Tuesday, October 18, 2005

First Year Student Programs - Part I - background

Like many colleges and universities these days, NorthWoods U has a First Year student program intended to help students adjust to college and get as much out of the experience as they're ready to.

Where I taught before, the program had every student in the college taking basically the same class during the fall semester, taught by a different faculty member in a different section. During the summer, the faculty teaching the course got together and chose common books, made suggestions about speakers, and even helped each other with assignment ideas. The result was that every student in a given year had a sort of canon of texts each had read and similar experiences going to see and listen to the same speakers. The program did a remarkable job getting the college's mostly first generation college students into college life and giving them a strong sense of being part of a learning community. It wasn't ideal, but it was one of the best things about the education for students there.

At NWU, a much larger school, our first year program offers students a special section of a regular class (usually a first year sort of class), through which they're supposed to get extra direction, information, and mentoring to help them adjust to college life. (Like my previous college, NWU educates a large number of first generation college students, for whom such programs seem especially valuable, at least potentially.)

We faculty folks often try to get a mentor for the class, a more experienced student who can facilitate discussion of student issues from dorm-living and alcohol use to study skills and scheduling questions.

There are pros and cons for faculty in teaching a first year program class. You have to somehow add extra content into your class to some extent. That's tough. Usually, I manage to keep my classes pretty darned full and busy. You also sometimes feel that the university is holding students' hands when we should be kicking them in the rear. And, of course, you end up spending some of that class time talking about things that feel like a waste of time: drinking, for example. It's not that I want my students to go out binge drinking, but that I don't think I can convincingly tell them to never drink, or teach them in a writing class how to drink responsibly.

The big pros for me are twofold. To be perfectly crass, NWU reduces class size for these classes, by about one third in the case of First Year Composition/Writing classes. That's HUGE when you start grading essays. The other pro is that I sometimes feel that I've really given one or a few students a good start to their college careers, with all that means.

The really big con is that we're supposed to start assessing the first year student program soon to try to figure out if it's having any positive impact after all. Assessment, there's it's own day's worth of ranting!

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