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No Ordinary High School Class: Dual Enrollment from a Teacher’s Perspective

Daniel Brandon Swart, September 2015

What is the value of a dual enrollment (DE) course? As a history teacher who offers DE courses, I believe that students who take them have an advantage over those who take college-level history courses only when they enter college. It’s not simply that students save money—though that is often their original motivation—it’s that interactions between students and teachers create an environment that prepares them for the rigors of college. DE classrooms might not bear much resemblance to university lecture halls, but they effectively teachskills that students need to succeed in college.

Teaching in a high school, it must be remembered, is very different from teaching on a college campus. Teacher-student interaction in a DE classroom is more structured. At my school, DE classes are 90 minutes long and meet 45 days a semester. Students also benefit from a mandatory 90-minute Academic Lab. Unlike a traditional study hall, the Academic Lab gives students the opportunity to meet with teachers or make up assignments and exams. Finally, I make myself available before and after school, and many of my students come to my classroom.

DE classrooms don’t look like university lecture halls, but they effectively teach skills that students need in college.

What does my classroom look like with all of this time for teacher-student interaction? Through conversations and professional development with faculty at Indiana University’s Advance College Project (ACP), I have developed a pedagogy concentrating on the transferable understandings that college history courses offer students. In other words, they may not remember a specific person, term, or event, but they acquire a larger understanding of the stories that can be told by those people, terms, or events.

I typically design a unit of study in four parts that can usually be completed in four days. First, I ask my students to come to class with the reading completed and having researched a topic we are studying. They sit in groups of four or five, discuss their research, and ask one another clarifying questions about their findings. I check their research to see that it meets the standards set in my rubric. Then we begin a student-led discussion—essentially a modified lecture driven by the lesson’s content and questions that arise from it. Besides clearing up misunderstandings, I spend a good portion of the class helping students connect what they researched to the larger significance of the content.

Second, students respond to larger content-based questions in groups. These questions force them to use their research to begin connecting the readings to larger issues.

Third, I create four or five open-ended questions for group discussion. These are questions that students can’t easily find answers to on Google. Working with their groups, students use their research and the answers from the questions to form an argument, with little intervention from me. They then elect representatives and discuss each question with the whole class. Students lead the discussion, elaborate on their argument, and illustrate how they came to their conclusions.

The fourth step brings it all together, as the entire class discusses how each topic they discussed and the larger issues relate to each other. This process forces students to think at a high level, ask questions, contribute to class discussion, and challenge other students and themselves.

I have found this method highly effective not only in helping my students learn US history, but also in preparing them for the rigors of college courses. My students seem to agree. A current senior at Butler University recently told me, “ACP US was the only class I took at Noblesville that prepared me for the way that courses were taught at the collegiate level. . . . [H]ad I not taken ACP US I would have had a much bigger culture shock than I did.” Time and time again, my former students tell me that if it had not been for my DE course, they would not have been prepared for their first years of college.

Standard US history courses, as they’re taught in many high schools, lack an emphasis on building critical skills alongside content mastery. Although during the nine years I taught standard US history I used many of these strategies, not every high school teacher does. There has been a shift toward standards-based grades in recent years, but learning outcomes are far from being the norm in standard US history courses. DE courses emphasize skills as well as content. This creates an environment in which learning outcomes become much more important.

DE classes can be transformative for students. To some extent, self-selection ensures a higher level of motivation—these students have college ambitions, after all, even if their initial reason for taking the course is financial. But soon they realize this is no ordinary high school class. They begin thinking like historians.

DE courses, then, go beyond tuition savings: they bridge the gap in understanding that some students may not gain in a traditional high school course. The environment, teacher-student interaction, and teaching methods encourage students to push themselves closer to the realization of what is expected of them in college courses. A current sophomore at the University of Indianapolis recently told me, “I think students who want to go to college need to take ACP- or AP-level classes. Many students go to college their first semester and struggle, and end up dropping out. Because I took those hard classes in high school, I went to college and earned a 4.0 GPA in my first semester.” DE courses successfully prepare students for the difficulty they will face later in their educations. Others will not see the rigors of a college course until they are freshmen. And by then, we may be setting them up for failure.

Daniel Brandon Swart teaches US history at Noblesville High School in Noblesville, Indiana.


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