FIGs and the Art of Teaching Dangerously

By Greg Smith

Greg Smith, assistant dean emeritus, had been the director of the First-Year Interest Groups (FIGs) program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison  from 2002 until his recent retirement at the end of December 2014. Prior to coming to UW-Madison, his work at other institutions included being an assistant professor of English, a registrar, a TRIO program director, and a director of student services.

FIGs: UW-Madison’s Interdisciplinary Learning Communities

The idea of reforming education is a hot topic, and for the most part the public focus has largely been on K-12 classrooms. By now we are all familiar with phrases like “no child left behind,” “common core,” charter schools, teacher accountability, and achievement gap, just to name a few. However, many institutions of higher education have also been involved in creating exciting innovations that focus on improving teaching and learning environments. UW-Madison has long been a leader in reforming undergraduate education, with Alexander Meikeljohn’s Experimental College being a prime example. Its goal was to create a unique learning community that brought students and faculty together as they studies a core curriculum based on “the great books.” While Meikeljohn’s experiment was short-lived–it was established in 1927 and closed in 1932–some of the fundamental ideas behind it did not disappear but emerged many years later.

Greg Smith enjoying Wisconsin winter weather

Greg Smith enjoying Wisconsin winter weather

In 2001, UW-Madison embarked on a new experimental learning community program called First-Year Interest Groups (FIGs), designed to help first-year students make the transition to university life, both academically and socially. The pilot program consisted of just four FIGs enrolling 76 students. Based on the success of the four pilot FIGs, the campus committed to develop and grow the program. Since then, the program has continued to grow and evolve and now offers over 60 FIGs each fall as well as some spring options; the program now enrolls nearly 20% of the freshman class. FIGs faculty come from all across campus, from every school and college and from dozens of departments and disciplines. The program provides new freshmen with unique opportunities to enroll in a wide variety of inter-related courses, explore areas of interest, discover new passions, and try out potential majors. It also provides faculty with opportunities to collaborate with campus partners–faculty colleagues, librarians, the Writing Center staff, writing fellows, residence hall staff, to name a few–often for the first time.

Each FIG is a “learning community” consisting of about 20 students with similar interests who are enrolled in several classes together. At the core of each FIG is a seminar-type course which enrolls just those 20 students; the other courses are specifically chosen to create an overlapping, integrated, interdisciplinary experience. Students have a wide variety of FIGs to choose from. For example, those interested in Russian language and politics might enroll in “Law and Disorder in Post-Communist Societies,” while students interested in biological sciences might choose to enroll in “Tropical Ecology and Conservation,” or perhaps “Vision, from Biology to Culture.” With over 60 options each fall, there are FIGs to appeal to a wide array of interests and connect students to dozens of possible majors. (To learn more about FIGs, go to the program’s website.)

Working and studying together allows students in a FIG to share ideas, discover new insights, and develop lasting friendships. Annual program assessments confirm that enrolling in FIGs generally has a positive impact on student performance: FIGs students tend to earn higher GPAs and have higher retention rates than do their non-FIGs peers. In addition, FIGs students often form tight social bonds, referring to their “FIGs families” and their “FIGs brothers and sisters.” The integration of course content helps students discover how disciplines relate to one another, thus creating richer educational experiences. As one student observed, “My FIG helped to reinforce the idea that things tie together. It helped me realize how interconnected so many things are in this world.” Looking back on their FIGs experiences, many seniors have commented on how their FIGs helped them make the transition from high school classroom to university lecture hall. As one graduating senior reported, “I think my FIG helped me to transition easily into college, which took some of the stress away from the first semester.”

Some Challenges for Faculty

FIGs students also have the opportunity to develop more personal connections with faculty who teach the small core seminar classes, faculty who are not only passionate about their scholarship and research but who are also enthusiastic about the idea of engaging with first-year students in an integrated learning environment. Teaching a FIG seminar can be challenging even for very experienced faculty; however, many FIGs instructors have developed creative pedagogies that engage students, integrate curriculum, promote critical thinking, and stimulate learning. They have learned to teach dangerously!

Students in “Love and Attachment in Buddhist Art and Literature” learn meditation techniques.

Students in “Love and Attachment in Buddhist Art and Literature” learn meditation techniques.

While some of the faculty who teach FIGs may have taught small classes that enrolled upper level or even graduate students, few have ever taught a small seminar class consisting only of first-year students who, while excited and enthusiastic, have only an inkling of what it means to be a college student. They don’t know yet how to use the libraries, tutorial centers, and other resources a university campus offers. Most do not have college-level research skills, and few know how to write college-appropriate papers. As one professor exclaimed after meeting her FIG students for the first time, “These freshmen are just babies! They barely know how to tie their own shoes let alone navigate this campus!” Faculty who teach FIGs seminars soon discover that besides teaching the content of their FIGs courses, they eventually become mentors to their students, guiding them through their first semester on campus, referring them to resources like tutors and advisors, and teaching skills like note-taking, critical reading, and library research methods.

Students who enroll in FIGs also have very high expectations regarding the “integrative learning” that is central to this program, although most don’t quite comprehend what that may mean or what may be expected of them. The faculty, too, are often thrust into challenging situations, for example collaborating with colleagues from other departments and disciplines in order to help students integrate the skills and content that they are learning in their FIGs classes. It can also be challenging to teach a small cohort of students who, in a very short time, because they are taking several classes together and see each other quite frequently each week, become very bonded to each other. A phrase they frequently use to describe themselves is “my FIG family.” The result can be quite positive: the students support each other and learn from each other, and classroom discussions are usually quite lively, since any shyness disappears early. On the other hand, these student “families” can become quite empowered and they can become quite vocal in expressing their expectations regarding what they think they should be learning or how their learning should be assessed.

Re-Inventing Pedagogy

The faculty who teach FIGs seminars often discover that they need to reinvent themselves as teachers, sometimes redefining their roles. Teaching a small group of twenty students sitting in a small circle is vastly different from lecturing to 200 or more in a large hall. Rather than being the font of knowledge, “the sage on the stage,” the FIGs instructor often becomes a co-learner as she or he works to find new, creative ways to engage students. Re-inventing one’s role, experimenting with innovative pedagogies, and developing new ways to relate to students means being open to taking risks. It may mean abandoning the tried-and-true and venturing into unknown territory. It may mean learning to “teach dangerously”!

Making soup in the Babcock Hall kitchen

Making soup in the Babcock Hall kitchen

Through surveys, focus groups, formal interviews, and informal conversations, the FIGs program has tried to assess the impact that teaching FIGs seminars has those instructors. One area of questioning asks faculty what they have learned when they taught FIGs. Their responses vary somewhat, but some themes and ideas recur over and over, year after year.

Probably the most frequent theme is that when they teach FIGs seminars they depend less and less on lecture and more and more on student participation. While there may be occasions when an instructor may need to present background material or explain difficult concepts, most FIGs instructors report that they need to look for ways to get students to actively participate. Large, open discussions are frequent strategies, but there are others, including small group discussions and individual and group presentations.

FIGs instructors find that their students are not interested in sitting back and being passive listeners but rather are eager to be involved in hands-on, experiential learning. This happens in many ways depending on the course and the anticipated learning outcomes. For example, Professor Beth Meyerand, who occasionally teaches a FIG on “Medical Imaging,” in which students learn about CT-scans, MRI’s, and related medical technology, has her freshmen work on case studies which involve team work, research, critical thinking problem solving, and finally classroom presentations. Some FIGs faculty arrange for service learning opportunities for their students. While monitoring student activity and assessing student performance in these situations can be quite challenging for an instructor, getting students off campus and into the community where they can tutor children in local schools, plan and implement food drives for area food pantries, or participate in workshops for prison inmates, provides priceless opportunities for students to see that what they are learning in a classroom can have real-world applications.

"Food Cultures of Italy": Cooking lesson at the Slow Foods Kitchen on campus

“Food Cultures of Italy”: Cooking lesson at the Slow Foods Kitchen on campus

Experiential learning may mean abandoning the traditional classroom. The FIGs program provides funds for faculty who want to take their students off campus, and many take advantage of that resource. For example Roberta Hill and Patrick Sims, who teach courses in a FIG called “Race, Place, and Story: Arts Against Oppression,” arrange for their students to experience museum visits and theatre performances in Chicago; Bruce Allison and Scott Bowe, who co-teach “Forests and Sustainability,” take their students on frequent field trips, including a weekend at Kemp Station, a research facility located in northern Wisconsin. Students enrolled in the “Italian Food Cultures” FIG taught by Grazia Menechella, spend some of their time in the campus Mediterranean garden learning to grow and harvest herbs and vegetables used in Italian cooking; they have the opportunity to visit an Italian food market in Chicago; and every two weeks they meet in the Babcock Hall kitchen where chefs from area restaurants provide cooking lessons. Sissel Schroeder takes probably one of the most “non-traditional” approaches regarding where she conducts her class. She teaches a FIG titled “Landscapes: Biological, Cultural, and Physical Dimensions,” and her students spend almost their entire semester outdoors. Professor Schroeder uses the Lakeshore Nature Preserve as her “classroom,” and there, her students explore the geology, ecology, and cultural history of that landscape.

Enjoying their outdoors classroom

Enjoying their outdoors classroom

Exploring the campus landscape

Exploring the campus landscape

Some FIGs faculty not only take learning away from the classroom and away from the campus; they take their students out of the country! For the past two years, Ksenija Bilbija has taken some of her FIG students to Costa Rica for two weeks during the winter break where they are immersed in language and culture studies. Catherine Woodward has taken students from her “Tropical Ecology and Conservation” FIG to Ecuador for two weeks in January where they travel by canoe to a biodiversity research station on the Amazon; there they conduct original research projects that they themselves have designed. Last summer, Anne Hansen took some of the students who had been enrolled in her FIG on Buddhist art and literature to Cambodia where they spent four weeks engaged in service learning projects in conjunction with a Buddhist monastery near Siem Reap. These experiences take integrated, interdisciplinary learning to new levels.

Exploring a rain forest in Costa Rica

Exploring a rain forest in Costa Rica

An integral component of the FIGs program is its emphasis on integrative learning. The courses in each FIG have been carefully selected to provide for a rich interdisciplinary experience. For some, the content of the courses overlap in some way, and in others, students learn writing, research, technological, or lab skills that they will employ in the other courses. This learning environment is challenging for the students but can also be challenging for the instructors as well. Field trips and guest speakers can begin to build bridges and make connections between and among the courses in a FIG. Instructors have also looked to other ways to help students see how their FIGs classes are interconnected, including developing innovative writing assignments. Since FIGs enrollments are limited to around 20 students, instructors often incorporate more writing assignments into their classes than they might for a larger enrollment course. Many work with The Writing Center and the Writing Fellows program and develop innovative writing assignments that may include options other than the typical research paper. Creative writing assignments may include journals, group writing projects, reflective essays, posters, or even poems, stories, or songs! Students enrolled in the “Politics and Identity” FIG, which included a course in art history, an introductory art course, and a Freshman Composition class produced a book at the end of the semester that integrated work they had done for all three of the classes; it included essays, poems, stories, drawings, and photos, bringing together the skills, topics, and ideas they had spent a semester exploring and learning. As part of their final projects summing up what they have learned over the semester, students enrolled in Steve Schroeder’s FIG designed for pre-business students have created advertisements, written stories, and performed original rap songs.

Of course adopting appropriate technologies can be critical if an instructor seeks to engage students in new learning strategies. Some faculty make use of the high-tech classrooms that allow students to work on computers both individually as well as in groups to do research, explore ideas and concepts, and solve problems. Others use social media, such as Facebook, to communicate with their students and to help create a sense of community. Caton Roberts and Roberta Hill have both taught their students to express their creativity using digital storytelling. Students in Anne Hansen’s FIG on “Love and Attachment in Buddhist Art and Literature” created both a physical display of their own artwork as well as a virtual display of Buddhist art they had studied that semester. Student’s enrolled in Jim Brown’s FIG created computer games.

"Forests and Sustanability": Taking a break at the university's Kemp Natural Resources Station

“Forests and Sustanability”: Taking a break at the university’s Kemp Natural Resources Station

Central to all of this pedagogical experimentation is a different perspective of just what teaching and learning are all about. Teaching becomes more than a mere transmission of facts from professor to student; learning becomes more than rote memorization. The focus shifts to the larger learning goals of a course. The question becomes not, “What facts and ideas should students know at the end of the semester?”–facts and ideas that may quickly be forgotten. Rather, the question becomes, “What skills, abilities, and attitudes will a student take from a course and continue to use and make reference to long after graduation?” On one hand, this can be very daunting and disconcerting to both instructor and student. On the other hand, this approach can be very successful and very liberating, as Professor Anne Hansen (Religious Studies) describes:

My most exciting undergraduate teaching experience in the past few years has been a new FIG course called “Love and Attachment in Buddhist Art and Literature,” which I taught for the first time in Fall 2012. In designing the course, I experimented with a whole new pedagogical approach that was geared toward letting students direct learning. In the class, we incorporated experiential learning through meditation, studied and wrote about Buddhist artwork at the Chazen Museum of Art, and constructed a virtual gallery in our classroom to recreate an exhibit of installations from the Asian Society. We went on fieldtrips to Buddhist sites, invited speakers, and worked on honing close reading and writing skills. From my perspective, the outcome in terms of student learning and growth was dramatic and has influenced me to rethink my approach to teaching in other courses over the coming years as well.

Nearly all FIGs instructors have reported the same levels of satisfaction that Anne Hansen describes. While many say that they initially felt a bit uncomfortable having to make changes in the way they were used to teaching, almost all report that they were extremely satisfied with their experiences and want continue to teach FIGs seminars. Of FIGs instructors responding to recent surveys, 80% report that teaching their FIGs has made them more confident in their teaching; 75% report that they plan to use some of the teaching strategies they developed in their FIGs classes when they teach non-FIGs classes. One commented, “I was extremely satisfied with my FIG experience. The students responded positively to the course materials, to the linked classes, to me, and to each other.” Another wrote, “My only dissatisfaction was that the semester had to end.” And one professor who has a long tenure at the University wrote, “This was the most satisfying teaching I’ve ever done.”

Obviously the primary mission of the FIGs program has been to create unique learning experiences for first-year students, to provide opportunities for social connections, promote interdisciplinary learning, and enhance academic achievement. Annual program assessments have demonstrated that the program is doing a good job of achieving those goals. However, it has been quite rewarding to see that the positive impact of the program is not limited to students; participation in FIGs has a powerful and positive impact on faculty as well, helping to make them more confident and creative in the classroom, willing to take reasonable risks as they experiment with new technologies and strategies, excited to take steps to “teach dangerously.”

5 thoughts on “FIGs and the Art of Teaching Dangerously

  1. FIGS are obviously a tremendous benefit to incoming students, but I appreciate that they are also a vehicle to connect faculty across disciplines. Faculty finding a common interest in mentoring students and a shared passion around a theme can benefit from FIGS as much as the students do–and unlike students, faculty don’t graduate and leave in a few short years!

  2. Though I now recall neither her name nor the novel in which she appeared, I vividly recall an undergraduate character I encountered somewhere during my own undergraduate years, who papered her dormitory room (now a residence hall) with long horizontal sheets of white paper that ended up wrapping around her room multiple times. On these sheets of paper, beginning in the B.C. eons, she charted centuries and decades of time, listing with them, the historical events, literary figures, artists, political movements, geological occurrences, scientific discoveries, and more, that she was learning about in her classes. She was attempting to fit all this knowledge and insight together in some integrated pattern that would explain things to her. Intrigued, I asked one of my professors, “How do I fit everything I’m learning and thinking about together into some kind of coherent world view?” My professor frowned and responded, “That’s really hard.” Yes, it’s hard; it’s also really fun; and for me, that’s what FIGS is.

  3. Thank you for a fascinating and enlightening post! I particularly appreciate your engagement with what makes FIGS so difficult to teach. Often, I see these and similar courses idealized as a Pangea of cooperation and student engagement. After all, who wouldn’t want a small class full of highly involved undergrads? We don’t spend as much time talking about inherent challenges in teaching students with set and vocal assumptions about their education. It’s not easy adapting or letting go, but spending time on the tough stuff makes your argument for their value all the more compelling.

  4. Thanks so much for all your work with the FIG program, Greg! I am so impressed by the creativity of the FIG offerings and by the hard work that professors and their students put in to making FIGs successful. I am happy that Writing Fellows have been able to support professors teaching FIGs–the Fellows really enjoy assisting students in FIGs with their writing.

  5. Thank you so much for all the work you’ve done on this program, Dr. Smith. Seeing what FIGs give to the students who take them and the instructors who teach them has made me a lifelong proponent of first-year programs like these. I taught E100 for a “Writing and Coding” FIG a few years ago, and it was a challenging and very rewarding experience. (So much so, in fact, that I gave a paper about it with my fellow instructors at the Games+Learning+Society conference.)

    The course really benefited from the increased sense of closeness and community among the students. I remember watching the final presentations at the end of the semester and being just amazed at how smooth and confident even the quietest and most reserved students were in presenting their work.

    It was definitely challenging to coordinate with my fellow instructors though, and if I were to repeat the experience, that’s where I’d make changes – trying to create more opportunities for connections between courses, both direct and indirect. One thing that worked well here was the decision to use a common text across all three courses. This created a sense of connection for both students and instructors, and built-in opportunities throughout the semester for me to ask students about their work in the other two classes and how it challenged or changed their perspective on what we were reading from the book that day. These crossover moments led to writing projects merging concepts from Computer Programming with the persuasive and research goals of E100; rich classroom discussions about technology literacy narratives; and final presentations that referenced the games they’d built in Writing and Coding.

    I can’t say enough good things about FIGs! I hope this program continues to grow!

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