Trends and Issues in Higher Ed

February 26, 2016

First-year students in the classroom

To ensure first years have options to create meaningful academic connections, First Year Programs coordinates opportunities for personal classroom experiences

First-year Interest Groups (FIGs): Creating small communities at a big university

Operating within Undergraduate Academic Affairs, First Year Programs (FYP) is dedicated to facilitating transitions for all incoming freshman and transfer students. One option FYP coordinates, First-year Interest Groups (FIGs), brings students together in small cohorts where they become part of a learning community of peers as they embark on their Husky Experience and make connections both academically and socially.

Since 1987, these FIGs have given first years the opportunity to fulfill General Education requirements while learning about campus resources and connecting with upperclass student mentors. As a result, they develop skills and build connections that will lead them toward a successful undergraduate experience.

Low stakes courses encourage exploration: Students enrolled in a FIG take a 2-credit course (graded credit/no credit) called General Studies 199: University Community. This weekly seminar is led by an upperclass undergraduate FIG Leader with 20 to 25 students. Beyond GEN ST 199, FIGs may also be clustered with an additional one, two or three classes, generally organized by academic fields such as pre-engineering, pre-health, environmental studies or political science. This model allows students to explore new academic topics with other students who share common interests.

“Joining a FIG that catered to my academic needs and interests has been a highly enriching experience,” explains freshman bioengineering major, Rebecca Darrow. “Not only did it connect me to amazing undergraduate students who can share their experiences with me, but I met so many friends who share the same interests. Since all my classes were attached to my FIG, I had a close-knit group to study with. My FIG encouraged me to put myself outside of my comfort zone and network within the UW community — my first quarter would not have gone nearly as well if I had not joined the FIG.”

Students in a first-year student interest group

In First-year Interest Groups (FIGs), first years learn how to succeed in and out of class as they find out about different aspects of the UW from upperclassmen. Photo: Jill Reddish

Experienced students serve as leaders: FIG Leaders gain first-hand leadership and mentoring experience, get practice teaching and managing a classroom, and learn how to be a mentor for younger students. For first-year students, having a direct relationship with an experienced student helps them in their transition to UW.

The classes and assignments designed by FIG Leaders in the University Community course are centered on themes from the FYP common curriculum. The curriculum includes the five themes of Transition, Critical Thinking, Academics, Community and Professional Pathway. Activities and assignments may include experiential projects such as an in-depth exploration of Seattle neighborhoods where students practice observation, reflection, research and synthesis, and presentation skills. They may also engage in career preparation with workshops on LinkedIn and resume writing, and Q&A panels with upperclassmen about choosing majors and getting involved around campus.

Departmental partners are key to success: Over 40 departments collaborate with FYP to provide these grouped classes. They coordinate schedules and ensure spaces are reserved for about 70 unique combinations of classes in some 160 FIGs. With about half of the first-year population participating in FIGs, these departmental relationships help ensure that all students who are interested have the opportunity to be a part of this enriching program.

Brian Fabien, professor of mechanical engineering and associate dean of Academic Affairs, addresses the value of this type of early academic access. “Working with First Year Programs to offer FIGs provides new students with the opportunity to begin exploring their academic interests in engineering,” says Fabien. “These FIGs are a great way for students to learn about departmental requirements, ask questions about degree programs and decide which engineering disciplines interest them the most.”

Collegium Seminars: Small-setting engagement with faculty

The Collegium Seminar program offers first-year students a specially designed opportunity to build connections with faculty and peers for more personal interactions and in-depth discussions. These seminars often serve as an introduction to college level critical thinking and engagement. The 1-credit seminars are graded credit/no-credit to encourage students to explore new subjects in a low-risk environment.

As of the 2015-16 academic year, the program created a strategic partnership with FYP and the Husky Leadership Initiative in an effort to expand and integrate leadership education into the classroom. With the Husky Leadership Initiative partnership, the seminars become a place where the teaching and learning of leadership skills is made explicit by weaving discipline-specific concepts of leadership into seminar curriculum. Through this integration, students begin to associate their developing identities as intellectuals with a sense of responsibility and opportunity to engage in leadership and apply their knowledge in service to the world.

Taso Lagos teaching his collegium seminar

Collegium Seminars, such as this one led by Taso Lagos (above center) offer first years a small setting and unique topics to explore at the beginning of their academic journey. Photo: Jill Reddish

Since many introductory level courses commonly have large enrollments, first-year students benefit from a wider selection of small classes, especially those with low-stakes. The seminar program expands its selection of smaller settings by capping enrollment around 18 students. The style of interaction also helps students begin connecting with faculty early on in their academic careers.

The seminars’ variety of subjects is reflected in the breadth of departments that offer courses each year: 14 departments were represented in the 32 seminars available during the 2015-16 academic year. The benefits of the program also extend to the faculty who teach them. “Collegium Seminars give faculty a chance to explore topics outside of their normal teaching area, or, if it’s a topic that they do cover in their teaching load, they can offer it in a unique way,” explains Taso Lagos, affiliate instructor in the Jackson School of International Studies. Lagos leads a seminar called Hollywood Dissent and American Democracy.

Clarence Spigner, professor of Health Services and adjunct professor in American Ethnic Studies and Global Health, is another instructor who goes outside his regular courses. In his seminar Good Books: Race, Gender and Diversity, students conduct critical analysis of a book of their choice, reflecting particularly on themes of race, gender, ethnicity and well-being.

Lagos has been involved with the program for two years. “For the freshmen who take [seminars], I think they also feel liberated — putting the emphasis on knowledge and discussion rather than information retention,” he says. Collegium Seminars serve as one starting place for first years to learn how to engage in thoughtful conversation and reflection, leading discussions and developing community among themselves.

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