Monday, June 05, 2017


The Sampler Platter

The guided pathways movement has made great headway in community colleges, and rightly so.  It’s based on the notion that students don’t necessarily arrive knowing exactly what major to pick or how to get through it on time, so they need legible signs and advising to know what to take.

In some colleges, the pathways start with a “meta-major” course that introduces students to a range of options in the same general area.  The idea is to reduce the number of options that confront a student upon arrival, and then to give them a fighting chance to make more fine-tuned choices based on actual information.

At Brookdale, we have a great course in the allied health area that serves this purpose.  Students who identify nursing or any allied health field as a career goal take a class that introduces them to the range of careers in the health field, along with some study skills applied to the material.  When they discover options like occupational therapy, community health, and epidemiology, some of them peel off into those fields.  The ones who still want nursing are at least solidified in their choice.  When we did a course like that at Holyoke, it worked on two levels.  Applications to the nursing program went down -- a good thing, given the shortage of clinical placements -- but the pass rate on the NCLEX went up.  Students self-selected based on actual information.

But allied health is a relatively straightforward case.  I’m thinking about what a course like that might look like in, say, the social sciences.  

I’d guess that many students arriving at community college don’t have a clear sense of what, say, sociology is, or how it differs from anthropology.  Most have never taken a class in political science or economics, and their sense of psychology comes largely from popularized versions.  They might have a general sense of wanting to study people, but to expect them to arrive with a fully-formed idea of what that means is usually unrealistic.

So here’s the concept.  (This is very much a “what if..?”  I’m looking for thoughtful feedback.)  I’m imagining a team-taught course with a thematic focus: the family, maybe, or hierarchy.  It would be split into modules, with each module featuring a different “lens” on the theme.  For instance, the first module might show how psychologists look at the family, the second might be economists, the third sociologists, and so on.  Faculty from the various fields would cycle through, so the modules would have to be in different order for different sections.  Each module would be identified, so the students would know at any given time which lens was being used.  At the end of the semester, they’d be presented with something like this: “which one made the most sense to you?  That’s your major!”

It’s a sort of sampler platter, or taste test.  It’s based on the idea that students may not realize that disciplines differ not only in topic choice, but in ways of looking at the world.  

The approach has some risks, of course.  It would require a high level of coordination, for one thing.  And maintaining continuity across the modules would take some doing.  But these both strike me as manageable.  And with each module a bite-size topical chunk -- “topical chunk” would be a great name for a band -- the class would lend itself well to OER, just as our health careers class does.

So, wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Does the sampler platter concept make sense, or is there a better way to do a meta-major for social sciences?

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