Ten Take-Aways: Teaching First Year Students

How do first year students learn to navigate college? We often assume that students arrive on campus with the skills, knowledge and dispositions firmly in place to help them succeed academically as well as socially and emotionally. When we discover that this is not the case, what are some of the ways in which we help prepare them for successful experiences at American University? The information in this Takeaway was influenced by input from AU faculty who participated in CTRL Noontime Conversations along with a series of articles that are referenced at the end of the section.

Developmentally, 18-year-olds are not yet adults.

Eighteen-year olds are two months out of high school and are not yet adults. Developmentally, they are figuring out their identity: who they are, where they fit in and what they want to study and explore.

Cognitively, they are capable of abstract reasoning but may have limited experience in critical thinking and problem solving and need practice to develop and refine these skills. In high school they may have focused more on the memorization of details and facts with less attention paid to understanding concepts, themes and approaches to learning. First year students also come with varying levels of study skills and abilities to ask questions for clarification. They might worry about appearing unintelligent to both their peers and to faculty and may be primarily concerned with “what will be on the test?” and “how can I get an A?”

Socially and emotionally, most 18-year-olds are on their own for the first time. Many have traveled, attended overnight camps or participated in semester abroad high school programs, but the majority are faced with many decisions that are new to them. They are adjusting to dorm life with one or more roommates; they need to plan their coursework and balance it with social activities. Many work 10 or more hours per week to help with their college expenses and are tasked with considering internships during their first year at AU. Financial concerns may impact their decisions to purchase course textbooks and materials and limit their ability to take advantage of school and community activities. Those with excellent executive functioning skills manage better than those who struggle with planning, organizing and persistence.

As first year students navigate college life, their 18-year-old brains are still developing. The balance between the ‘thinking’ part of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex and the ‘feeling’ side of the brain, the amygdala, is skewed toward the amygdala and this impacts decision making. For more information:


What does this mean for faculty? We are faced with a ‘whole student’ with needs that span all developmental areas. Some of the examples and suggestions below are ways to help students navigate their first year of college while developing the skills they need to be successful on their own.

Students may not understand their relationship with faculty.

First year students understand the role of high school counselors and principals, but unless they have a family member or close family friend who works in higher education, they are unlikely to have a clear sense of the relationship between students and faculty. Setting clear expectations at the start of the semester and including them in course syllabi can help students to create meaningful and appropriate relationships with you. For example: how to ask for help when needed and how to demonstrate their engagement with course content. To help them understand the relationship, consider including the following on your course syllabi:

  • Emphasize that teaching and learning is a partnership; you will share your knowledge and experience and they have an obligation to read, think and participate.
  • Share how you define the purpose of office hours: is it a time to ask questions about an assignment or reading? Can students come ‘just to talk’ or to get to know you better and let you get to know them?
  • Clarify your definition of class participation, as this will vary across campus.
  • Let students know how and when to contact you and how to address you in an email; i.e. Dear Professor (last name). This may seem simple unless you have received emails from students without a salutation (because they don’t know what to write) or one that starts with ‘Hey, Prof’.

For more information, this article is very useful:

Prior knowledge and experiences will vary among first-year students.

First year students come from many different types of high schools and have had different opportunities to study a given subject. You may have a student who took an AP course in your content area sitting next to a student whose high school did not offer the subject at all or students who took the same-named course but with very different content. Even when students have taken a similar course before, they may not have the prior knowledge or skills that we assume that they have.

Assessing prior knowledge can be done prior to the start of the course or during the first or second class session. Prior to the start of the semester, a survey questionnaire emailed to students can provide you with some basic information such as:

  • Reason for taking the course: elective or possible interest in a major? Is it a pre-requisite or required for a particular major?
  • Has the student taken a course in this subject before and if yes, when?
  • Is student familiar with or not familiar with the theorists, theories or content that you will cover in the course?
  • What motivates and discourages the student as a learner?

This type of survey relies on student self-reporting and will not provide you with specific examples of what the student does and doesn’t not already know. For that, an in-class survey or pre-test on the first day can be very useful. Based on the results, you can make adjustments to course content and requirements.

It can be helpful to tell students your rationale for conducting these surveys as they may assume that they need to know this information prior to taking the class. Letting them know that you are getting a sense of their prior knowledge as a way to review course content can be reassuring,

Beyond prior academic knowledge, first year students will represent a broad geographic, cultural, racial and gendered community. Their prior experiences in and outside of school will impact their world view and how they relate to you and to course content.

For more information, see our previous posts on The Impact of Prior Knowledge and Creating Inclusive Classrooms.

Early and frequent feedback helps students to do their best work.

Creating an assignment that is due during the first two weeks of class gives you an opportunity to provide students with feedback on how you will assess their work including a sense of the depth and breadth that you are looking for in their written work. These first assignments need not always be graded; instead, they are an opportunity to provide summary feedback about how students will be expected to think and write in college.

Throughout the semester, providing feedback can help students learn from their mistakes, enhance their critical thinking and writing skills and master course concepts and skills. It will be important to give feedback on earlier assignents prior to due dates for later assignments so that students can incorporate and respond to your suggestions and recommendations of ways to improve their work.

For more information, see our previous posts on Providing Meaningful Feedback and Efficient and Effective Ways to Provide Feedback on Written Work.

Well defined expectations on course syllabi provide students with clarity.

Including the following in course syllabi and discussing them early in the semester can help students respond positively to your expectations.

  • Describe what students are to do if they miss a class;
  • Differentiate between how you define excused and unexcused absences (most faculty excuse absences for illness, bereavement, religious holidays or conflicts with AU team sports events);
  • Note your policy on the use of technology (laptops and phones) in the classroom and share your rationale;
  • Let students know if you provide extra credit on assignments or exams;
  • Clearly define your policies about turning in work – where/how do you want students to do this (faculty vary greatly, using Blackboard, Dropbox, email and hard copies) — and define the penalties for work that is turned in late.

Students appreciate faculty who are available and accessible.

On the course syllabus, adding the phrase “and by appointment” to scheduled office hours will enable students with legitimate conflicts (e.g. another class or work hours) to find time to meet with you.

First year students are also looking for ways to connect with faculty but may not know how to accomplish this. Others are looking for mentors and want to learn more about faculty areas of expertise. We often think that this only applies to students in their later academic year but first year students may also be looking for mentors, especially when they are thinking about internships in subsequent semesters.

This is a good resource on mentorship: http://tlijournal.com/tli/index.php/TLI/article/view/125

Carefully designed assignments and classwork will enhance critical thinking and problem solving skills.

Learning to read complex material, write as a college student and engage in critical thinking and problem solving are skills that students need to develop early on in their college careers. Many first year students assume that the ways they learned to think and write in high school is what we expect from them in college and are surprised to discover that this may not be true. When students have limited experience how can we teach these in ways that align with course content rather than adding a separate set of skills to existing course curriculum? Here are some things to consider:

  • Emphasize context by helping students to see where readings, lectures and classwork fit into major course themes;
  • Acknowledge that learning to read and analyze complex materials is part of what college is about.

For more detailed ideas on how to help students develop mindful reading skills, see our previous post, Reading Mindfully.

Support services are available to students.

First year students are still teenagers and often on their own for the first time; they are likely to need support services at various times during their first year. Including these resources on course syllabi sends a message that you and the university recognize and support their academic, social and emotional needs.

When resources are available on campus, there are still reasons that may prevent students from reaching out for help when they need it. Students report that there is still a stigma about seeking mental health services and many students are worried that they will appear unintelligent if they ask too many questions or seek clarification about coursework. Reassuring students that these services exist because we recognize that they may need them can help to break down these barriers.

For further reading: references and resources