College Seminars for First-Year Students
Types of First-Year Seminars, Course Objectives and Content, Pedagogy and Staffing, Instructor Development
The successful transition from secondary school to the collegiate environment for students has been the topic of much research, many articles and books, international conferences, and a plethora of newspaper articles at the beginning of each new academic year. First-year seminars have become a common approach adopted by higher education institutions in their efforts to ease the transition to college for new students, and to systematically address unacceptable rates of student attrition.
The popularity of first-year seminars as a programmatic and curricular approach is grounded in the fact that a credit-bearing course offers a traditional and appropriate structure through which orientation efforts extend beyond the first week of classes. They also offer a way for student development and retention theories to be put into practice, and they provide a logical structure for encouraging (and intrusively demanding) active student involvement in learning and in the life and activities of the institution; for examining and discussing student/institutional fit; and for facilitating social and academic integration. First-year seminars are thus designed to meet both institutional and student needs.
Successful first-year seminars have been defined as those with long life and strong, broad-based campus support. They are likely to carry academic credit, be centered in the first-year curriculum, involve both faculty and student affairs professionals in program design and instruction. Instructor training and development is an integral part of the program, and instructors are paid, or otherwise rewarded, for teaching the seminar. In addition, upper-level students are involved in course delivery and conduct program assessment and disseminate the results to the campus community.
Types of First-Year Seminars
Most first-year seminars fall into one of five categories: extended orientation seminars, academic seminars with generally uniform content across sections, academic seminars on various topics across sections, professional or discipline-linked seminars, or basic study skills seminars. In addition, there are other types that do not fit neatly into any of these established categories, often combining elements from these five.
Regardless of type, first-year seminars are courses that, at their core, focus on the individual needs of new students. A seminar, by definition, is a small discussion-based course in which students and their instructors exchange ideas and information. While there are many variations among first-year seminars, they all aim to assist students in their academic and social development and in their transition to college. In most cases, there is a strong emphasis on creating community within the classroom.
Course Objectives and Content
More than half of all institutions with first-year seminars list the fostering of academic skills and a commitment to easing the transition to college as objectives of the seminars. More specific course goals include orienting students to campus resources and organizations; fostering personal development in students; developing critical thinking and writing skills; introducing general education requirements and/or specific disciplines; encouraging career planning; developing a sense of community on campus; increasing student interactions with faculty and staff; and developing support networks and friendships among classmates.
Course topics include study skills and time management, both of which are central to fostering good academic habits. Personal development and self-concept are also common course topics, as are career exploration, campus resources, transition to college, diversity issues, academic advising and planning, and wellness issues.
Pedagogy and Staffing
Instruction in first-year seminars differs from that of most first-year courses. Unlike many survey courses in traditional disciplines, most first-year seminars are taught in small classes of eighteen to twenty-five students per section. Seminar content also differs from most other freshman-level courses in that there is no set universal content. Because most first-year seminars are institution-specific, content will vary from campus to campus. Content is also dynamic in that it changes and evolves to meet the changing needs of both the students and the institution. Instruction in first-year seminars requires instructors who are interested in intense student content, and who both understand and embrace the unique goals, content, and processes inherent in first-year seminars.
Staffing for first-year seminar instruction varies from campus to campus. Very few seminar programs have a full-time cadre of faculty. More typically, instructors of first-year seminars are drawn from across the campus and may include faculty, administrative and student affairs staff, and under-graduate or graduate peer instructors. Frequently, a team approach is used, involving a pair, or small group, of individuals teaching a single section of the seminar.
Due to the fact that content for first-year seminars includes a focus on student success and transition, effective instruction in first-year seminars departs from the traditional lecture format. Students are expected to actively engage in discussion, share in the teaching as well as the learning in the seminar, and in some cases participate in the creation of the course syllabus. Instructors must therefore give up some of the traditional power associated with teaching. Active-learning techniques are frequently employed, including experiential learning, collaborative projects, discussions, role play, cooperative learning, and oral presentation.
A common goal among many seminar programs is the development of a community of learners. Engaging in activities that establish and develop friendships and significant relationships within the class contribute to the development of powerful communities. Substantial two-way communication between instructor and student is widespread in first-year seminars and is often achieved through employing formal and informal feedback techniques, the incorporation of formative assessment measures, and including opportunities for significant reflection through journals and student writing.
Instructors for first-year seminars are very likely to have access to development or training experiences to prepare them for this special type of instruction. Outcomes of effective instructor-training efforts include campus-wide faculty development, professional and personal development, the development of community among faculty and staff, development of faculty/student-affairs partnerships, improvements in teaching and learning, quality and consistency across seminar sections, and employee orientation, assimilation, and education.
First-year seminars provide fertile ground for the development of innovative teaching strategies. Teaching the first-year seminar encourages a rethinking of both teaching and the entire higher education enterprise. Many faculty who participate in a first-year seminar faculty-development workshop and then teach a seminar bring new teaching techniques to their discipline-based courses. Furthermore, attending a faculty-development workshop and teaching a seminar can boost faculty morale, help faculty better meet the academic and non-academic needs of students, and improve teaching in many other courses across campus.
Many first-year seminar programs that were originally stand-alone courses are now linking with other campus initiatives. As new seminars are created, they are more likely to be part of a general education-reform effort. When seminars are linked with other campus programs, their institutionalization is more solid, and they are more likely to facilitate partnerships among various campus constituents. When both faculty and staff are involved in seminar design and instruction, the traditional gaps between faculty and staff are frequently ameliorated, or at least lessened.
First-year seminars are, perhaps, the most assessed and measured of all undergraduate courses. Proving the value and worth of any educational innovation is key to sustaining the life of the innovation, especially in times of budget reductions and curricular reform. Assessment can document the effectiveness of a program, and also be used to continually improve the program. Institutional efforts examining first-year seminar programs have included a variety of assessment approaches. Through assessment efforts, first-year seminars have been proven to positively affect retention, grade point average, number of credit hours attempted and completed, graduation rates, student involvement in campus activities, student attitudes and perceptions of higher education, as well as faculty development and methods of instruction. They have also been shown to increase institutional engagement. Students enrolled in a first-year seminar are more likely to use campus resources, get involved in campus activities, and inter-act with faculty outside of class.
The modern first-year seminar is perhaps one of the most dynamic curricular innovations of the twentieth century. These courses have evolved to meet the changing needs of students and institutions, and they have the potential to continue to be one of the most adaptable and useful curricular staples during the twenty-first century.
BAREFOOT, BETSY O. 1993. Exploring the Evidence: Reporting Outcomes of Freshman Seminars. Columbia: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for The Freshman Year Experience.
BAREFOOT, BETSY O., and FIDLER, PAUL P. 1996. The 1994 National Survey of Freshman Seminar Programs: Continuing Innovations in the Collegiate Curriculum. Columbia: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.
BAREFOOT, BETSY O.; WARNOCK, CARRIE. L.; DICKINSON, MICHAEL T.; RICHARDSON, SHARON E.; and ROBERTS, MELISSA. R., eds. 1998. Exploring the Evidence Volume II: Reporting Outcomes of First-Year Seminars. Columbia: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.
FIDLER, PAUL P.; NEURURER-ROTHOLZ, JULIE; and RICHARDSON, SHARON. 1999. "Teaching the Freshman Seminar: Its Effectiveness in Promoting Faculty Development." Journal of The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition 11 (2):59–74.
HUNTER, MARY S., and GARDNER, JOHN N. 1999. "Outcomes and Future Directions of Instructor Training Programs." In Solid Foundations: Building Success for First-Year Seminars Through Instructor Training and Development, ed. Mary S. Hunter and L. Tracy. Columbia: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.
MARY STUART HUNTER
CARRIE W. LINDER
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