More than 2000 students who are brand new to FSU — and to college — began their first classes this week. Many of our Summer C students may have been in high school only weeks ago. Most of them are teenagers, born in 2002. They may not know what a syllabus is, or that most college faculty expect to be addressed as “Dr.” Their expectations, their strategies for success, and their ideas about grades are all based on their experiences in high school. They very likely do not yet understand how college courses will be different, or what they will need to do differently to succeed. They may be excited to begin their classes, and they may be nervous. They probably wish they were on campus instead of taking remote classes from their parents’ houses.
To help them with the transition, and to make their first college experiences positive, here are a few things we can do:
Explain how our courses are different from high school classes
If you’ve been teaching an introductory course for a few semesters, you’re likely already familiar with common misunderstandings or knowledge gaps that students bring with them from high school. Students may lack background in important course concepts, or they may not have yet learned important skills like taking good notes, revising their writing, studying effectively, giving feedback to peers, etc. You can address the gaps in their knowledge head on, and help them build their self-regulating learning skills by having honest but friendly conversations, taking care not to make them feel silly for not knowing yet. For example, you might explain that in high school their teachers may have given them daily reminders about upcoming assignments in class, but in their college classes, they will need to look for that information on Canvas, including on the calendar, and in their FSU email.
Set level-appropriate expectations
Of course, helping students understand college-level coursework and expectations should not mean expecting novices to behave like experts. Faculty and TAs who are new to teaching often misjudge the amount of work and the complexity of tasks that will be feasible for first-year students to successfully complete. Adjusting the difficulty level and the pacing of the course into a “goldilocks zone,” where students are appropriately challenged, but not cognitively overwhelmed or hopeless, is usually a process of trial and error for the instructor, so in order to grade students fairly as we work out the kinks, we have to keep in mind our own learning process and adjust accordingly.
Make instructions and expectations as clear and explicit as possible
If you ask first-year students to do an activity but give vague instructions, you might find that they don’t know how to get started. If you ask them to, say, write a thesis-driven argument, but they don’t really know what a thesis is or does, you’re not going to get back the kind of papers you were hoping to read. (Even telling them what a thesis is won’t be enough, of course; they need to analyze examples and counterexamples and have opportunities for practice and feedback.) In this 2018 tip on transparent teaching, we shared advice and resources for making sure students understand what you want them to do, why you want them to do it, and the qualities of successful work. First-year students especially need this clarity because they don’t yet have the frame of reference that juniors and seniors build over time by taking many classes.
Explain what office hours are, or even call them something else
If our youngest students need clarification or extra help, we want them to be able to meet with us. That’s what office hours are for, right? On the first day of class, we often share heaps of useful information about the course, including when we hold our office hours, but it turns out that much of the information we share sounds like a foreign language to students. Even if they know what office hours are for, they might be afraid to attend. Some faculty take a little time to explain office hours to students and to let them know when and how they will hold them online. Others have renamed office hours to sound more inviting for students, and some make a visit to office hours mandatory in the opening weeks of the semester. For larger classes, this can work well when students attend in groups, and apps like YouCanBook.me can be useful for organizing sign-ups.
Help students connect and make friends
Physical distancing, quarantine, and doing almost everything online can make students — and everyone — feel lonely. First-year students often feel lonely anyway because they’ve left many of their high school friends behind, and they have not yet built a new support network in college. Our classes are one of the main places where they build relationships that help them persist and have positive experiences at FSU. We can give them opportunities to talk and to learn from one another by incorporating student-to-student interactions into our courses. They can work in pairs, or in small groups, doing anything from unstructured discussions about their ideas to very structured team-based learning or anything in between. As with any assignment, it’s important to provide clear, explicit instructions (see point 3 above), and the first instruction should be to introduce themselves.
If you’d like to brainstorm about designing courses for first-year students, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to working with you!