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January 6, 2003

Faculty Development

By Jack Prostko, Director, Faculty Development Center

For a variety of social and economic reasons, students are entering college generally unprepared for what awaits them.
-- Robert Leamnson, Thinking about Teaching and Learning
This fall semester UMBC's First Year Seminar Program was launched, with six new courses taught by faculty members in philosophy, economics, English, American studies, physics, and modern languages and linguistics. The program continues spring semester, and plans are in place to increase the number of offerings next year to twenty courses. Currently, the provost is circulating a request for proposals for AY 2003-04 to all tenured and tenure-track faculty, along with examples of the kinds of courses offered here and at other universities. This information is also available on the Provost's Web site. The deadline for submitting course proposals is Friday, January 31, 2003.

First Year Seminars are a valuable addition to the undergraduate curriculum because they provide new students with an intellectually challenging introduction to university academic life. Yet despite the challenge, the atmosphere of the seminars is supportive: the classes are small, and emphasize discussion, collaboration and exploration.

Such seminars are not, of course, unique to UMBC. According to the National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience & Students in Transition, more than 200 schools now offer some sort of academic seminar for incoming students, (while over 400 schools offer some sort of students success or "college survival" course). These academic seminars serve several purposes, including helping students adjust to college-level academic expectations and form valuable connections with their peers and professors. As the current request for proposals explains, "the small size and collaborative seminar structure make them ideal for encouraging critical thinking, serious intellectual inquiry, and the development of communications skills, both verbal and written."

For new students who may be enrolled in several large lecture courses, the FY Seminar offers a more personalized opportunity to learn about campus life and scholarly work. Focusing on both theoretical and local concerns, professor Jessica Berman (English and women's studies) taught What Makes a Community? this semester and found her students intrigued by the variety of communities surrounding them.

Berman notes, "I have been very pleased by the work that students have done on the issue of campus community. One said, 'I was so surprised to find out how many groups there are at UMBC -- there's no excuse not to get involved with one.' She was very skeptical at first. This kind of discovery helps them realize that research can have a direct effect on how they perceive and experience the world around them. I think this is an important experience to have early in college. I have also found that they have grown in their ability to think through a difficult issue -- they are less likely to stick to the easy, common sense responses that they would offer at the beginning of the course. Now they know I will ask them to look at both sides of the question, and to support their claims, and this too is important for success in college."

A course taught by modern languages and linguistics professor John Stolle McAllister on Seeking Truth and Justice: Human Rights Today also forced students to think more carefully about their assumptions and ideas. "I enjoyed working with the first year students because most of them seemed to bring a genuine curiosity to the material," McAllister explains. "As the semester went on, their comments and papers became noticeably more sophisticated as they were able to articulate more reasoned arguments for their beliefs. Lastly, the small class size (I had 13) let me have a more personal relationship with students, and felt like I was making some (small) difference in encouraging them to be successful at UMBC."

For instructors, the flexible nature of the seminar allows for experimentation with new teaching strategies and student assignments. Professor Ed Orser (American studies) says of his FY Seminar course, Sense of Place, "…has stimulated some of my most creative teaching, especially in devising ways for more 'active' learning contexts in seminar sessions. One of the most satisfying aspects of the experience was the way in which the seminar participants welcomed the opportunity to become an intellectual and social community -- clearly very much enjoying their experience together and providing an important support system for one another."

These seminars also offer the chance to teach a course that might not otherwise fit into a department's curriculum -- and to teach it without worrying that it serves as a prerequisite to other courses (and therefore that the schedule and agenda are rigid). Stolle McAllister notes that "For me, the FY Seminar has been a good experience in part because I got to teach a topic that is very important to me both personally and intellectually. I found the format to be particularly rewarding because, since I was not really under any pressure to get through a certain amount of material, as I would be with other types of beginning level courses, I had more flexibility to let students explore and argue about topics that weren't necessarily originally on my agenda."

Check out this opportunity to explore new topics or issues with a small group of enthusiastic students. If you have questions about the FYS program please contact Assistant Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Jill Randles(x53715).

If you would like to explore resources for teaching first year courses, contact me at the Faculty Development Center (x51829).

Other examples of First Year Seminar Programs and Classes:
University of North Carolina:
Princeton University:
University of Minnesota:
Harvard University:
Stanford University:
University of California, Berkeley:

Useful books on teaching first year students:
Leamnson, Robert. (1999). Thinking about Teaching and Learning: Developing Habits of Learning with First Year College and University Students. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Erickson, Bette LaSere, and Strommer, Diane Weltner. (1991). Teaching College Freshmen. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Posted by dwinds1 at January 6, 2003 12:00 AM