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A student’s transition into their first year at university is, without question, a critical one.

The first year sets the emotional timbre for the remainder of their higher education career. It is the educational foundation for subsequent learning. It is often a test of resilience across a chasm that in many cases entails a geographical move, new people, new living situations, new learning styles, and new educational demands.

In fact, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, as many as 30% of freshmen do not re-enroll. At 2 year universities, the number is even higher, at 46%.

These percentages represent a painful number of students that come to university filled with expectations and leave with dashed hopes and fractured dreams.

So what can educational institutions do about this? And how have universities successfully supported first-year students?

1. (Re)set Expectations

Let’s talk about the expectations that students bring with them to university.

Student enrollment doesn’t begin on the first day of school, but in a time period that precedes the beginning of their first semester at university. According to Kerri Krause of Latrobe University, expectations take years to form, and students historically come to college with expectations formed by years of narratives outside of the university’s control.

Unfortunately, students arrive at university with unrealistic expectations, anticipating that learning and workload will not differ drastically from secondary education experience.

How can universities help set appropriate expectations?

The university-student narrative needs to take place earlier in a student’s education, whether through mentor programs, brochures, or outreach programs like Outward Bound. By doing so, universities take control of their own narrative. More and more schools have taken such proactive steps, which are particularly effective when combined with a comprehensive student orientation at campuses.

2. Supplement Learning in Lecture Courses

When the vast majority of first-year students are educated in large (and oftentimes necessary) lecture halls, the need for supplemental learning increases. While a university’s definition of “learning” is to promote original thinking, a lecture hall largely reinforces the banking model of education.

Students may come to university having used memorization as their main form of learning. This makes university, where original thinking is of utmost priority, a rude awakening. How do we impart active learning to students within the context of lecture halls?

One of the ways we can promote active learning is to direct students to ask questions. When students bring questions to lectures, the assignment implicitly requires reading and generating their own thoughts and direction about the readings. Furthermore, modeling a lecture around student questions reinforces active learning.

3. Make Use of Office Hours

Office hours are often sorely neglected, given its potential as a core platform to generate relationships with students and offer a safe space for intellectual rapport and dialogue. We can meet with students before class and chat in the lecture hall, but we can also invite students to office hours for open-ended discussion, as opposed to addressing tactical issues about assignments.

Encourage faculty to be approachable--and frame office hours as a time for students to discuss questions and understand lecture content further. It’s boring, too, for instructors to spend office hours by themselves. Why not have company and facilitate students through learning?

4. Give Feedback, Early and Often

If students aren’t sure of expectations, and if students come from different learning backgrounds, then early and frequent feedback is paramount. Feedback is an opportunity to build scaffolding for students as they adjust to their first year at university. Educators can shepherd students towards critical thinking and original thought as students propose, draft, and flesh out their ideas.

Without feedback, students are on their own, until they receive a grade--which puts students at risk for falling behind and may ultimately result in a demoralizing educational experience.

5. Clarify Standards of Evaluation

Being in a new environment is overwhelming--there is a plethora of ambiguity when a student moves geography, moves schools, is surrounded by a new cohort, and joins a new educational institution. But we can offset the ambiguity of transition by being clear with the ways in which we evaluate first-year students.

Make sure to lay out the methods by which students will be measured in the syllabus. How they will be scored. And most importantly, why these evaluations exist. In the midst of all the noise of transition, it helps students if instructors are clear on end goals and how to reach these goals.

6. Model Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is a core value of higher education. And most students do not arrive on campus having developed these skills. In addition to early and frequent feedback, we must model critical thinking for our students in the classroom.

Open up your own thought process, thereby providing scaffolding to students, whether it be your own process of proving and supporting an idea through a mind map or outline. Consider throwing out a problem and solving it for your students in real time. Or show your own editing process on the board. Critical thinking is often a black box--and it’s up to us to show them the process by which we come up with original thoughts.

7. Teach to a Broader Audience

Students come to us with different learning styles. These styles include auditory, visual, and kinesthetic learners, all of whom absorb information more readily in different ways. It’s important to provide students with a foundation in their first year, and to help them not fall behind on work.

Don’t just describe ideas and concepts through speech, but also provide visuals and diagrams on the board. Have students engage in small group work to bring out the voices of students who are less apt to speak first, or who don’t yet have a sense of belonging in the classroom. Small group work and exercises also help students “practice” their learning before presenting in a larger format.

By doing so, you’re building a cohort and community. And you’re implicitly valuing different learning styles, in a critical year where students may feel isolated from so many other challenges.

8. Empower Students

What does this lofty phrase mean without putting it into action? First year students can feel like a lot is out of their control, as they struggle to establish footing in a new environment. That said, they have a lot to offer the campus and classroom. Make sure to include student-centered-learning pedagogy in your syllabus and also various assignments. They have ideas that are indeed valuable, and they are the authority of their own experience in that first year.

For example, have students write letters. Make sure they establish a dialogue with you as the instructor--and ask them to write about their fears as well as expectations within your classroom. This letter can happen early in the course, if not the first day.

Additionally, they can write letters to the next year’s class at the end of the course with advice, with encouragement, and any other personal information. This is a way to gain insight into student needs, as well as empower them to be their own authority as mentors go forward. You can remove the names from the letters and have next year’s students read these missives--new students take great delight (and receive empathy) by hearing from previous year students.

9. Provide Community Learning Resources

Learning communities are one institutionalized way to shepherd students through their first year, because supporting first-year students is a campus-wide responsibility, not one that falls solely on the shoulders of instructors. Many campuses offer freshman seminars--but consider block scheduling. Vincent Tinto of Syracuse University advises linking seminars to other courses so that it “becomes the fabric of the first year.”

By establishing a cohort, students are not only reminded that they’re not alone, but are literally supported by their peers. Learning communities also support educators by balancing resources like counselors and creating community amongst educators as well.


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