The First-Year Experience and “Facing the Unknown”

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When incoming freshmen dreamed of going to college, they likely envisioned attending classes in person with peers, hanging out with their newly-made friends in a dorm, and attending events for clubs and organizations regularly. For many of them, that is not the first-year experience they got when they began college this Facing the Unknown.png fall. A survey of students by Student Monitor this fall found that among on campus learners, 87% agree that “The social aspect of traditional on campus classroom learning is very important to me.”

To support a better experience, colleges that offer First-Year Experience courses have been proactively addressing how to help create a sense of belonging for students. Macmillan Learning facilitated a conversation with Your College Experience authors and first-year experience experts John Gardner & Betsy Barefoot to better understand how colleges, instructors and administrators can “face the unknown.” From that conversation, nine ideas emerged for helping to support and engage with students who are starting their college journey during these tumultuous times.

  • Establish what students need. According to Gardner, national data suggests that students need information that gives them more certainty and helps them make decisions. Instructors can help students reflect on the year they had and what they may want to do differently.

  • Recognize students’ journey. This upcoming fall will be the first time that large numbers of students will be reconvening in person after the pandemic, tumultuous election campaign and civil unrest of the past year. Instructors should have a pulse on the issues and their impact on their students.

  • Help students find their purpose. Students are worried about family, economics, what they’ll do after they graduate, and even whether college was worth it. Help them go back to the sense of purpose -- why they’re attending school and what they hope to gain and what college will do for them. “You can help them understand all the ways college can change their lives for the better,” Barefoot said.

  • Cultivate a sense of belonging. “The basic human need that has not been met for the past year is belonging,” Gardner said. Specifically, belonging in groups. FYE programs are a group -- and may be the only group -- that can help them to foster this sense.

  • Students need to feel like they matter. With so much going on, many students don’t feel as if their voices are being heard. There are some simple and effective ways to help them feel seen including: using their names in class, emailing them individually, having them submit a weekly report on how they’re doing, and responding to them individually. According to Barefoot, “Student-centered teaching helps to show them that they matter. They learn from and listen to their peers.”

  • Focus more on the tangible things with critical thinking. Help students focus on the future by focusing on the things that they can impact and change. One instructor commented, “I do want them to realize they are our future and need to begin to develop critical thinking on today's situation, so they’re prepared as adults.”

  • Have the classroom be a safe space or sanctuary. One instructor noted that they have an agreed-upon policy that the classroom is a safe place to share and that anything shared in the classroom stays in the classroom. This also creates a space where students can learn from each other.

  • Check in with your students. There are a variety of ways that FYE programs have been doing this, from asking students to create weekly journals, to one-to-one emails asking how students are doing, to emoji scales that provide prompts for conversations. This outreach to students helps them to feel heard and can help foster a sense of belonging.

  • Encourage students that are struggling to seek help. “The students often that need the most help are the least likely to go get it,” Gardner said. Getting help, even virtually, is typically free in college and is confidential. Help reduce the stigma for mental health and point out that the students that get help are more likely to persist.

To get more tips on how to create a supportive First-Year Experience for students, visit our College Success Instructor Community or view resources for students in our COVID-19 Student Toolkit. Find more at our College Success Resources page.



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