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Office of the Provost and Senior Vice President

Coffman Chair for University Teaching Scholars
Summary of Activities

Dr. Gregory Eiselein
Chair, 2008-2009

First-Year Challenges

During my year as Coffman Chair, I worked with others from across campus to address a pair of challenges facing Kansas State and many other United States universities and their entering students: the under-preparation of some students for college-level learning and the problem of attrition, particularly during the first year. Although K-State has a number of excellent programs for first-year students, the 2006-2007 "K-State First-Year Experience Task Force Report" concluded that the most important missing piece to the development a first-year experience (FYE) at K-State was a central academic component. Thus, the report recommended the creation of a set of academic classes to enhance the educational experience of our first-year students in a way that would address these issues of under-preparation and attrition.

Project: A Pilot Study of a First-Year Seminar Program

As Coffman Chair, I attempted to address these challenges and the recommendation of the 2006-2007 Task Force by designing and directing, with Dr. Emily Lehning (Assistant Vice President for Student Life), a pilot study that examined the feasibility and effectiveness of a first-year seminar (FYS) program in enhancing the learning experiences of first-year students at K-State.

These small seminars were designed to impact students' learning in terms of critical thinking and communication skills, to improve engagement and increase feelings of belongingness, and to prepare students for a successful transition to university life and college-level learning. The primary way the program hoped to do this was by enrolling new students into small sections (no class had more than 22 students) of regular, academic classes such as geology, sociology, English, political science, entomology, etc. All of the classes emphasized active learning, critical thinking, and development of communication skills.

All of the classes also emphasized co-curricular events. The aim here was to connect learning inside the classroom with campus events and activities outside of class. For example, all of the sections participated in a successful and well-attended "Election Watch" in the Union Ballroom on election night as returns came in. Other events were class-specific; for example, the visit to K-State's Insect Zoo was a co-curricular event for ENTOM 301 Insects and People. And some events drew students from multiple but not all sections; for example, the students in six different English sections attended together the reading by Charles Simic, the U.S. Poet Laureate.

There were 21 instructors in the program altogether. Two of the courses were team-taught. We sought out faculty who were invested in K-State – usually this meant tenure-track professors, though some were dedicated instructors with a significant record of service and teaching at K-State.

We had 270 students in the study in 16 sections from 5 different colleges. With courses in the humanities, sciences, and social sciences, these offerings represente a range of what first-year students may take. The individuals in the cohort were typical of the K-State student body. During summer enrollment, we tried to make the enrollment of new students into these sections as random as possible.

Results of the Pilot Study

In general, the pilot study was very successful. It demonstrated that it would be possible to design and implement a first-year seminar program at K-State, and it showed that these classes were engaging and effective. Although it may be too soon to evaluate the impact of these seminars on retention and graduation rates, our survey of the research on retention revealed that there are significantly higher retention rates for students who take first-year seminar classes than for those who do not. (See Carolyn A. Schnell and Curt Doetkott, "The First-Year Seminar as a Means of Improving College Graduation Rates," Journal of the First-Year Experience 15 [2003]: 53-75.). Similarly, the "K-State First-Year Experience Task Force Report" concluded: "the creation of a first-year seminar … can likely account for a 5-15% improvement in four-year graduation rates."

More specifically, our own one-semester pilot study in the fall of 2008 revealed several interesting and meaningful findings:

  • As advertised, these FYS classes successfully emphasized critical thinking, communication skills (especially writing), the application of the material learned, and community building.
  • Although it is too early to tell if the seminars will have an impact on persistence and graduation rates, we are continuing to track the enrollment, engagement, and progress of the students in the study.
  • Students felt very engaged by their FYS classes.
  • Attendance improved.
  • Students in the FYS classes tended to do better academically in their course work than first-year students on average.
  • Students liked the smaller class size and thought it helped them learn.

It is also important to note that the students in the study frequently rated their courses and their teachers as excellent, and the written feedback from the students was overwhelmingly positive. Students in the study reported, for instance:

  • "Freshman seminar classes … are the greatest idea ever."
  • "I really enjoyed this course. The course materials were interesting and I remained dedicated throughout the semester. I would ask that there be a follow-up course to this one."
  • "[The instructor] promotes learning and personal progress and provides students with the tools and support they need to reach their goals."
  • "This class was incredible. [The instructor] was one of the best teachers I've ever had. I think the First Year Seminar program is an amazing idea. This is a program that should become the norm. The atmosphere and style of the class were very conducive to learning."
  • "[The instructor's] hands-on view of teaching really reaches out to us as students. [The instructor] treated us as though we were friends which made it much more enjoyable to listen and participate. I've learned so much in this class. Amazing teacher."

In short, the FYS courses have been effective in achieving their outcomes; they are popular with students; and they could become the academic core of a coordinated first-year program at K-State.

Plans for the Future

Because of the initial success of the pilot study in the fall of 2008, we are continuing and expanding the study. We plan to run 23 classes in fall 2009. In addition to the courses and pilot study, we will continue the co-curricular events (including a poetry reading by Billy Collins, U.S. poet laureate, 2001-03), the faculty development program that supports the FYS program, the website and promotional efforts, as well as our meetings with faculty, staff, students, and administrators from around campus. An important and exciting new element of our FYS effort for next year is the GPS (Guide to Personal Success) mentoring program for incoming students.

An up-to-date overview of the FYS program's current efforts and activities can be found online at:

http://www.k-state.edu/fys/

The pilot study's larger goal is the eventual establishment of an integrated FYE program. A FYS program and improved coordination among the various first-year programs already in place would be essential to the creation of a robust and integrated FYE. The development of a mentoring program is an exciting and important new element. The establishment of this FYS program and the development of an integrated FYE will be crucial steps for the University to take to improve persistence and degree completion rates, to better prepare our incoming students for the challenges of college learning and life, and to maintain K-State's status as the premier student-centered university in the region.