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Opening Doors for Students: Social Sciences in the Early College/Dual Enrollment Programs

One of the big mysteries of early college and dual enrollment programs is why students gravitate to certain fields of study, and are repelled by others. Unlike traditional college majors, students in an early college are often truly undecided, and truly exploring the curriculum, not yet focused on a job or a graduate/professional school. One day, walking across campus, I ran into one of our early college students as he was leaving class. He was just finishing up this "Introduction to Engineering" class. I asked him what he was enrolled in the next term: "Psychology. I need to know engineering, but I also need to know myself."

Social Sciences as a Way of Learning about the World

There is an enormous gulf in the way social sciences and history are taught and studied in high school and in college. High school history and social studies teaching is usually mocked as the great depression scene from the movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off ("Anyone? Anyone?", the bored teacher asking over and over), which is certainly an overstatement of the problems of the field. But students often arrive at a college classroom with an idea of history that is names and dates, and little sense of what social science is or what social scientists do. Even Advanced Placement classes, which were designed to give students a taste of college-level work, are often exercises in information processing, rather than critical thinking or research.

Strong early college and dual enrollment programs try to bridge this gap, especially by looking ahead to the powerful experiences students can have in college in these fields. The best early college teachers in history and social sciences are able both to give students a taste of what is to come, as well as to teach them the material and skills that will be needed to get there. This is a balancing act, because history and social science fields build on a certain amount of rote learning, and involve some key skills (reading, notetaking, writing) that need to be done in order to learn fully from the types of active learning, simulations, and debates that make the field engaging at the college level. But in fields such as the social sciences, without big salaries to lure students, the teaching and activities need to grab students, and hold on for the full term.

Real Student: Emely Siri

Emely Siri enrolled in Bennington College in Vermont, after graduating from Lawrence High School in 2019. She identified these lessons from her experience:

  • • Early college classes provide a good preview of college level classes, where the faculty member may seem more distant than high school teachers, but are important to connect to.
  • • Being in college classes with "regular" undergraduates while still in high school gives you confidence, especially when your high school is culturally different from the population of the college.
  • • Early college teaches you to focus on what you are learning, not what the people sitting around you may think about you.
  • -J

The Value of Psychology, Political

Science, and History

While students often enter our classes with a strong sense that STEM classes can help them succeed in the future, they are not always aware of what history and the social sciences can do for them. In particular, the connections between what they learn in class, and what they see in their family, community, state, or nation, can come as a surprise. In a lot of ways, social sciences and history are ideal components of an early college or dual enrollment curriculum, as they can hook students into subjects that they might not have thought of as relevant in high school, and might never have encountered in college given their trajectory. This is one of the powerful impacts dual enrollment or early college can have on students that people do not always predict - taking a college class at a specific point in high school can completely alter the students' academic trajectory. These high school years offer a real opportunity, as students are open to ideas about what they want to study or careers they want to pursue that may not be true either earlier or later in their academic careers.

Psychology is a subject that some students dive into in high school, but more often in college. As an early college/dual enrollment offering, psychology taught at the college level can be a powerful experience. For students in our program in Lawrence, Massachusetts, college-level psychology classes have been nothing short of a revelation. Students have told us that in their own family, mental illness is regarded as "faking," and not taken at all seriously as physical illness. In a college-level psychology class, learning about the brain, and the illnesses that can affect it, can open students' eyes to a different perspective on their families and communities. Psychology has been so popular that many students who have taken our engineering path sequence also take psychology, as they have heard so many positive things about it through their peers.

Q Lead to Launch: Isabelle Cherney, Ph.D.

Isabelle Cherney is a psychologist and Vice Provost at Merrimack College, where she has worked with the early college from the beginning. Her lessons are:

  • • Build a diverse team to work with your students, in order to better understand and support them.
  • • Offer students classes that let them understand more about themselves and their place in the world.
  • • Work with faculty so that they can better understand the students and their backgrounds.

Why Psychology Resonates with Early College Students

In our early college program at Merrimack College, one of the big surprises was how much our Lawrence students loved psychology as a field of study. School of Education and Social Policy Dean Isabelle Cherney Isabelle Cherney was promoted to Vice Provost, as her academic career has been spent in psychology, teaching it at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. She told me "Psychology is all about the human condition: the individual within a group, and trying to identify your own identity, the crucial development about individual worth and purpose." For high school students, "it's a great way for them to better understand who they are, why they do things, why society is pressuring them." For adolescents, who are obsessed with issues of their own identity, psychology provides a way of examining these issues in relation to society, as opposed to sociology, which is much more focused on systems than individuals.

Psychology also allows students to explore these issues in a scientific way. Much of introductory psychology addresses the brain, and to help them understand what their body and mind are doing, and how they are changing. Cherney told me,

It also gives them a vocabulary to talk about what they are experiencing, both as individuals and in their family and school. It is an opportunity to gain selfconfidence, and to have a better understanding of the social barriers that they are up against every day. Social sciences, drawing on data, also help give young people tools in their classes and beyond. They are better able to understand data and its uses, and be able to be more critical of it in the media.

Cherney points to motivation and engagement as reasons why early college students are so successful on the college campus. She says that they have elan, a power that they bring to the classroom, that is extraordinary for the faculty they teach.

Early college students are in the process of unleashing the potential that they have, and faculty can literally feel the difference in the classroom. A good program is able to channel that energy, and is able to use it to build up students' self-efficacy and self-confidence.

According to Cherney, the key to a successful early college is to build a diverse team of individuals who can help understand the cultural, social and financial context of the students. This way, when faculty are struggling with how to deal with students or student issues, there is a rich array of perspectives to help everyone understand the place that the students are coming from.

Changes to Help Students

Reach College Level Work

John Lovett had taught survey classes at the college level before taking on an early college political science course. However, he found that his traditional mix of papers and midterm/final was not helping his early college students at all. With fewer grades to go on than in their high school courses (where there might be multiple assignments for a grade each week), students were not doing well in his class, and did not know they were not reading and studying at the depth needed. Lovett changed the assessments in his class - he added another test, and changed the two papers for the class to focus more on connections to the present. He implemented these changes in both his early college and his freshman level college classes, and students generally did better with more opportunities to be assessed.

As a result of these changes, Lovett saw students connect more to the subject as well as to him as an instructor. He held his office hours for the class at the high school, and students began to stop by to talk about the class, and gradually, to talk about politics and life more generally. After the election in 2016, students who had been in the class the previous year stopped by as well to talk about the election and its implications. Through building stronger ties, Lovett ended up talking to students more about their college choices and writing letters of recommendation for them. These are exactly the kinds of relationships that education researcher Anthony Jack says that minority and low-income students need to make in the college context - personal connections with faculty members that can result in expanded opportunities and ideas about potential education and careers.

Real Teacher: Amber Hancock Bishop

Amber Hancock Bishop has worked as a teacher at Early College Alliance @ Eastern Michigan University since the program started. Her lessons for teaching social science include:

  • • Focus on the "soft skills" that students need to navigate college classes.
  • • Do not neglect key skills such as reading, which students may have not mastered before enrolling in the early college program.
  • • Teach social sciences in a thematic way - tackle big topics and big questions, rather than names or dates.

Teaching History, Social Studies, Soft Skills, and Reading in an Early College Program

Amber Hancock Bishop has a unique background as a teacher of history and social studies at ECA@EMU. She trained as a middle/high school social studies teacher, then worked as a tutor for a GEAR UP college access program, then was poached to become the founding history teacher in the early college. This combination of working with students where they are while keeping an eye on where they will be in the future defines her teaching and her career. In the midst of her work at ECA, she enrolled in graduate school and earned a master's in education in reading which has informed her work with 9th and 10th grade students who are on their way to college-level work, but need to build academic skills in reading and writing to get there.

To prepare students for early college experiences, Bishop focuses on the less glamorous parts of social science and history. She starts students out with the "soft skills" that students need to be able to navigate a college classroom. She works with students on how to read and take notes using a college-level history textbook. For students who are at risk of not moving on to college-level work, she teaches a class that focuses on vocabulary and reading strategies. Focusing on key words that students will see at the college level, she works with students on identifying vocabulary and using it in context. Without this instruction, students can find themselves skipping over key pieces of vocabulary, and in college-level readings, means that students can get through a reading passage without getting anything out of it.

Bishop's students also learn history through truly innovative pedagogy. She has taught world history classes using the Big History curriculum, taking students from the Big Bang to the present. Through integration of history and science, this curriculum gives students a chance to learn about the framework of world history, which will come in handy in any future history classes. Students also complete research projects on the Holocaust, researching a participant and tracing their journey through World War II. She has seen her students flourish with these strategies, and able to move on to college coursework prepared to tackle the challenges ahead.

Building Skills: Debates and Policy Papers

When Kirstie Dobbs appeared in my office for a job interview to teach political science for our program, it was not really an interview. I had only one goal - convince her to take the position working half of the time with our early college program, and the other half with traditional college students. She later told me that she almost did not apply for the position, as it seemed totally outside her experience and skill set. Though she was a researcher who specialized in youth political movements in Tunisia, she had no background or interest in being a traditional high school teacher, and almost ignored the job advertisement.

At first, she found the early college students different than those she had previously taught. They were less mature in a lot of ways, even giggly at times. She found that she had to tell them "time to focus." Over that first term, she learned that she had to set the expectation for seriousness. She also connected their joking behavior with a lack of confidence about college. She noted that "they start out not as confident, but all of that changes a few weeks into the class. They begin to figure out that this subject is approachable." In addition, Dobbs said, "I sometimes forget they are 16 years old, relatively sheltered, and sometimes they need more explaining about key concepts."

However, while the early college students were less mature than her traditional age students, Dobbs found them much more mature and self-reliant when it came to managing their lives and problems. Dobbs said, they are a lot more mature in terms of solving their own problems, such as in the COVID-19 situation, than my traditional students. The Early college students were more able to figure out all their internet access issues, and they are able to solve problems for themselves, when then the issues are outside their control.

She concluded, "When things got tough, early college students rose to the situation."

Students in the class come into the early college program already politically aware. Dobbs said,

I am teaching at this point in time - their generation - Generation Z - is super diverse, way more educated, and a lot more politically mobilized than the previous generation. The students in Lawrence already feel anti-Trump, who explicitly called out the City of Lawrence as a source of drugs and crime. So when I am teaching them in an introductory political science class, they have the passion and energy, and are ready to go, but they need support, resources, and structure.

Dobbs has them write a policy paper as part of the early college class. She told me, "Their topics, such as the school to prison pipeline, take complex issues, and the students suggest the best ways to make change."

Dobbs said,

When I am teaching the early college students, I know that my positionality is not at all similar to theirs and I acknowledge that. I don't know what this is like to be in their shoes. The best example of this is when we talk about immigration, we are facing serious issues and the professor does not have the answers for you, or the experience to connect with you.

This means that for Dobbs, she cannot just step into the classroom and pretend that she, as the professor, can just give students the answers to the big issues. The students need to have "ownership of their own knowledge, and make up their own mind about these issues."

Activities that Engage Early College Students in Politics and Civics

Early college students in Dobbs's class loved to debate, and Dobbs structured this activity so that students would need to research a topic and a side of a debate that is chosen randomly, so that they might not be arguing their own personal position on an issue. With issues that are politically "hot," this can cause high school students to resist, as they may need to argue the opposite side of an issue like abortion or immigration that they have strong feelings about. Researching and analyzing both sides of an issue, in order to develop an argument, is a powerful strategy for intellectual development, even as it means that students can suffer personal and intellectual discomfort in the process.

Dobbs also arranged the schedule so that Merrimack traditional students (overwhelmingly white and suburban) came and worked with the early college students on the debate activity. As a result, the early college students gained confidence, getting to see that their own work was on a par with their peers who were a few years older and already enrolled full time in college. The students further sharpened their skills with a policy paper that made an argument about an issue and potential changes. Some of the papers Dobbs received were so good that she is looking at getting them published, and found them comparable to graduate master's level papers.

To cover the material that an introduction to government class needs to include (three branches of government, etc.), Dobbs uses a flipped classroom model, in which students do the reading in advance and take a short online quiz. The students can have more than one attempt, and students overall have scored very well on theses (higher than their Merrimack peers). This has freed up time that Dobbs would have spent lecturing (which she did not find effective with these students), and instead allowed her to focus on discussions and activities during class time.

(15) The Early College/Dual Enrollment Edge: Debates and Disagreements

Early college students get a lot out of debates. Here is what some of the research tells us:

  • • Students learn a great deal from having to research one side of a debate, especially when they need to research a position they do not believe in.
  • • Students struggle with how to decide between two positions that both seem "true," but this struggle helps them make advances in their own thinking.
  • • Students, ultimately, learn that evidence is important in formulating a position, and that just having an opinion is not proof that one is correct.

William Perry's Scheme and

Early College Students

Harvard professor William Perry was a major researcher of college students' learning in the 1960s and 1970s, and devised a "scheme" to understand the progression college students go through as they journey from freshman to senior year to adulthood (Perry, 1999).

  • • Students begin in dualism, in which everything has a true or false answer, and in which the professor or teacher is delivering the truth to students. The key to student success is to copy down the right answer in lectures, to memorize it, and to give it back on the test.
  • • Students then proceed to multiplicity, in which students realize that every opinion has merits, and that there is no certain way to decide which are true. The teacher, therefore, becomes less important, as she/ he is only one person, whose opinion is no better than that of students. As a result, school is a challenge of figuring out the teacher or professors' game, and playing that game correctly.
  • • Finally, there are forms of relativism, in which students grasp that different opinions are backed by argumentation and evidence, and that some answers may be more correct than others. Teachers become a partner in this discussion that seeks the truth, and ultimately, learning is making a commitment to an answer, even while knowing it has its limits.

Through early college social science coursework, students can engage in issues beyond those which their traditional high school curriculum provides. While many students in early college classes have also taken or will take AP classes, these do not provide the means to move up Perry's scheme. Instead, AP classes tend to become a vast information processing task, with students struggling to remember details for a myriad of historical periods or social science cases.

What early college social science classes can do is to provide students with activities such as debates and research papers that force students to contend with clashing opinions on issues that have no "right" answer. When asked to analyze an argument, particularly one which the student does not agree with, they are forced to rethink their own opinion, as well as their ideas about who might hold the opposing opinion. In Kirstie Dobbs's introduction to government class, students are assigned a side on a debate (such as immigration), and need to work with their group on presenting their strongest argument, and countering those of their opposition. Students also need to write a policy analysis on a topic of interest to them, in order to make a case for their own chosen proposal.

This forces students to move beyond their own opinion, to begin to understand those of others, and to make their own arguments based on evidence, not just opinion. These strategies, while they may frustrate students at the time, have a powerful impact. While providing support (Merrimack upper-class undergraduates help students with the paper, as does Dr. Dobbs), the class forces students to think about issues in a way that they might have only done in upper level courses in college.

Resource Toolbox

Perry Jr, W. C. (1999). Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years: A Scheme. lossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series. Jossey-Bass Publishers, 350 Sansome St., San Francisco, CA 94104.


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