Tag Archives: disabilities

Meet the First Years!

Steve Volk, September 4, 2017

Goodbye Mr. Chips with Robert Donat (1939)

Goodbye Mr. Chips with Robert Donat (1939)

One thing we learn as educators is that all students are different and need to be taught in ways that can best promote their learning and growth. I’m not talking about the “learning styles” literature, which needs to be approached with a good degree of caution and should not be confused with Howard Gardner’s “multiple intelligences” research. (Indeed, a veritable “learning-styles-industrial complex” has developed around the approach, giving rise to dozens of companies all trying to sell their particular “learning-styles” product, even though, as many researchers have discovered, there is no evidence to support the idea that matching activities to one’s learning style improves learning.) Rather, I mean that one of the great joys of teaching is getting to know students on an individual level so that we can provide the most appropriate help when needed. And, the other side of the coin, one of our great frustrations is lacking the time to do this to the extent that we would desire.

Nonetheless, there is something to be gained by examining an incoming class as a whole, not just at our own college, but across the country. At Oberlin, for example, we have just welcomed 765 new students (College and Conservatory combined). 58% of the class are women, 42% men, which puts us just slightly above the national figure of 55% women). We have learned that approximately 26% of the class are students of color, and that 88 foreign students from 40 different countries now call Oberlin home.

What about the national picture, where some 20.4 million students are expected to attend American colleges and universities in 2017 (an increase of about 5.1 million since fall 2000)? For many years, the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA has published The American Freshman: National Norms, an annual survey of full-time first-year students (FTFT). I always find the survey a useful means to follow trends that are developing in higher education, some of which are mirrored on our own campus.

This “Article of the Week” will present some of HERI’s data for students entering in 2016 which were published a few months ago, as well as figures from a few other sources. The HERI data were compiled from a survey of 137,456 students including 80,000 students at baccalaureate institutions, of whom about 49,000 were from private 4-year colleges. While HERI and other sources I’ve examined report on a multitude of topics, here I just including a few snapshots that I found most informative.

Political Orientation

It will come as no surprise to learn that the entering cohort of full-time, first-time college students in the fall 2016 semester was the most polarized in the 51-year history of the Freshman Survey, in general and by gender. (Any guesses as to what the results will show for the 2017 entering class? I shudder in anticipation.) Fewer students than ever before (42.3%) categorize their political views as “middle of the road,” while an all-time high of 41.1% of women self-identify as “liberal” or “far left” with respect to their political views. This compares with 28.9% of men who consider themselves in the same categories, yielding the largest gender gap in self-reported political orientation to date.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 4.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 4.

More broadly, here is how incoming first-years thought of themselves politically:

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac, 2017-18, p. 34.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac, 2017-18, p. 34.

Openness to other viewpoints:

The fact that more students nationally are moving away from a “middle-of-the-road” self-definition is not, it itself, either surprising or necessarily troubling. It could suggest that entering students are more aware of political issues and more willing to define themselves in relation to on-going debates. What IS troubling – you thought I’d skate away from this one, didn’t you? – are the findings regarding the degree to which politically defined students profess that they will “tolerate” others with different beliefs. (What “tolerating” other beliefs means isn’t fully defined.) Somewhat less than one-third of self-identified right-of-center students indicated a low tolerance of others with different beliefs. This compared to 82.0% of “middle of the road” students and 86.6% of left-of-center students who said that they “strongly” or “somewhat strongly” would “tolerate others with different beliefs.” The complexities of teaching in an environment where those who hold different political beliefs aren’t “tolerated” are enormous.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 6.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 6.

Why are students going to college?

For many years after the financial crash of 2008, students focused on economic criteria as the primary reasons for going on to post-secondary education. As the unemployment rate began to decline from 2012 to 2016, the trend was paralleled by a decline in more purely job-related or financial reasons expressing why a high school student wanted to continue on to  college – although such reasons are still very important. The percentage of students concerned about going to college to get a better job has modestly declined from an all-time high of 87.9% in 2012 to 84.8% in 2016, hardly a dramatic decline. First-time, full-time college students in 2016 were ever-so-slightly less likely to consider “making more money” as a very important reason to attend college (72.6%) compared to their peers who started college in 2012 (74.6%). It’s heartening (at least from my perspective, others might disagree) to see a rise in the desire to gain “a general education and appreciation of ideas” and learning “more about things that interest me,” as reasons for going on to college. But we be foolish to neglect the underlying economic considerations when thinking about our students.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 8.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 8.

Here’s a chart listing the “top objectives” that in-coming students named as  essential or very important goals they wanted to achieve by going on to college or university.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac 2017, p 35.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac 2017, p 35.

First-Generation Students:

Of course, there are significant variations among student cohorts. First-generation students, for example, are more likely to consider the cost of their selected institution and being offered financial assistance as very important factors in selecting their college (56.1% and 58.2%, respectively) compared to continuing-generation students (45.1% and 43.9%).

Over the past 10 years, the proportion of first-generation college students enrolling full-time in four-year institutions has hovered around 20%. In 2015, approximately 17.2% of incoming first-year students self-reported as first-generation, the lowest proportion of first-generation students in the history of the survey. In 2016, roughly 18.8% of the cohort of incoming students identify as first-generation college students.

If it’s hard to understand exactly what these numbers suggest, the demographic composition of first generation students is striking and suggests the changing racial and ethic composition of higher education which is already strongly underway. Only 10% of first generation students were white, whereas 27% were Black and 57% Latino.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 11.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 11.

Mental Health Concerns:

Rates of anxiety and depression among American college students have soared in the last decade, and many more students than in the past come to campus already on medication for such conditions. Distressingly, the number of students with suicidal thoughts has risen as well. According to studies published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, 33% of students in the past 12 months felt so depressed that it “was difficult to function.”

The trends are likely to continue based on data on incoming students. More than one-third (34.5%) of incoming first-time, full-time college students reported frequently feeling anxious. Students identifying with any of the disabilities, psychological disorders, or chronic illnesses listed on the instrument have a greater likelihood than other freshmen to have frequently felt anxious in the past year.


Last year Oberlin graduated 178 students who had been registered with the Disabilities Services office. This number included students with regular accommodations (i.e., those whose documentation was in order), students considered as “provisional” (those whose documentation was not up to date or incomplete); and temporaries (about 3-5% of students with broken arms, concussions, etc.). By the end of the spring 2017 semester, the office had seen about 700 students, or approximately 23% of the student body. Think about it, people. That’s a very significant number.

The Oberlin figures are generally in line with national trends. Overall, nearly 22% of incoming first-year students identified as having at least one disability/disorder. All reports indicate that the figure is increasing. A decade ago (2007-08), 11% of undergraduates reported a disability.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 13.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 13.

For those interested in reading more about students on the autism spectrum, I can recommend two recent articles: Jan Hoffman, “Along the Autism Spectrum, A Path Through Campus Life,” New York Times (Nov. 19, 2016), and Paul Basken, “Colleges Are Trying a Broad Approach to Autistic Students. What Will That Cost?Chronicle of Higher Education (August 28, 2017). [Note: “premium” content available via the library.]

Gender Identity and Sexuality:

The HERI survey for the first time in its history asked students to identify themselves by gender identity, and then used this data to ask about levels of confidence in specific skills or attributes. Compared to the nationally normed sample, students identifying as transgender have far greater confidence in their artistic ability (52.0% vs. 30.7% rating “highest 10%” or “above average”) and creativity (64.0% vs. 52.6% rating “highest 10%” or “above average”). By contrast, transgender students rate themselves lower than first-time, full-time students in the areas of social self-confidence, leadership ability, and physical health.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 13.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 13.

The Chronicle of Higher Education offered an overview of the sexual orientation or identity as self-reported by in-coming first year students.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac 2017, p. 34.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac 2017, p. 34.

Social Media Use:

I found it both interesting and somewhat counter-intuitive that increased social media use on the part of in-coming students didn’t reveal any decline in the amount of time they spent with face-to-face contacts. Full time, first-year students entering college this fall do not seem to substitute more frequent use of online social networks for in-person interactions with friends. Three-quarters (75.2%) of students who spent at least six hours per week using social media during the past year also spent at least six hours per week socializing with friends in person. By contrast, roughly half (48.2%) of students who averaged less than six hours each week connecting in online social networks also spent six or more hours socializing with their friends in person. More time online = a greater likelihood of more face-to-face interactions? I need to think about that one more.

If you, like me, wondered where all this time was being spent, here’s some indication.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac 2017, p. 34.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac 2017, p. 34.

Wait — one might say at this point — students are spending more (or the same amount) of time on average socializing, exercising, and hanging out online as studying? Obviously, the data need unpacking, and will vary widely by the type of institution. But when we think despairingly of “today’s students” (as in “what’s the matter with students today”), I’d strongly recommend reading Gail O. Mellow’s recent op-ed in the New York Times. Mellow, the president of La Guardia Community College, observed in “The Biggest Misconception About Today’s College Students” (August 28, 2017), that “Of the country’s nearly 18 million undergraduates, more than 40 percent go to community college, and of those, only 62 percent can afford to go to college full-time. By contrast, a mere 0.4 percent of students in the United States attend one of the Ivies.” Four in ten students work at least 30 hours per week; 25% work full time and go to school full time. My guess is that they aren’t the ones exercising or socializing with friends during their “free” hours.

Whatever the numbers and the trends suggest, we all know that all students bring their own stories, strengths, and concerns to college and that, if the statistics can help us better comprehend the state of higher education, only by getting to know our own students can we provide them with the support and guidance they deserve.


PowerPoint: Let’s Make a Meal of It

Steve Volk, October 3, 2016



PowerPoint is used by a huge (I believe that’s the technical term!) number of faculty, students, administrators, business people, yoga instructors, plumbers, toddlers, and just about anyone else you can name except your cat. (Now we know who’s the smart one in the family.) In this post, I wanted to raise the question of whether we should be sharing slides with our students: If yes, then when (before or after class), and in what format (verbatim from class or edited, as slides or PDFs); if no, why not?

But then I thought: Why not make a whole meal of it and go over various aspects of PowerPoint use, not necessarily the technical (how do I get the transitions I want between slides, how on earth do I insert video, etc.?) but more the educational and aesthetic side of it. So, put your napkin on your lap, have your fork and knife at the ready, and let’s tuck in.

Amuse Bouche:

Is it PowerPoint, Power Point, or Powerpoint? Microsoft would have us believe that it’s PowerPoint, but are we going to let them boss us around? Well maybe for this time only for sake of consistency.

Appetizer: What makes for a good PowerPoint presentation.

Beyond a doubt, the best book ever on PowerPoint design (only 32 pages! only $2.00!)  is by Edward Tufte, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint. Tufte, if you’ve been busy updating your Facebook status for the last few decades, is a statistician, artist, and Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Statistics, and Computer Science at Yale University. Tufte has been called the “Leonardo da Vinci of data” (New York Times), the “Galileo of graphics” (Business Week), and the “Gordon Ramsay of visualization” (Food and Drink). OK, I made the last one up.

Tufte is the one who made the chart below instantly recognizable to millions. He describes this as “probably the best statistical graphic ever drawn.” It is a map by Charles Joseph Minard that graphically portrays the losses suffered by Napoleon’s army in the Russian campaign of 1812. The peach-colored band is the size of Napoleon’s army as he marches into Russia from the Polish border; the black-colored band is its size as he retreated from Moscow. The temperature and time scale is below. If we have some military historians in the crowd, throw out your lecture on the defeat of Napoleon and just show this graphic.

Charles Minard, Napoleon's Russia Campaign, 1812

Charles Minard, Napoleon’s Russia Campaign, 1812

That’s Tufte and Minard. Breathtaking suggestions on how to use information graphically, i.e., now to make interesting PowerPoint slides. Given that we’re mere mortals looking for tips on how to improve our slides, I’d turn to the following for useful advice:

I’ve already clearly ignored Godin’s recommendations about bullets and the NRA, so I’ll continue the appetizer with a few summary points when thinking about improving your slides:

  • Fewer words per slide! There are a number of reasons for this besides the obvious: Your slides should not be your lecture written out and distributed in chunks that you then read to your students. Fewer words per slide (can you keep it to 6?). This will:

(a) Force you to concentrate on what you think the main point is that your students should be getting;

(b) Allow your students to concentrate on that main point;

(c) Allow for more discussion about those points;

(d) More easily engage students than if they are frantically trying to copy down what’s on the screen EVEN if they know you will share your slides with them.

  • Design a slide using images or other data visualization in order to help students absorb the central points you want them to remember; Tufte’s main point, and the essence of all data visualization work, is that good graphics can bolster learning. Just imagine teaching a course in biology or physics, for example, without the use of a graphic, chart or image to help explain a point.
  • Communicate emotions: Research shows that memory is enhanced through emotional engagement. Slides that convey emotion can help students remember the content that is being discussed.

For more information on data visualization and image use in the classroom, see “Drawing to Learn: Beyond Visualization.”

Main Course: Slide Sharing with a Side of How and When

spagettiSo we’ve reached the main course: Should we share slides with our students? The answer, of course, depends on many factors. But let’s dig in:

Slides that are primarily textual. It’s probably a good idea to share your slides with students if they primarily carry content information that would be hard for them to copy down or take notes on during class. This is particularly the case for information that will be needed later (on exams or papers, for example). Further, making this information available will remove any disadvantage from students who are not fast writers (either on laptops or with pen and paper), have not yet developed good note-taking skiills, or who, because of a disability, are literally unable to take note s effectively. (Note: not all students who, because of a documented disability are eligible to be assigned a college-provided note-taker, will actually take advantage of this.)

The question here is more when as opposed to if. Some faculty will provide slides of their lectures prior to the lecture; some only after. The answer (as with so much else) depends on your overall purpose in the lecture. Faculty who don’t want to distribute slides before the lecture argue that students will have no reason to come to class; faculty who don’t want to distribute slides after the lecture say that it’s “unfair” to those who “sat through class” to distribute them to those who didn’t make the effort to attend class. To both sets of faculty I would just say: something else should be happening in class that makes attendance critical (and not just an attendance policy).

It makes sense to distribute slides to class prior to the class if they will help students learn more effectively during the class session itself. Students should be able to use the information to better prepare themselves for learning in the class, to ask more effective questions, to pursue lines of thought they couldn’t develop in class on the spur of the moment. I would often think that if I gave students the slides before class, I’d be giving away all my good “punch lines” and they’d be bored in class (or see that I had prepared and wasn’t “spontaneous”). That certainly would be the case if one is doing no more than reading from slides, but concepts, to be learned, need frequent reiterations, so you’re really not giving anything away by sharing slides before class.

It makes sense to distribute slides after class in most cases (see below for exceptions), since they become yet another source that students can refer to when studying the course material. Slides, even if they contain only a few words of information, can help students recall central concepts and “replay” class discussions. To the extent that your slides function as mnemonic devices, why withhold them from students. (If you’re not already doing this, uploading your slide set to Blackboard is as simple as uploading any other file.)

opposingIf you are lecturing from notes on your PowerPoint slides and only want the students to see the slides themselves since you have other information on “background” in the “notes” section that you’re not using in the presentation (e.g. “Stress this point because Emily and Sam seem to miss it consistently”), you can either make an edited slide set to upload, or, more simply, convert the set to a pdf and upload that; it will only capture your slides, not the notes. (From the main PowerPoint menu, simply “save as” a PDF.)

Slides that are mostly graphic, with images only. The main question here is whether the slides can be intelligible to the viewer (students) without you as an interpreter. Most of my slides, for example, are images which make little sense without the context I (or other students in class) provide. So I don’t distribute slides before a class, but I do make them available after the class so serve, as I noted above, as mnemonic devices for the students.


Other considerations.

  1. Use of copyright images or other material: images that you use in class are protected; images that you post to Blackboard are protected; but if students take your images and use them in ways that are not protected, well, that could violate copyright law. At the very least, make sure your images are credited and that you have discussed proper image use with your students.
  2. Your slides are, after all, your slides, your intellectual property. I’ve discussed before reasons why faculty might not want to share their syllabi on the internet. The same considerations would apply to your slide set. This would come down to an individual’s choice regarding how one thinks about intellectual property and its sharing. But I would stress that sharing slide sets with students via Blackboard is in a different category, and that faculty should be encouraged to do this for the reasons listed above. (You can always put a notice on the first slide: Property of x; all rights reserved.)

Dessert: Taking Microsoft off the Table: Keynote, other presentation software?

Microsoft’s PowerPoint, of course, is the standard. Much like “zipper” or “Xerox,” the term has come to stand in for all presentation software. Mac users are familiar with Keynote (which I’ve usually found to be a better presentation software in many ways), but Keynote doesn’t play nice with those who don’t have Macs and if you are combining slides with a PowerPoint user, it’s a giant headache.

Prezi is another option, and you’ve probably see it in operation at a conference. (If you’ve ever wondered why the “slides” seem to be moving from place to place on a very large canvas, that’s Prezi.) Prezi is wonderful in the kinds of engaging presentations you can create, seamlessly inserting visuals, text, and video, but you travel a fairly steep learning curve before you can learn to employ it very effectively, and if you don’t manage it well, your viewers will likely suffer from motion sickness as they are whiplashed around the screen.


Slidebean, another source of presentation software, has a website on the “Best Presentation Software of 2016” which, not surprisingly, finds their own product to be the best. Visme, another company, has its own “top 10” list of PowerPoint alternatives. (Guess who’s #1?). The good folks in OCTET can offer their own opinions. But for the vast majority of us, the choice comes down to using the presentation software that is most readily available, easiest to use, and most accessible to all of our students.

If that’s the case, than the key is learning how to use it in the best possible ways, i.e., in ways that help students learn and remember the most. A Prezi presentation might be just the thing for a conference, but not necessarily for sharing with your students. So in choosing presentation software, as with any educational technology, always focus on what are your primary learning goals and use the technology that can most easily serve those goals.

The Chocolates on the Table

I hope your appetite for presentation software is fully sated, but if you’re still hungry for more, send me some comments on how you use PowerPoint or other presentation software. I’m happy to prepare another feast.