Teaching Handbook

First-Year Student Support

While most students enter their first year of college with anticipation and excitement, the majority would also admit that they experienced a wide-range of conflicting emotions such as fear and anxiety.1As educators, an understanding of the situation and actively including strategies which support students during this period of transition are essential components of their potential success. This section is devoted to resources regarding first-year students and will help the educator ensure that students are given the best chance to complete the first year, while setting a foundation for the future.

The popular vision of the first year experience is one of personal, ethical, and intellectual awakening. However, in his book, The First Year Out: Understanding American Teens After High School, Tim Clydesdale writes, “Most of the mainstream American teens I spoke with neither liberated themselves intellectually nor broadened themselves socially during their first year out. What teens actually focus on during the first year out is this: daily life management.” Should faculty and staff try to engage first-year students in critical thinking about their own ethics, values, and culture?  Or should we give that up as a lost cause and focus on more practical matters?2

Below are excerpts from a recent Vanderbilt University panel discussion2 regarding first year students:

Characteristics of First-Year Students

  • Students begin to question aspects of their identities as a result of a variety of university experiences other than classroom learning experiences. Several participants described experiences students have had in the Commons, Vanderbilt’s living-learning community for first-years, that have led them to examine their personal beliefs. Others pointed to the importance of first-year students seeing personally relevant engagement modeled by older students in the Commons and elsewhere.
  • There is a difference between first-semester freshmen and second-semester freshmen relevant to this discussion. First-semester freshmen do tend to focus on daily life management out of necessity as they adapt to a new environment. Second-semester freshmen, having largely adapted, are more able to focus their attention on self-questioning. It is possible that Visions, Vanderbilt’s extended orientation for first-years facilitated by older students and faculty members, helps students more quickly adapt to this new environment.
  • More generally, different students become “ready” for more personally transformative experiences at different points in their college careers. Several participants pointed to this as a reason to provide students with opportunities for such experiences frequently through their first years, even as early as their second week on campus. Some students arrive on campus ready for these experiences.
  • Encouraging first-years to engage in personally relevant ways with their education can be difficult in the classroom. Some students are hesitant to express their personal interest in course discussions in front of their peers; others are too focused on grades and other external rewards to engage in personally meaningful ways. These issues are exacerbated by large first-year classes.2

Principles and Strategies

  • Provide Feedback, Early & Often – First-year students making the transition from excelling in high school to meeting expectations in a college class can benefit from feedback, early and often in the semester. A student who must wait several weeks for the first test to get a sense of how she’s doing in the course might have trouble catching up to her peers.
  • Pose Complex, Real-Life Problems – One strategy to help students move out of the dualism and multiplicity phases of Perry’s scheme of intellectual development is to help students encounter complex, real-life problems where right-or-wrong and “it’s all just opinion” thinking does not suffice. Helping students progress past these phases is challenging, but they won’t progress if they’re not given the opportunity to do so.
  • Minimize Memorization – Setting instructional goals that can be met by memorization reinforces students’ naive beliefs about learning. While some memorization is necessary in many courses, success in a course shouldn't be possible solely through memory work.
  • Teach Critical Thinking – Most students can’t “pick up” critical thinking skills along the way in a course that focuses on content. They need explicit instruction in thinking critically. Model this process for your students, make clear the “rules” for critical thinking in your discipline, give them many opportunities to practice critical thinking and receive feedback on their efforts, move from simple, well-structured problems to complex, ill-structured ones, and do all this in class where you can help students sort it all out.
  • Clarify Expectations for Learning – Since students have naive ideas about knowledge and learning, instructors should clarify their expectations for student learning and performance. Help students understand what is expected of them via description, examples, and feedback on student work.
  • Clarify Strategies for Learning – Not only do first-year students not understand what is expected of them, even when they are clear on those expectations, they don’t know how to go about meeting those expectations. Help students understand and practice approaches to learning in and out of the classroom—listening for key ideas in a lecture, learning from a discussion, reading for comprehension, preparing for exams—that will help them make the transition to the kinds of thinking expected of them as college students.
  • Prepare for Emotional Reactions – Some topics will elicit intense emotional reactions from students, particularly those students who haven’t learned to analyze complex situations in objective ways. Provide opportunities, structure, and guidance for discussing these reactions, explain why you ask students to do what you ask of them, and offer feedback that is not only critical, but also supportive and encouraging.
  • Teach to a Variety of Learning Styles – We often teach as we were taught, but we were rather exceptional compared to our student peers—we went on to graduate school in our chosen disciplines. Be sensitive to the variety of ways that students excel at learning and include a variety of types of learning experiences in your courses to reach the broadest group of students as you can.
  • Have Students Write Letters to Their Successors – Ask students to write a letter to next year’s students focusing on advice for succeeding in your course. These letters help your current students reflect on and cement what they’ve learned, they help you learn about your students’ experiences in your course, and they help next year’s students adapt more quickly to the rigors of college studies.2
  • Plan Lecturing Strategically - Many lower-level or intro classes rely heavily on lecturing to cover course content. While it is good for imparting information, it does not help with any of the deeper levels in Blooms. Especially with first year students, use lectures only when appropriate (to keep their attention), and break them into 10-15 minute, easily digestible chunks.
  • Make Homework Engaging - Classes are more than what is taught in the classroom - the outside component is almost as important. Professors often expect students to spend more time outside of class on homework than they even spend in class per week, with little guidance. Try to add a product to assignments - require students to turn in something related to their reading, like a summary or concept map, to encourage deeper thinking and engagement.3

Additional Resources

Source Information

1. Bigger, J. J. (2005). Improving the Odds for Freshman Success. Retrieved online: NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources.

2. Vanderbilt University, Center for Teaching, Teaching First Year Students, reprinted under Creative Commons Attribute 3.0.

3. Peters, C. B. (2014). Challenging and Supporting First-Year Students. Retrieved online. National Education Association.