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First Year Seminars: Academic Engagement and Intervention Matters

“I learned how there are so many parts to a subject, and how a subject can get your mind thinking, whether it be within the class itself or the outside world…” – Fall 2020 first year seminar student

The first year experience area was founded in 2012 after participating in a national project to assess and improve the first year student experience at the university. Established with a strong academic focus, the first year experience has implemented a comprehensive approach to transitioning and supporting first year students with a cornerstone being the first year seminar which is part of the general education program. 

The impact of the first year seminar can be seen in many ways. Faculty teaching the seminars have developed academically-engaging, topic-based courses which also address areas that we know have an impact on student success. Based on assessment data, 75 percent of students have indicated that they had a good or excellent experience in their first year seminar. When asked to identify something interesting they learned during the seminar, student responses included some of the following:

  • “…covering racial biases because although I did know it was an issue, I believe it educated me a lot more and I know about the issue and how to prevent it as an individual.”
  • “…to properly cite sources and compare/contrast in essays”
  • “…how to practice mindfulness.”
  • “…all of the resources available at Salem State.”
  • “…so much about my topic and I would never have taken a class on this topic but now I may consider it.”

While student qualitative comments demonstrate the impact on learning, we also see that the seminar can contribute towards retention. First year students who took a fall first year seminar were retained at an 11 percent higher rate than those who did not (90.4 percent versus 79.2 percent). This percentage difference is consistent when students are separated out by Pell, non-Pell eligibility. Ensuring that incoming-first year students enroll in a seminar during their first semester is critical.

National research shows that early interventions regarding academic concerns have an impact on student success and persistence. Data on the first year seminar at Salem State University mirrors these findings.  This past fall, of the students referred through Navigate for being at risk of failing their seminar (needing intervention from a first year success coach), 92 percent were subsequently able to pass the course. The collaboration between faculty and staff, using the Navigate tool, is key to supporting students as they strive for academic success.

At the same time, data shows us that 60 percent of students who ultimately failed their first year seminar were never flagged as being in academic danger through the Navigate tool.  While the failure rate for the first year seminar at Salem State (10 percent for fall 2020, slightly higher than previous years) is lower than the national average, focus in this area is critical to support student performance and persistence. We also know that students who fail the first year seminar are struggling in their other courses. The average semester GPA for students who failed their fall seminar was 0.54, meaning they also failed many of their other courses. Early identification of AND timely intervention with students who are struggling academically is critical to ensure that they are connected with the most appropriate and relevant resources. 

First year seminars provide an opportunity to meaningfully engage with, transition, and support first year student persistence and academic success. Want to learn more about how you can support the initiative? Interested in teaching a first year seminar? Check out the first year experience Polaris page or contact Elizabeth Blood (faculty fellow, first year experience) or Mathew Chetnik (director, first year experience). Want more information about referring students of concern through Navigate? Check out the Navigate Canvas page.

A special thank you to Emily Sylvanowicz (student success coach, first year experience) for helping to compile and analyze the fall 2020 data.

Mathew R Chetnik
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