Improving First-Year Learning in Communication

Grant program: Teaching and Learning Development Grant (TLDG)

Grant recipients: Kathleen Cross and Enda Brophy, School of Communication

Project team: Josh Tabesh and Katie Raso, research assistants

Timeframe: April to August 2012

Funding: $3,000

Poster presentation: View a poster (PDF) describing this project from the 2013 Symposium on Teaching and Learning.

Description: SFU’s School of Communication delivers first-year courses to almost 1,000 students a year, most of them in a large-class (200+ students) format. Expectations for university-level writing and other performance measures can be daunting for this group, which includes recent high school graduates, college transfers, mature students returning to school, and international students. To help address this difficulty, we (both of us are instructors for CMNS 130) offered a series of discipline- and subject-specific learning and writing workshops for first-year students during the fall 2011 and spring 2012 semesters. In these "So What?" sessions, students posed the question “So what?” with respect to their own writing and learning in ways intended to develop their capacity for critical thinking and the creation of cogent arguments using course concepts. The workshops employed several key pedagogical approaches:

  • Peer education: instruction was provided by a fourth-year student and a graduate student from the School of Communication with previous educational experience and training at SFU’s Student Learning Commons (SLC).
  • Discipline- and course-specific instruction: While the SLC offers generalized student support, our workshops offered discipline- and course-specific content that more directly addressed the reading, writing, research, and study challenges facing students in our department.
  • Online web content: A skeleton website was launched in October 2011. As part of this project, the website will be developed into an interactive website with original content from each workshop, as well as resources such as the SFU Library’s research guides, citation style guides, information on health and wellness, and learning resources from other universities.

Now we wish to (a) evaluate the effectiveness of these workshops to determine whether or not they are helping students to achieve desired learning outcomes, and (b) review the research on the success of other, similar modes of delivery and pedagogical practice in order to improve the workshop content.

In particular, we plan to do four things:

  1. Evaluate workshop data from the fall 2011 and spring 2012 semesters to determine the efficacy of current methods for achieving learning outcomes.
  2. Gather additional quantitative data through a survey of first-year CMNS 130 students and use it to compare students who have and have not attended the workshops to gain an understanding of their education needs.
  3. Gather additional qualitative data on desired learning outcomes through two focus group sessions involving students who have attended at least one workshop in the past eight months. These focus groups will provide qualitative exploration of desired learning outcomes and will supplement the quantitative measures described above.
  4. Prepare a report to provide a cohesive picture of the project for our department as well as a university-wide audience. We will use this report as a foundation for further research and development of new programs and strategies for first-year learning.

Questions addressed:

  • What are the most effective strategies for improving research, writing, studying, and reading skills in newly admitted first-year communication students?
  • How can we maximize students' learning outcomes?

Knowledge sharing: A written report will be distributed to a university-wide audience through email lists and other electronic means. The report will be written with a general audience in mind and will serve to highlight not just the successes, but also the challenges and hurdles, of a program such as So What? The report will also make recommendations for future research directions, including the possibility of applying for a larger teaching and learning grant to conduct a larger study and design for first-year learning assistance. Second, a presentation will be held for faculty members in the School of Communication.

Cross, K., Brophy, E., & Tablish, J. (2013, May). Improving first year learning in communication. Poster session presented at the Symposium on Teaching and Learning: Embracing Change @SFU, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC.