Becoming a scholar
For a number of years, Bluffton's liberal arts core curriculum has included a common course designed to help first-year students make the transition from high school to higher education.
This year, the course has been revised and renamed "Becoming a Scholar" in an effort to strengthen Bluffton's efforts to help students discover "what it means to be a college-level learner," says Dr. Lamar Nisly, associate dean of academic affairs.
Encouraging first-year students to think of themselves as active learners and to develop the habits of a scholar are among the goals. So, too, is helping them enter Bluffton's academic community as they grow acquainted with the university's enduring values of discovery, community, respect and service.
A focal point of the course is a semester-long research project in which students are—among other things—learning to use resources in Musselman Library and working directly with a faculty or staff scholar to aid in their research.
"Becoming a Scholar" emerged from conversations about ways to enhance student learning, and then from the work of several faculty members who had taught First Year Seminar and accepted Nisly's fall 2011 invitation to take on the revision. "At the beginning, everything was up for grabs," he recalls, adding that seeing the new course take shape was "a rewarding process."
In addition to developing an anthology of essays and book excerpts for readings, the faculty added a research project, through which every student can explore a topic of their choosing.
"We want to encourage students to follow their passions," says Nisly, also a professor of English who is teaching one of this fall's 11 sections of the course. "Our job is to help them expand on their initial idea" by encouraging deeper thinking about how to balance information obtained from different sources and what they can claim based on that information, he notes.
Students visit the library in small groups, but their sessions with a research librarian have changed from a traditional library overview to an important step in the research process, he says.
Nisly also arranged 240 half-hour meetings between firstyear students and faculty and staff members to facilitate additional, direct connections hat research indicates are beneficial to learning. "They'll have a chance to talk with somebody on campus as another scholarly exchange," he points out, calling the "process of discovery" the most important aspect of the project.
During the course, first-year students will also interact with seniors in Bluffton's capstone course, Christian Values in a Global Community. In that course, students work in groups on possible solutions to societal problems, which in the past have included recycling, fair trade and regional poverty. Rather than lose the results of that work through graduation, Nisly explains, seniors will now present their findings to the first-year class, who will then have the option of continuing it if they're interested.
"The hope for the course is that we can help students become passionate about learning, and help them become effective users of the tools for the learning that will build success in college and beyond," Nisly says.