Why All Students Should Take a First-Year Seminar

Why All Students Should Take a First-Year Seminar

By Samantha L. Solomon, Ph.D.

Published on July 27, 2021

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Incoming college students often feel intimidated by the number of core classes they must take their first year of school. As such, it's not surprising that so many choose to forgo an optional first-year seminar (FYS).

But studies show that enrolling in an FYS can boost student persistence and retention, in addition to introducing first-time students to essential resources and university services, such as academic advising.

Regardless, FYS enrollment remains low at institutions that don't require the course. So why should you consider taking this optional seminar?

The Current State of the First-Year Seminar

According to a 2017 study by the University of South Carolina's National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition (NRC), 73.5% of all colleges surveyed had sampled an FYS. Depending on the institution, the FYS can be a mandatory part of orientation, a 1-to-3-credit elective, or a required semesterlong course.

This varying definition makes it difficult to measure voluntary enrollment in a full-semester FYS. What we do know, however, is that fewer students participate in the FYS when enrollment is not mandatory.

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Over half of the institutions surveyed require at least 91% of students to take an FYS, and 1 in 4 schools requires 50% or less of students to enroll in the seminar.

But when the FYS is optional, many students opt out of it. The large number of mandatory general education and major courses, combined with some students' anxiety around the novelty of the college experience, makes it more likely that students will enroll in classes they need to take and are told to prioritize.

Other factors that shape FYS enrollment patterns include whether the seminar is credit-bearing, how many credits it's worth, how those credits are applied, and who teaches the class.

The Benefits of Enrolling in a First-Year Seminar

No matter why students choose to enroll in an FYS, those who do are more likely to succeed in a number of ways.

The Association of American Colleges & Universities lists the FYS as one of several high-impact practices — learning practices that help students take a more active role in their education. These seminars have been shown to impact not only college students' level of engagement, but also their academic success and sense of belonging in the campus community.

Many college classes assume a level of competency among new students. Speaking from experience, this is an easy trap for instructors to fall into; we know we're teaching young adults who are now embedded in the university community, but sometimes we forget that mere months ago these same students were living with their parents and finishing high school.

Main Objectives of a First-Year Seminar

Academic Success Strategies Knowledge of Resources Connection With Institution Academic Planning Major Exploration Introduction to Academic Expectations

Source: NRC

First-year students are thrown into four or five new classrooms in the first few days of college and are immediately expected to understand their syllabi, the various class expectations, and how to balance their coursework. While students might participate in icebreakers on the first day of class, almost nobody pauses to remind them that it's all right if they're feeling overwhelmed, or to give them strategies for managing their workload.

An FYS communicates to new students that they belong at the school, even when they feel lost.

A 2018 NRC report found that the top five objectives of an FYS are helping students develop and hone academic success strategies, encouraging academic planning and major exploration, building knowledge of campus resources, fostering a connection with the institution, and introducing academic expectations.

Unfortunately, many of these critical skills are neither integrated into other first-year courses nor built into additional class requirements.

Encouraging Students to Take a First-Year Seminar

So what happens when a school offers an FYS but doesn't make it mandatory? How do we get first-year students to add something to their class schedules that they may not realize could benefit them immensely?

If your institution offers an FYS, try to promote it to your peers. Far from being compulsory, the FYS I currently teach is an optional 2-credit course in student success focusing heavily on easing students' transition into college.

After teaching this course for the first time, I became more aware of when students in my other classes were struggling. As a result, I began not only promoting the FYS but also incorporating some of the skills it teaches into my other classes.

Instructors, students, and even administrators can all benefit from demystifying the need and the means for accessing these essential resources. As the FYS grows more ubiquitous on U.S. college campuses, so too should our efforts to get more students to participate with stronger institutional support.

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