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First-Year Seminars

Principles and Strategies for Teaching First-Year Students

  • Provide Feedback, Early & Often – First-year students making the transition from excelling in high school to meeting expectations in a college class can benefit from feedback, early and often in the semester. A student who must wait several weeks for the first test to get a sense of how she’s doing in the course might have trouble catching up to her peers.
  • Pose Complex, Real-Life Problems – One strategy to help students move out of the dualism and multiplicity phases of Perry’s scheme of intellectual development is to help students encounter complex, real-life problems where right-or-wrong and “it’s all just opinion” thinking does not suffice. Helping students progress past these phases is challenging, but they won’t progress if they’re not given the opportunity to do so.
  • Minimize Memorization – Setting instructional goals that can be met by memorization reinforces students’ naïve beliefs about learning. While some memorization is necessary in many courses, success in a course shouldn’t be possible solely through memory work.
  • Teach Critical Thinking – Most students can’t “pick up” critical thinking skills along the way in a course that focuses on content. They need explicit instruction in thinking critically. Model this process for your students, make clear the “rules” for critical thinking in your discipline, give them many opportunities to practice critical thinking and receive feedback on their efforts, move from simple, well-structured problems to complex, ill-structured ones, and do all this in class where you can help students sort it all out.
  • Clarify Expectations for Learning – Since students have naïve ideas about knowledge and learning, instructors should clarify their expectations for student learning and performance. Help students understand what is expected of them via description, examples, and feedback on student work.
  • Clarify Strategies for Learning – Not only do first-year students not understand what is expected of them, even when they are clear on those expectations, they don’t know how to go about meeting those expectations. Help students understand and practice approaches to learning in and out of the classroom—listening for key ideas in a lecture, learning from a discussion, reading for comprehension, preparing for exams—that will help them make the transition to the kinds of thinking expected of them as college students.
  • Prepare for Emotional Reactions – Some topics will elicit intense emotional reactions from students, particularly those students who haven’t learned to analyze complex situations in objective ways. Provide opportunities, structure, and guidance for discussing these reactions, explain why you ask students to do what you ask of them, and offer feedback that is not only critical, but also supportive and encouraging.
  • Teach to a Variety of Learning Styles – We often teach as we were taught, but we were rather exceptional compared to our student peers—we went on to graduate school in our chosen disciplines. Be sensitive to the variety of ways that students excel at learning and include a variety of types of learning experiences in your courses to reach the broadest group of students as you can.
  • Have Students Write Letters to Their Successors – Ask students to write a letter to next year’s students focusing on advice for succeeding in your course. These letters help your current students reflect on and cement what they’ve learned, they help you learn about your students’ experiences in your course, and they help next year’s students adapt more quickly to the rigors of college studies.


 Adapted from The Center for Teaching – Vanderbilt University 2015