Incoming college students are often intimidated by the number of core classes that they have to take as freshmen: English, history, chemistry, math ... the list goes on. These classes are piled atop an already demanding set of courses you need to take in your major. All of this can be overwhelming and time-consuming, without even mentioning the other stressors that are part of the first-year college experience.
Consequently, it's not surprising that many students forgo an optional First-Year Seminar (FYS). This is unfortunate; studies have long shown that enrolling in an FYS boosts student persistence and retention. These seminars also successfully introduce students to essential resources and university services, such as academic advising and student orientations. Still, FYS enrollment is low at institutions where the seminar is not required.
According to a 2017 survey conducted by the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, 73.5% of higher education institutions sampled an FYS. However, there are different ways these seminars fit in with what the National Resource Center refers to as the "constellation" of the First-Year Experience, or the various programs and initiatives in which students participate as freshmen. Depending on the institution, an FYS can be a mandatory part of academic orientation, a one- to three-credit elective course, or a required, semester-long three-credit course.
This varying definition makes it somewhat difficult to measure voluntary enrollment in a full-semester FYS. What we do know is that fewer students participate in their institution's FYS in cases where enrollment is not mandatory.
The 2017 survey from the National Resource Center showed that 56% of students who enroll in an FYS are from institutions where most students are required to participate. The numbers decrease drastically from there: only 5% of students take part in an FYS at institutions where 10% of students or less are required to enroll.
These seminars make a noticeable impact on students' engagement in the university, academic success, and sense of belonging in the campus community.
Some aspects of these results are not surprising. First, the high number of required courses combined with the overwhelming question of "how do I do college?" that first-year students face makes it more likely that they will enroll in classes as prescribed by the powers that be. If a course is required, chances are academic advisers are helping freshmen enroll as soon as possible. Additionally, universities that require an FYS have more institutional support for that programming, thus increasing access and enrollment rates. If you build it, they will come!
Many other factors shape FYS enrollment patterns, including whether the seminar is credit-bearing, how many credits it's worth, how those credits are applied, and who is teaching the seminar. Regardless, no matter why students enroll in an FYS, those who do are more likely to succeed in a number of measurable areas.
The Association of American Colleges & Universities lists the FYS as one of several High-Impact Educational Practices, which are learning practices that help students become more actively involved in their education. These seminars make a noticeable impact on students' engagement in the university, academic success, and sense of belonging in the campus community.
Largely, college classrooms rely on the assumption that students have all the strategies and access to the resources they need to be successful -- that they know how to study, manage their time, seek tutoring help, register for their classes, and know whom to talk to if they are struggling emotionally. Far too often, failure to do these things is seen as evidence of a student's laziness or neglect of their academic responsibilities.
Many classrooms assume a level of competency in areas that are rarely folded into the curriculum because of a "you're in college now" or "somebody else has taught you this" mentality. Speaking from experience, this is an easy trap for instructors to fall into; we know we're teaching adult students 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.
Students are thrown into four or five new classroom environments in the first two days of college. They are immediately expected to understand their syllabi, different classroom expectations, and how to balance all of their study and work time for each course. Students might participate in an icebreaker on the first day to help learn each other's names, but almost nobody pauses to tell them that it's okay if they're overwhelmed or to give them strategies for balancing their workload.
Nobody assumes that freshmen are experts on course content from day one, but almost all instructors assume they're experts at being college students. Critically though, these same students will almost undoubtedly act like experts, because to do anything else is awkward at best and a shattering blow to their sense of belonging at worst.
Top Five Desired Outcomes Affecting the Design of a First-Year Experience
- Academic success strategies
- Academic planning
- Knowledge of resources
- Connection with institution
- Introduction to Academic Expectations
An FYS communicates to students that they belong at the university, even when they feel lost on campus and in their classrooms. According to the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, the top five desired outcomes affecting the design of an FYS are "academic success strategies, academic planning, knowledge of resources, connection with institution, [and] introduction to academic expectations." These are arguably some of the most important soft skills to teach students, yet they are neither integrated into other first-year courses nor built into an additional class requirement like an FYS at many institutions.
So, what happens when a school offers an FYS but doesn't make it mandatory? How do we get students on board with adding something to their course load that they may not know they need yet?
If your institution currently offers an FYS, start by promoting it more to the students already in your classrooms. Far from being compulsory, the FYS that I currently teach is an optional two-credit course in student success that focuses 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. I began not only promoting the FYS but also began incorporating some of the skills it teaches into my other classes.
One day last semester, I noticed that my 9 a.m. class of honors students was uncharacteristically quiet and anxious. After prodding, they informed me that they had to register for classes at 10 a.m. and almost nobody had any idea how to do that; the only other time they had registered was with their advisers at summer orientation. So I stopped class, helped them get to the registration website, and walked them through the process. I already understood the benefits of an FYS, but it wasn't until that day that I saw the acute need for these seminars.
Instructors, students, and administrators alike can benefit from demystifying the need and the means for accessing these essential resources. As the FYS becomes more ubiquitous on our college campuses, so too should efforts to get more students participating with more institutional support.