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Faculty Development Center

Helping Freshmen make the Transition

The beginning of a new academic year introduces a whole new cohort of first-year students to the classroom experiences of a research university. These excited and nervous freshmen bring with them a variety of academic experiences, habits, fears, and assumptions. It’s useful for faculty to pause in the face of this new crop of students to consider how our teaching and advising can most effectively help them make a successful transition to an entirely new academic environment.

Besides the many difficult changes imposed on their lives by attending the university—including concerns about money, about meeting new friends, about housing—students hold some expectations and intellectual assumptions that can make their transition to the university classroom more difficult. In high school many students, even the most talented, were accustomed to having their teachers provide them with information that they were then required to memorize (and perhaps apply in the most limited manner). As a result they may be at the stage of what William Perry calls “dualism,” the start of their intellectual development at the college level. They believe that there are right and wrong answers to most questions, and that the teacher (who knows the answers) has the job of passing along that information. Students in this stage of development are more passive than we would like them to be more confused when we ask them to consider the gray areas of a subject requiring critical analysis.

In addition, many students have not yet learned how to learn on their own—how to do some of the basic things we expect of them as university students. They may have difficulty taking notes effectively, studying wisely, and preparing for exams adequately. One of the major issues facing most freshmen is simply how to manage time successfully. The transition—from a familiar environment which was often highly structured (and in which supervision at school and at home was the norm) to a new academic home where many more hours of open time require them to make choices about organizing their priorities—can be a traumatic one. It’s common for many freshmen to fall behind in their studies in their first month of classes only to find at midterm time that last minute cramming no longer works.

As teachers, there are some things we can do to help freshmen through this first year experience and make their transition to UMBC less troubling. For example:

  • Make your expectations for students clear in your syllabus and in your initial classes, and include suggestions for approaching the class material that will help them succeed
  • Teach students strategies for making material meaningful, encouraging them to paraphrase rather than memorize and to ask questions
  • Teach students strategies for organizing information and connecting it to what they already know
  • Provide feedback early in the course so that they know whether their study strategies are successful
  • Assign some homework which focuses on their study strategies—for example, turning in lecture notes or a written explanation of how they solved a problem
  • Encourage students to get help from peers or tutors.

These suggestions are taken from Teaching College Freshmen, by Bette LaSere Erickson and Diane Weltner Strommer (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991), a useful resource for faculty teaching first year students. Copies may be borrowed from the Faculty Development Center.