First-Year Interest Groups

Background of FIGs at WWU

Western's First-year Interest Group (FIG) program has been evolving since 1999, following a nationwide trend to help first-year students transition to college successfully and to stay enrolled once there. The "cluster" model was adopted to provide the benefits of a learning community to new college students. The Washington Center for Improving the Quality of Undergraduate Education describes the learning community model:

"In higher education, curricular learning communities are classes that are linked or clustered during an academic term, often around an interdisciplinary theme, and enroll a common cohort of students. A variety of approaches are used to build these learning communities, with all intended to restructure the students’ time, credit, and learning experiences to build community among students, between students and their teachers, and among faculty members and disciplines."

"By taking this FIG program, I have learned a lot of skills that I know will help me later on in college and in life."
"Having that connection between the three classes really helped me to understand better the information that I was being taught."
"Being completely immersed in a subject or topic opens your mind to all sorts of new ways of thinking and interpretation."
"This class has allowed me to meet new people, form a new circle of friends, and that has made the transition into college life much smoother."

See more student comments

Recent literature indicates that first-year students involved in learning communities out-performed other first-year students on a variety of measures.

“Freshmen who participated in a learning community program at a large Midwestern university were found to have greater degrees of involvement and persistence. Students who participated in the program spent more time engaged in activities such as volunteer or part-time work, studying in peer groups, and interacting with faculty. These students also achieved higher grade point averages during their first year” (Gordon, Young, & Kalianov, 2000, p. 2).

“The positive effect of first-year programs and learning communities on issues related to student retention has been well documented. Continued enrollment beyond the first year, grade point average, credit hours, student satisfaction, graduation rates, and student adjustment/involvement were favorably affected by first-year seminars at 47 institutions according to research summaries compiled by Barefoot, Warnock, Dickinson, Richardson and Roberts (1998)” (Fritz & Commander, 2004, pp. 65-66).

The FIG program at Western is unique, and has been tailored to meet the needs of first-year students in many ways. Some of these include:

  • Commitment to student learning
  • Community of learners
  • Technology for students and faculty

Commitment to student learning. Students do not want an education devoid of challenge and opportunities for higher order thinking. Educators have an obligation to provide the structures and curriculum that challenge students and make them reach their potential as learners. Unlike many other first-year programs that emphasize the social aspect of college, students' deep learning is at the heart of Western's FIGs curriculum. Student learning outcomes have been established, and assessment is embedded in the program. The FIGs program itself undergoes continuous review and evaluation by Western faculty and administrators.
A community of learners in a FIG seminarCommunity of learners. Students gain new learning by making connections among their courses, with each other, and to their lives in general. One of the greatest strengths of our FIGs program is the way in which learning takes place both inside and outside the classroom. The FIGs is truly a "community of learners," giving first-year students the chance to make the connections that ensure academic success. Students take an interdisciplinary approach to their coursework, and are given opportunities to interact with faculty and their peers both academically and socially. FIGs faculty and staff collaborate to provide students with an integrated FIGs experience.

Technology for students and faculty. Technology is a strong component of FIGs. Students are given many opportunities to become comfortable using a variety of computer technologies, including use of a central website by which they can access their FIGs course materials online. They are given assistance in establishing email and campus computer lab accounts. Depending upon the FIGs seminar, students might build web pages or use other multimedia for final projects. FIGs faculty are given assistance in developing web-based course materials that are suited to all learning styles.


Fritz, J., & Commander, N. E. (2004). The first-year seminar: The cornerstone of an interdisciplinary learning community program. In J. M. Henscheid (Ed.), Integrating the First-Year Experience: The Role of First-Year Seminars in Learning Communities. University of South Carolina: National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience & Students in Transition.

Gordon, T. W., Young, J. C., & Kalianov, C. J. (2000). Connecting the Freshman Year Experience through Learning Communities: Practical Implications for Academic and Student Affairs Units. University Assessment Office, Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois.

Washington Center for Improving the Quality of Undergraduate Education. What are learning communities? Retrieved 1/11/05.