by Katie Ciesiulka, Shannon Finney, Tim Hussey, Cameron Shirley, Taylor Stuck

Definitions & Types of First-Year Seminars

First-year seminar courses are designed to prepare students in their first year for the transition to college. Barefoot (1992) identified five main types of first-year seminars found at many colleges and universities:

1. Extended Orientation Seminars: These are the most common type of first-year seminar (FYS). Typically taught by faculty, staff, or administrators, these seminars aim to aid students in the their transition into a new environment. This seminar’s design is generally utilized at larger institutions, public colleges and universities, less selective campuses, and community colleges (Keup & Petschauer, 2011; Padgett & Keup, 2011; Tobolowsky & Associates, 2008).

2. Academic Seminars with Uniform Content Across Sections: The second most common type of FYS focuses on the intellectual transition of students, as opposed to the personal transition. These seminars are often interdisciplinary or theme-oriented and include skill-building topics centered around critical thinking or writing (Padgett & Keup, 2011, p.70).

3. Academic Seminars with Variable Content: These types of seminars are similar to academic seminars with uniform content, but they are more likely to be single disciplined; with this type, the content varies between sections.

4. Pre-Professional or Discipline-Linked Seminar: The goal of these seminars is to introduce first-year and transfer students to a particular discipline or profession offered by professional schools.

5. Basic Study Skills Seminar: These seminars are often geared towards students with the potential to succeed in college, but are not yet prepared. The main focus of these seminars is to help students develop efficient learning and study skills. Basic study skills seminars are typically graded on a pass-fail standard. They are generally seen online and are rarely integrated with other high-impact practices.

Barefoot and Fidler (1996) further consolidated first-year seminars into two types. The first focuses on acclimating new students to campus culture, history and traditions, study and time management skills, and awareness to campus resources. The curriculum and instruction includes campus partner presentations focusing on resources related to financial aid, career center, library resources, counseling center resources, and Title IX resources (Edwards, 2015). The second type has an academic focus and usually involves the partnership of a faculty member who has a shared academic interest. Many universities originally incorporated first-year experiences that linked students with faculty as a way of integrating them into the curriculum (Kuh, 2008). Nowadays, seminars are a combination of both of these types.

History of First-Year Seminars

The first-year seminar (FYS), formerly referred to as the freshman seminar, is not a new phenomenon. Its origins trace back to the late nineteenth century when the first course was established at Lee College in 1882,  followed by Iowa State in 1900. Both institutions recognized the unique experiences of new and incoming college students (Barefoot & Fidler, 1996). In 1911, Reed College in Portland, Oregon offered the first course of its kind for academic credit. Known as “The College Life Course,” it was required of all Reed freshmen to help them adjust to college life and study. The topics discussed included the purpose of college, the college curriculum, the individual plan of study, student honesty, student government, intercollegiate athletics, and college religion. By 1926, eighty-two colleges and universities established semester-long orientation courses. By 1928, over 100 institutions including, most notably, Princeton, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, Dartmouth, and Northwestern University established semester-long first-year seminar courses (Gordon & Grites, 1984; Gordon, 1989).

Although FYS witnessed a significant decline from the 1930s through the 1970s, they evolved to play a prominent role on college campuses again beginning in the 1980s (Tobolowsky, B. F. & Associates, 2008). Following protests in the 1970s and increasing access to higher education for previously underrepresented groups, administrators thought FYS courses could help ease transitions and develop student engagement with the university (Tobolowsky, B. F. & Associates, 2008). These initial thoughts were supported by assessment led by John Gardner at the University of South Carolina (Hunter & Murray, 2007). Today’s college students are considered to be the most diverse population in higher education (Tobolowsky, B. F. & Associates, 2008; Debard, 2004), requiring institutions and administrators to adjust the structure and goals of these first-year seminars in order to meet the various needs of the changing student demographics.

Outcomes of First-Year Seminars

First-year seminars (FYS) are often used as a vehicle for achieving learning and developmental outcomes for undergraduate students in their first year. While the outcomes of each FYS varies depending on the institution, the impact of these outcomes often centers around academic success and retention rates, faculty and peer relationships, and student engagement. Collectively, these FYS are designed to ease students’ transition into college (Greenfield, Keup, & Gardner, 2013).

Academic Success & Retention Rates

Overall, the outcomes of first-year seminar courses vary depending on the type of FYS, the type of institution, and the course goals. FYS are typically seen as a tool to improve retention rates among 4-year and 2-year institutions because of the focus on transition and foundational knowledge and skills (Permzadian & Crede, 2016; Goodman & Pascarella, 2006). In studies looking at academic success (GPA) and retention rates, the quantitative data shows mixed results.  According to Permzadian and Crede’s (2016) meta-analysis, first-year seminars have only a small impact on both first-year grades and retention rates. Furthermore, they argue that the type of seminar and structure of the course both have a significant impact on the effectiveness and outcomes. For example, Permzadian and Crede argue that in order for FYS to have the most significant impact on grades and retention, these seminars should be orientation-focused seminars instead of academic (p. 305).

In contrast to this analysis, Greenfield, Keup, and Gardner (2016) argue that although they are the most common type of FYS, the extended orientation first-year seminars are the least effective and show the fewest benefits for students. Based on findings at a Midwestern MAC University, students enrolled in academic-related FYS courses have “significantly higher second-year retention rates” compared to students in other types of FYS courses and students who did not enroll in any FYS course at the university (Woolfolk-Barnes, 2017). However, the data related to retention did not extend beyond the second year of enrollment.

Southern Connecticut State University’s first-year experience program includes orientation, learning communities, and a focus on academic and student life support. In 2007, all incoming students participated in orientation, learning communities, and academic support initiatives, but only fifty percent of incoming first-year students enrolled in the seminar. Data supported the argument that first-year students enrolled in the inquiry seminar had higher rates of retention than first-year students who participated in only the mandatory first-year experience activities (Ben-Avie, Kennedy, Unson, Li, Riccardi, & Mugo, 2012). These retention rates were also unique in that they continued to show positive advantages for seminar students two and three-years after the seminar course. While it may be specific designs and context at SCSU, this extended advantage may also be unique because of the stacked nature of pre-intervention strategies and learning communities in the first year of the students’ experiences. (Ben-Avie, et al., 2012).  

LaGuardia Community College serves as a strong example of an FYS course that has a high impact on academic achievement, credits, and retention. According to data collected by Dr. Ashley Finley, LaGuardia’s students who enrolled in the FYS course “had a one-semester retention rate 11 percentage points higher” than students in the same department who did not enroll in the FYS course (Eynon, 2016). Furthermore, LaGuardia proves to be an exception to other longitudinal studies because the data shows a persistent impact on retention through the fourth-semester for a FYS student. Dr. Finley points to this difference in outcomes as a product of LaGuardia’s use of ePortfolios, disciplinary focus, peer mentoring program, and an infusion with co-curricular experiences (Eynon, 2016, p. 162). High-impact practices integrated within FYS courses may be a common theme for highly effective programs.

Faculty and Peer Relationships

Another outcome of first-year seminars is the creation of peer and faculty relationships. First-year seminars are one place where faculty-student relationships are formed early in the college experience. Furthermore, students may develop relationships with staff members, peers, and potential academic advisors (Woolfolk-Barnes, 2017; Bledsoe, 2014; Goodman & Pascarella, 2006). In a recent study at a Midwestern MAC university, both qualitative and quantitative data were gathered to assess outcomes of the First-Year Experience Seminar. The qualitative data from a focus group that included student leaders highlighted four common themes, one of which was relationships. While student leaders who participated in the study may have been more likely to build relationships, the qualitative data was compelling and showed the impact students felt regarding relationships with peers, faculty, and other support staff (Woolfolk-Barnes, 2017). For example, one student described the first-year experience as a  place that “provided connections to faculty that helped [her] develop” and create a “long-standing relationship” built on trust (Woolfolk-Barnes, 2017). According to Bledsoe (2014), student retention is often tied to relationships made at an institution and argues that the effectiveness of first-year seminars may lie in the types of relationships faculty form with their students. Although the strategies Bledsoe describes are not exclusive to first-year seminars, the significance of early student-faculty relationships connects to greater first-year retention rates.

First-Year Seminars for Often Underrepresented Students

Many at at-risk students are often unaware of the institutional resources available to them, adding further barriers to a successful transition. First-year seminars can provide a space for these students to engage with various components of student and academic life and thereby help them garner the tools to succeed. FYS can help at-risk students develop writing, research, and critical thinking skills at a collegiate level while simultaneously relieving potential anxieties surrounding the adjustment to college courses (Turner, 2013). Furthermore, if institutions are willing to include additional support, there is the potential for even more support for at-risk students. Utilizing initiatives such as peer mentor programs can help pair at-risk students with ones who are familiar with the inner workings of the institution.

There is a limited amount of research on the effects of first-year seminars and their content on specific student populations, including students with minoritized identities (Bronwell & Swanner, 2010). The lack of research poses problems when understanding how to serve underrepresented student populations better. Without more concrete research on how first-year seminars and their curriculum on often underserved student populations, it is difficult to say that these student populations have been served adequately. The discussion surrounding bringing high-impact practices, such as first-year seminars, to scale places emphasis on making these practices credit-bearing, visible, and funded for all students to participate (O’Donnell, 2013). While very important, these three factors are often critical to include when planning to implement a first-year seminar. In many cases, first-year seminar classes are both required and credit-bearing; this means that the scale of these programs is typically campus-wide and easily accessible for students.

Additionally,  it is essential to consider that first-year seminar curriculum and pedagogy is based on the prevailing student development theories informed from research conducted on White, middle-class students attending predominantly White institutions (Edwards, 2015). International students, for example, face adjustment to a new language, culture, and education system. Due to difficulties with the English language and cultural differences, they may not fully understand the content or receive relevant information. Institutions must recognize that successful programming at one institution may not have the same effect at another (Bean, 2005; Swail, Redd, & Perna,2003).

Integrated HIP Research

While the evidence and outcomes of FYS alone show impact on student retention, GPAs and graduation rates, many first-year seminars “serve as the cornerstone of an integrated” first-year experience that includes multiple high-impact practices (Greenfield, Keup, & Gardner, 2013, p. 92). First-year seminars are often required courses that can serve as a foundational point for first-year students to experience other high-impact practices, like service learning and common intellectual experiences (Greenfield, Keup, & Gardner, 2013; Young & Keup, 2016).

     Further expanding the significance of integrated high-impact practices, Hanson and Schmidt’s (2017) research supports other studies that show a connection between first-year seminars and a one-year retention rate, but they extend the argument stating that they “did not find that the first-year seminar standalone intervention had a positive effect on FY GPA or three-year persistence” (p. 74). Instead, they see that first-year seminars alone can improve transition experience for students; but, in order for greater retention rates, the first-year seminar must be implemented in conjunction with other high-impact practices like learning communities (Hanson & Schmidt, 2017). A new addition to some FYS courses is the use of ePorfolios. As one of the most recent additions to the original ten high-impact practices, ePortfolios push students to reflect and connect their learning across multiple contexts and to use different types of evidence (Eynon & Gambino, 2017).  

Blended First-Year Seminars

Institutions are continuing to adopt greater access to online courses and blended learning where students have a combination of face-to-face and online course components. While FYS are typically offered as face-to-face courses, Kennesaw State (KSU) conducted a pilot study that looks at a blended first-year seminar course (Foote & Mixson-Brookshire, 2013). KSU’s blended first-year seminars had one face-to-face meeting per week and completed the rest of the course material online through a common LMS that allowed students to work through the material at their own pace. Survey data suggests that students appreciated both the flexibility to work at their own pace outside of the classroom and thought the in-class meetings were meaningful. Foote and Mixon-Brookshire (2013) asses that students may not have been satisfied with a fully-online course option due to their sentiments about in-class meetings (p. 8).

Limitations and Future Directions

The research done on first-year seminars often fails to distinguish which of the core parts of the seminars are the most helpful (Porter & Swinger, 2006). In order to understand why first-year seminars are so effective, it is essential to begin understanding exactly which part of the first-year seminar experience is contributing to student success. Components such as emphasizing study skills, exposing students to campus resources, and building peer and faculty relationships are all standard parts of first-year seminars. However,  there needs to be more research pinpointing precisely which factors help the most. Furthermore, the frequent integration of HIPs within FYS make it more difficult to assess which aspect of the course (FYS framework, service-learning, or ePortfolios) is connected explicitly to outcomes like retention rates and academic success. Additionally, only one-half to two-thirds of institutions that use first-year seminars admit to engaging to an assessment of them (Barefoot & Kotch, 2011; Padgett & Keup, 2011). This lapse of assessment shows that not only is there a lack of understanding on why first-year seminars work well, but that there is a lack of ongoing research proving they work at all.

Beyond gaps in the research about first-year seminars, 2017 data from the National Survey of First-Year Experiences shows a significant decrease in the percentage of institutions who offer first-year seminar courses as compared to the 2012 datasets (Young, 2018). The NSFYE is administered by the National Resource Center for First Year Experience and Students in Transition. The 2017 survey was sent to almost 4,000  institutions, and 537 institutions responded, which corresponds to a 13.5% response rate. Based on these responses, 73.5% of institutions offer at least one type of FYS. In 2012, 89.7% of institutions who completed the survey identified as having a FYS course (Young, 2018, p. 35). While it is probable that self-selection in sampling may account for some difference between 2012 and 2017, it is likely that the significant drop indicates an actual decrease in the prevalence of FYS across the board. Furthermore, if data shows that retention rate outcomes for FYS are typically isolated to one-year or one-semester retention with little application further in the students’ college experience, budget constraints may prompt institutions to use the funding to implement HIPs that have greater empirical outcomes. We believe further analysis into the NSFYE survey data is necessary and will prompt further research to seek answers as to why institutions may be dropping FYS courses, what characteristics make FYS courses the most effective, and how institutions can take FYS to scale.

Authorial Statement

As graduate students in Elon University’s Master of Arts in Higher Education program, we have seen and experienced high-impact practices in a variety of institutional settings. We have gained a foundation in student development theory, research methods, and the history of higher education. Through apprenticeship experiences we have the opportunity to apply our coursework into different functional areas across Elon’s campus. We are excited to continue our journey as student affairs professionals and look forward to broadening our understanding of high-impact practices within different institutional contexts.                 

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