental or purchase, all the while worrying how much a delayed textbook will “cost them” in catching up in their courses.
What Can You Do?
Below I outline six key ways to support Ball State learners, including early or immediate access to course materials, providing accessible and affordable materials, sharing transparently why materials were selected, and finally, offering choice and guidance in how to use course materials.
- Provide early/immediate access to course materials in Canvas.
I make available to students the first essays from the required anthology via the Reading List in Canvas, a BSU application in the course navigation menu that students access to course reserve materials, including full-text database articles, Open Educational Resources, e-books, digitized chapters, streaming music and video. Contact library staff for more information or to set up your course Reading List. This early access gives students breathing room to purchase the course book(s). They won’t fall behind if they can’t purchase them right away, and students can still engage with their peers in the Discussion Board about the readings. They won’t miss those early deadlines.
- Provide accessible materials.
PDF documents are often scans of physical artifacts, such as a book or journal article. When you scan a document as a PDF, though, that text is not selectable, searchable, or editable unless it has Optical Character Recognition (OCR) applied to it. This means that users of assistive technologies cannot access the content at all, significantly harming their experience of your course. To learn more about how to make your Canvas course accessible, BSU faculty can self-enroll in the self-paced accessible course.
- If you can, identify affordable or no-cost materials.
The required book for the introductory course I teach is $35. Undergraduate students spend $1,200–$1,300 per year on textbooks and supplies, and costs are only increasing. I vividly recall how I was going to afford my course textbooks, especially in my final year of undergrad where I stacked 18 credit hours each semester so that I could finish within four years to avoid incurring any further debt. While it’s not always feasible to utilize low or no-cost texts, consider using course reserves and/or share a few spare copies of the textbook that students can check out from you directly.
- Make it transparent: share why you assign your course materials.
I explicitly align the weekly objectives in my Canvas course with the readings so that my students can see the “why” behind each learning activity. In other words, it is clear what they should be able to “do” after completing the learning activities and assessments. This alignment mitigates concerns of busy work, too. When students are clear on the “why,” they are more likely to see the learning activities as meaningful.
- Give students a say.
For some assignments, I offer students a choice in which essays they can read within the same topic. For example, when we discuss the intersection of race and gender, students can choose between a variety of personal essays from the text according to what interests them the most. The objective remains the same, but gender and race intersect within the essays I selected in important ways. Students value agency and autonomy, and there are many meaningful, deliberate ways to give students options.
- Provide guidance on how to read the materials.
Strategy wins the day, especially when students are juggling multiple work and life responsibilities. I direct students to review the assessment and corresponding objective(s) before they dive into the reading, so they are clear on what to look for, such as connecting specific themes within the reading.
- Bonus Tip: Consider sharing with all your students available financial support resources at Ball State to mitigate financial hardship, such as the Ball State Basic Needs Hub, a virtual center for resources available to students experiencing basic needs insecurity, and other financial emergency aid resources. You can provide this information within a Welcome Module, for example, that includes all available student service resources.
Can you recall a time as a student when you felt lost or felt that you didn’t belong? Or perhaps you juggled jobs, family obligations, and student-life so close to the edge you were one expensive textbook away from broke. What would have helped you succeed as a student?
Anderson, Alecia D., Andrea N. Hunt, Powell Rachel E., and Brooks Dollar, Cindy. “Student Perceptions of Teaching Transparency.” The Journal of Effective Teaching 13, no. 2 (2013): 38-47. files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1092137.pdf.
Jenkins, Jacob J., Sánchez, Luis A., Schraedley, Megan A.K., Hannans, Jaime, Navick, N. and Young, Jade. “Textbook Broke: Textbook Affordability as a Social Justice Issue.” Journal of Interactive Media in Education 1, (2020): 3. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/jime.549.
Marshall Reeve, John and Tseng, Ching-Mei. “Agency as a fourth aspect of students’ engagement during learning activities.” Contemporary Educational Psychology 36, 4 (2011): 257-267. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cedpsych.2011.05.002.