08/20/2012 05:25 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2012

The First Year in College

The transition from high school to college is a big step in many different ways. We all want to see a greater degree of independence and motivation on the part of the student; we want the intellectual challenges to take a step up; and we want the student to begin to mature in ways that influence his or her ability to function as a responsible professional, citizen, and member of society. So being a first year student is about maturing as a problem-solver, as a critical thinker, and as a person.

Faculty and academic administrators are responsible for the curriculum and the educational experience. So we would like to think that colleges and universities have given a lot of productive thought to this transition and have considered various ways of structuring the experience so the student's transition is as good as it can be. And in fact the first-year experience has been the object of a great deal of attention in recent years. What is some of that thinking?

One of the intellectual leaders in this field is Vincent Tinto at Syracuse University. Here is a recent talk by Tinto on student retention where he identifies five factors that enhance student success in the first year -- high institutional expectations, clear information about requirements, availability of academic and personal support, assurance that the student is valued by the institution, and availability of an environment that fosters engaged learning.

One idea that has developed a fair amount of interest in the last ten years is the notion of a first-year learning community (FLC) or a First-year Interest Group (FIG). This is different from the organization of an academic major -- it is intended to provide a strong intellectual and personal foundation for the student before he or she undertakes the more specialized studies of a discipline. The key idea is to arrange the student's first year schedule around a cluster of courses that are taken together by a small group of students. The students have a more integrative experience and they develop closer relationships with other students. They are spared the isolation of large lecture courses where they never really develop relationships with other students. And they have close contact with a group of faculty members who are strongly interested in their progress. The theory is that students will have a more intense and effective learning experience and will do better throughout their college years as a result.

Here is how the idea of a firstyear interest group is described at the University of Texas:

A First-year Interest Group is a cohort of up to 25 first-year students who develop community by taking two to four classes together. Students get to know their classmates by attending a weekly seminar facilitated by a peer mentor and staff member. Students discuss issues they encounter such as: study and time management strategies, social opportunities and issues, and campus life and involvement opportunities.

Here is a similar description from Indiana University:

Freshman Interest Groups is a unique program for freshmen that extends learning from the classroom to the residential hall. A FIG consists of a group of 10-15 students that take two to three courses together, and enroll in COLL-X111, a one-credit seminar that is built around a common theme. The FIGs Seminar is a small discussion-based course in which you develop skills that enhance academic achievement and discover how disciplines relate to one another. Each seminar creates a rich educational experience with the help of specially selected and trained graduate students that serve as Seminar Instructors. All students in your FIG also live in the same residential hall and have an undergraduate Peer Mentor that attends the seminar, resides on your floor, and engages you in outside-of-class activities related to the theme of the FIG.

The goals of these curricular structures are fairly easy to describe: to give new students a feeling of community, to allow students to interact on a more sustained basis over a more extended period of time, and to instill a sense of intellectual and social cohesion in the student. This social and intellectual experience is designed to cultivate the forms of maturation that a college education should produce.

There is a good deal of assessment research that has been done to evaluate the success of these pedagogical structures. David Jaffee, Adam Carle, Richard Phillips, and Lucy Paltoo presented their research on this topic in Intended and Unintended Consequences of First-Year Learning Communities: An Initial Investigation.

So universities are in fact paying a lot of attention to the transitions associated with the first year in college, and the research indicates that these new kinds of initiatives work. Close and extended engagement by the students leads to more effective learning and growth.