(Re)Orientations: Small strategies to support new learners (including ourselves)

This month, our guest editors, Dr. Laurie McNeill, professor of teaching and chair of first-year programs at the Department of English Language and Literatures and Kim Kiloh, director of the Centre for Student Involvement and Careers, will be exploring (Re)Orientations: Small strategies to support new learners (including ourselves).

An Overview

As we get ready to welcome a new first-year class this September, we find ourselves in territory that is both familiar (introducing the academy and how it works) and strange (teaching and learning and community-building in virtual spaces). With reimagined digital versions of orientations and classrooms now set up, ready for us to animate them, we might still be doing so with some trepidation: how do we orient students when we are a bit disoriented ourselves? In some ways, our shift to online teaching and learning puts many of us in a similar high-wire act as our incoming students—figuring out what we don’t know, adjusting on the fly, failing spectacularly, rebounding to try again, differently. This vulnerability can be an opportunity to remind ourselves about the value of orientations (to the university, to our courses) in helping students make a successful transition to (virtual) campus. Fortunately, we can build on what we already know about how to meet new students’ needs—and extend some of those insights to ourselves.

When we are already struggling to figure out many new aspects of teaching for the new year, it can seem overwhelming to imagine how we might further tweak our courses and help students learn “how to university.” Encouragingly, in Kim’s work with Orientations and Laurie’s with Arts’ First-Year Programs, we’ve found some core principles and small changes to practice can have transformative results. We share resources that illustrate what James Lang calls “small teaching”: the kinds of feasible, scalable, and productive steps we can build into our practices that help us welcome first-year students to our academic community. These are practices that Lang, with co-author Flower Darby, have also adapted for teaching and learning online.

Our first link features a new resource for students in Jump Start (and beyond), which invites them into the academy through an introduction to one of its core values: academic integrity. Our second link offers ideas for instructors on meeting students where they are—even if that’s online. And our third link documents a study of one university’s “small” approach to helping disadvantaged students continue their degrees.

Academic integrity

Many students come to university with a limited understanding of academic integrity or, more importantly, why it should matter to them (other than not getting caught for cheating). Offering students an orientation to our expectations of academic integrity and how to meet them is one small way we can make university life more accessible. This year, we have developed “Introduction to Academic Integrity,” a short (30 minute) Canvas module for first-year students in Jump Start and Imagine UBC, but also available for use in other courses by all instructors at UBC. In this module, we situate academic integrity in the context of why it matters to us—as a core element of how we as scholars and professionals do our work (and live our professional lives) at UBC and beyond (instructors can find additional resources for teaching academic integrity on this faculty guide, based on Laurie’s “Cheating Hearts” Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund project).

Ideas for (“radically hopeful”) teaching

With contributions including videos and podcasts as well as articles, Pedagogies of care: Open resources for student-centered and adaptive strategies in the new higher-ed landscape (2020, West Virginia University Press) models teaching and learning that supports faculty and students navigating this new terrain. Cyndi Kernahan and Kevin Gannon’s I hate Zoom, but it’s still good to see you is one of many timely (and short!) resources in the collection.

Guided writing promotes belonging and persistence

Social belonging is a fundamental human need, and worries about “not belonging” are associated with decreased post-secondary persistence, particularly for racialized and first-generation students, who already experience many structural and systemic barriers to education. In A customized belonging intervention improves retention of socially disadvantaged students at a broad-access university (Science Advances, 2020), authors Mary C. Murphy, Maithreyi Gopalan, Evelyn R. Carter, Katherine T. U. Emerson, Bette L. Bottoms, and Gregory M. Walton, adapt an earlier, seminal study to the context of a broad-access institution. Both studies point to promising findings: gains in students’ sense of belonging— their academic and social fit—are positively associated with student persistence. The intervention itself, situated in a first-year writing course, sought to normalize academic and social challenges, contextualizing them as “common and temporary” by reading and responding to upper-year students’ stories.


Enjoyed reading about (Re)Orientations: Small strategies to support new learners (including ourselves)? Learn about other topics we covered in the August 2020 edition by reading the complete Edubytes newsletter. To view past issues, visit the Edubytes archive.

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