Teaching Hub

How might students develop academic identities? Undergraduate Research in 100-Level Courses

Black and white image of "100."
Photo by Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash

By Nathan Loewen, Department of Religious Studies.

The challenge

Decisions to attend the University of Alabama are based numerous reasons. A perusal of the University’s homepage suggests some of those reasons. At the time of writing this post, the byline for the homepage is that UA is a place “where legends are made.” The decision to come to UA might include an interest to participate in legendary moments that involve large-scale, highly-publicized events. This makes sense, since most individuals are often attracted to the idea of belonging to something larger than themselves. Scholars of human societies have theorized how ascriptive identification is a part of establishing group-level affinities. Human beings readily join groups. Various theories from the humanities and social sciences explain how humans, as social beings, develop their identities by joining groups and participating in group-based activities. Who doesn’t want to identify with a legend?

There is a challenging situation for educators, however, when the social dynamics of collective affinity meet the structural dynamics of higher education. Students at UA do share a meticulously curated campus and well-equipped classrooms. Many demonstrate ascriptive preferences through fashions involving crimson, houndstooth, chinos, khakis, pastel shorts, and whatever may be seen during “rush” on #BamaTok. But, like most student bodies across the United States, that collective effervescence is disjunctive with course grades, transcripts, C.V.’s, portfolios, or pretty much any other aspect of students’ academic lives. The data about UA’s students may be displayed in the aggregate, but few students imaginably refer to those indicators to reflect on their academic performance. That data, produced by collecting information based on the unique identifiers of the mybama username and password, is one way to grasp the challenging situation for educators in the classroom. Unique identifiers show how the structural dynamics of higher education work. The technology platforms used by students, for example, are designed for individual user interactions. Few are designed for substantive collaboration across users and devices (with the exception of Hypothesis). Students and faculty alike often bemoan unfairness in group projects or the turgidity of online discussions. These college interactions usually bump against technological designs informed by structural requirements for how “learning” is measured. The challenge, then, is a contrast of scale and intensity between the “legendary” aspects of campus social life and academic individuation.

100-level courses are campus spaces where this challenging situation is brought to a head. These classes are designed for new arrivals to higher education. 100-level classes are either required gateways that select students for continued studies in a specialization, or, they are part of a core curriculum aimed at developing students’ general education. Some of what’s learned in these courses may be captured by summative outcomes for institutional data indicators, but student experiences in these courses also involves “learning” a vast amount of formative understanding about what it means to “do college.” All of this learning, I wager, is potentially disjunctive with the collective dynamics of campus life. 100-level courses are important spaces for students to develop their academic identities. If the individuating structural dynamics of higher education are often at odds with their otherwise social experiences, how do students successfully develop a sense of their scholarly self?

One idea

Faculty can help in a variety of ways with their course designs. They can’t change the structures of higher education and campus technologies, but they can work with and around these structures in 100-level courses to create spaces that optimize the collective and individual conditions for students to develop their identities as scholars. Plenty of ideas already exist in this website’s resources on preparing to teach.

One of my responses to the challenge is to have students do research in my 100-level courses. My courses are designed entirely around the outcome of having each student learn how to do develop a personal research agenda that applies the course theories, methods, and skills. The class sessions and assignments are designed to measure “student success” in terms of developing everyone’s attitudes towards scholarship through a semester-long series of discrete tasks that assemble the components of an original, undergraduate research project. Due dates are flexible, but the class sessions demonstrate how each small task establishes the conditions for successive tasks. While grades may be consequents, I am very careful to present them as accidents. For example, I repeatedly state throughout the course that I have no reservations about giving everyone “A’s.” Full grades are given for completing these tasks when, and only when, they are presented to others during face-to-face classroom sessions. Class sessions involve hands-on activities where students share with each other each of the smalls steps they are taking along the way to developing their research. By the ninth week of the semester, I work at deliberately demonstrating how each student has what they need to deliver an original research project in the penultimate week of the term.* The final week focuses on sharing and celebrating our individual accomplishments. Hopefully this quick explanation shows how I design a 100-level course to deliver on the university’s structural requirement for student data while deliberately fostering both a individual and collective sense of academic identity.

It’s true that many students come to UA because they self-identify as scholars. For teachers of those students, one question is how to reinforce and sustain that identity. Another important question is how to keep fostering that identity for students who are not academically succeeding in their chosen discipline, field, or, profession. What sort of academic identity enables them to “pivot”? By now it’s apparent that my courses fulfill general education requirements rather than gateway courses for professional qualifications. Enabling students to develop their academic identities in 100-level courses that reside within a structure of professional dependencies likely requires other course designs. For the students in my 100-level courses, I always hope to get emails like this one:

“I just wanted to reach out and say that I appreciate having you as a professor this semester!! This was my first semester of college straight out of high school and your class made me feel comfortable to ask questions and reach out for help when I needed it. I feel that you definitely did everything you could to give everyone a fair chance at succeeding in the class and you were very understanding and helpful. You are a great professor, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to take your course!”


* My course design effectively side-steps academic integrity issues related to generative artificial intelligence. Any student attempting to reverse-engineer a research project through these discrete tasks and in-class sharing sessions would accomplish the overall goal of learning what’s involved to develop an academic identity. The same applies to students using the tried-and-true method of essay mills and “homework help” websites. See Derek Newton’s blog, the Cheatsheet, to better understand “academic integrity” in today’s higher education and professional landscape.