Soaring Sophomores: A Pilot Course

The start of fall semester on a college campus brings a special feeling of excitement. But sophomore students face new and different challenges in year two of college. How might vocational exploration help sophomores not only persist but soar? I developed a 2-credit hour course called “Exploring Life Purpose and Your Major” to help students dive into their major while asking big life questions.

In a student’s first year of college, several programs or courses are designed to help students transition to college. However, as students return to their second year, they are no longer the sole focus of this programming; yet sophomore students continue to experience vital personal and professional transitions. Students continue to define their self-authorship, “the internal capacity to define one’s beliefs, identity, and social relations” (Baxter Magolda, “Three Elements of Self-Authorship,” Journal of College Student Development, 49, p. 269).

They also may begin to question the selection of their major as they enter more challenging sophomore courses in their area of study. Students often choose their major with minimal guidance and consideration of their strengths, values, and perspective on life purpose. Career services offices, while very effective, are often understaffed, resulting in a high ratio between career counselors and students. Among these challenges in the second year, one could argue that attrition from the first year of college is delayed to the second year. Vocational discernment is one tool for helping sophomore students persist to year three, deepen their knowledge of their major, and engage in vocational exploration.

Four students signed up for the course with majors in social science, psychology, and political science. I outlined three learning outcomes for the course: (1) Students will be able to analyze their strengths and sense of purpose in life, articulating ways those connect to their major; (2) Students will be able to evaluate multiple perspectives and examine frameworks about purpose, vocation, and calling; and (2) Students will create connections between vocation, major, and issues concerning local, national, and global communities. To achieve these outcomes, I designed the course based on three theoretical models: Eccles & Wigfield’s (2002) value-expectancy theory, Vgotsky’s (1978) social constructivism, and Fink’s model of significant learning experiences.

Value-expectancy theory is a social cognitive theory asserting that personal motivation is influenced by three perceived and independent evaluations: the potential to produce the required effort (expectancy), the relationship between the effort and the outcome (instrumentality), and the value of the outcome (valence). [See Eccles and Wigfield (2002). Motivational beliefs, values, and goals. Annual Review Psychology, 53, 109-132].

A clear and thoughtful syllabus (uploaded to the online NetVUE library) with plenty of checkpoints and opportunities for feedback and engaging discussions during the first week affirmed that students could expect to gain clarity about the major and the topic of life purpose. I used TED talks such as David Brooks’ reflection on living a life based on resume or eulogy virtues, a podcast by Dannemart Pierre about clarifying priorities, documentaries such as The Motorcycle Diaries, and books like A Sacred Voice is Calling by John Neafsey and Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer. These creative prompts sought to inspire students and affirm the value of exploring life purpose. Students’ instrumentality in the course was boosted through frequent and detailed feedback from me about their weekly blog posts. We unpacked the ideas and questions presented by each blog prompt during our class discussions.

Because of the social nature of human beings, learning happens through a social context and is influenced by environments. Vygotsky’s theory of cognitive development asserts that the nature of knowledge is co-constructed through social and cultural environments. Valuing students’ socially constructed knowledge in the course honors rather than discrediting the knowledge students bring into the classroom. Journal prompts from diverse perspectives require students to view films or read articles about social justice issues and inequality, inviting students to question or challenge their cultural norms and assumptions about consumerism and affluence. Additionally, tools such as the CliftonStrengths provide students with new personal insights that are appreciative of themselves and the strengths of their classmates. Lastly, students were assigned to conduct a professional interview with a mid to late-career professional in their field. This relational experience provided insight into pathways in their major and illuminated the non-linear and complex life trajectories. Hearing the stories of a seasoned professional gave students additional frameworks and perspectives for understanding the purpose and direction within their discipline.

Fink’s model of significant learning is described as those encounters that change how people live, think, and what they value to increase their ability to live a full and meaningful life. Such experiences are engaging and high-energy, resulting in substantial change after graduation and increased value in students’ lives, social interaction with others, and engaged citizenship. Such intentional course design was considered when determining the size of the class. The topic of the purpose exploration course and assignments lends itself to a smaller group of students rather than a large lecture hall; therefore, the maximum capacity of the course was capped at 15 students. The learning outcomes were scaffolded throughout the semester, beginning with self-discovery and ending the semester with more complex topics about service and global citizenship. The tension of holding class in person during the ongoing global pandemic presented a challenge and opportunity for changing the physical location of class. With the good fortune of many sunny and warm days, the class was held outside under the trees by the library. Most classes began with vocation-related poetry as we sat in our camping chairs, physically distanced and without wearing masks. Seeing one another face-to-face in a beautiful, natural environment was relaxing and positive for the classroom dynamic.

A service-learning project was the pinnacle assignment of the course. Students worked on this assignment throughout the entire semester, selecting a topic of their interest or existing service opportunity to engage with and design a project using a design thinking model with a vocation wrapper (inspired by this post by Kim Garza). This model invited students to reconsider the role of their own identities when serving others and deeply reflect upon their understanding, knowledge, and experience after completing the project. The assignment invited students to contemplate systemic problems in their community through collaboration with others and in the context of relationships.

If I were to teach the course again, I would modify the design and expectations of the service-learning project. Given the small number of students in the course, I would offer one unified service-learning experience as a class rather than individual projects. Establishing more straightforward guidelines and frequent check-ins would have helped students execute the project. Secondly, I would make the course 3-credit hours instead of two because of the need for additional conversation and reflection time. We would often dive into a lively topic only to sadly realize we were out of time.

One aspect of the course that I would not change was the practice of continually extending grace. After the onset of the pandemic, a teacher I know coined what would become a mantra in my life: “grace upon grace.” I frequently extended grace to my students, whether they submitted late blog posts or asked to push back assignment deadlines. Over time, I felt that students returned the favor to me by being part of this pilot course, the first of its kind at a state public university. After each class, I felt a great sense of joy, hope, and energy amid a busy and strenuous academic semester.

Courses helping sophomore students explore life purpose through their major are applicable in all disciplines. Of course, considering the academic context is vital. As an academic advisor in a college with many professional programs, I would develop this course differently for business or nursing students. Yet the outcome is the same: tapping into essential questions about purpose and equipping sophomore students with more discernment tools. As Tim Clydesdale shared in the recent Callings podcast, students are bombarded with options for their life. Guiding students through the salad bar of career options with guidance can help reduce some of the anxiety students feel about their futures, even as they begin their second year of college. A vocation exploration course can not only help sophomores persist and thrive but can also reflect the goals, values, and mission of higher education.

Lindsay Monihen is Director of Student Advising and Support Services in the College of Professional Studies at Shawnee State University in Ohio. She previously worked at Juniata College in Pennsylvania where her portfolio focused on campus ministry and on diversity and inclusion. She is currently working on a dissertation at Azusa Pacific University that explores the development of a sense of calling among undergraduate women raised and educated in Appalachia. For other posts by Lindsay, click here.

5 thoughts on “Soaring Sophomores: A Pilot Course

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful piece!
    I’m wondering how students work this class into their credits/schedules. At my school, it’s a struggle to convince students to take classes that don’t “count” toward a major or general education requirement.
    Also, I couldn’t find the syllabus, even when logged in to CIC/NetVUE, but will definitely be sharing the description you provided!

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