What is different about teaching first year students to teaching students in other years?
Students experience a conflict of:

  • expectations between university staff and first year students regarding knowledge students bring to university and
  • understanding regarding what university life is like and the support they believe they will receive from staff.

Why are first year students "special"?
The main reason first year students differ is because they are usually new to the university experience. This means that:

  • students often find first year confusing and isolating until they have learned to manage and navigate their way through the challenging new learning environment posed by university and
  • the first year experience can have a significant impact on academic success, perseverance and student retention.

Why is this different from a few years ago?
Efforts to provide greater access to university has meant student numbers have increased, students come from more diverse backgrounds and the range of experience that students have when they enter university is greater than it was a few years ago.

How can I develop a curriculum that best supports the diversity of first year students' needs?
One comprehensive study that has identified a number of ways to potentially address the challenges faced by staff teaching first year students and the students themselves was conducted by Australian Learning and Teaching Council (formerly Carrick) Senior Fellow, Professor Sally Kift. She developed a Transition Pedagogy which includes 6 principles that underpin support for first year students. The six principles are Transition, Diversity, Design, Engagement, Assessment and Evaluation and Monitoring.

What is meant by each of the principles and what are some examples of how I might use them?
A description of each of the principles and how they might be used in practice follows.

Transition
A well designed first year curriculum can support a student's transition into university, regardless of their previous experience. Helping students understand what is required of them at university and within their discipline can also support the development of their approaches to lifelong learning.

Strategies that may support transition include:

  • asking students to assess the knowledge, aptitudes, and attitudes they have when they commence your topic against discipline and/or topic expectations
  • devoting class time to discussing the particular approaches that are in use and what expectations these approaches place on the student and staff and
  • consideration of the inclusion of a Work-Integrated Learning (WIL) topic within the course at first year so that students may gain an appreciation of what the discipline requires.

Diversity
It is possible that student diversity (which covers a great range of differences including socio-economic, culture, experience, age, nationality) may intensify issues experienced by students as they transition into university. It is therefore important to recognise that within each cohort students' entering knowledge, aptitudes and attitudes are varied and to ensure that your teaching is as inclusive of all student cohorts as possible.

Strategies that may support diversity include:

  • allowing students to participate in self-reflective exercises so they may become aware their learning preferences, personality types, preferred team roles etc
  • development of online quizzes that reinforce important points in their topics that students can complete in their own time and at their own pace
  • including a range of different learning, teaching and assessment approaches and providing students with options to choose which they feel suit them best
  • providing opportunities for students to reflect on their own cultural background and
  • scaffolding academic skills, learning processes and assessments e.g.
    1. developing an assessment piece that allows students to produce an annotated bibliography
    2. providing students with feedback on the bibliography and the relevance of the resources they have chosen
    3. developing a second assessment piece that builds on the first and requires students to write an essay plan which includes well written topic sentences; identifies key ideas and is based on the feedback they received in relation to the annotated bibliography
    4. provide detailed feedback on the essay plan that will help the student write their final assignment and
    5. develop a final assessment piece that requires the students to write an essay based on the annotated bibliography and the essay plan which incorporates all the feedback they have received.

Design
When designing the first year curriculum attention needs to be paid to ensuring the curriculum is student-focussed and provides a foundation so that further learning may be scaffolded. It should be explicit and relevant - forming a coherent, integrated basis for all future learning.

Strategies that may support design include:

  • introducing students to an ePortfolio and encouraging its use across the entire degree program with activities built into the curriculum that promote reflection on the program's relevance to career, employability and to the discipline under study
  • enabling presentations from relevant industry representatives, the discipline's researchers and alumni to take place and that they are discussed within class time and
  • identifying and promoting linkages across first year topics so that students are aware of their integration and relevance to each other.

Engagement
Activities that engage students in innovative and collaborative ways rather than those that are focused on more traditional lecture and discussion and/or text based approaches have been shown to produce quality learning experiences.

Strategies that may support engagement include:

  • utilising team-based learning approaches in first year topics. Effective team-based approaches require that:
    1. teams are carefully formed and managed
    2. students understand that they are accountable for their own and the team's success
    3. team assignments are designed to promote learning and team development and
    4. feedback provided to all students is frequent and timely.
  • the modelling or role-playing of "professional conversations" by academic staff
  • formal mentoring schemes and Peer Assisted Study Sessions (PASS) schemes that are built into the curriculum
  • assigning academic mentors to all commencing students
  • the provision of dedicated physical and/or virtual spaces for first year students and
  • providing commencing students with a passport that aids in the demonstration of students acquisition of specific skills and proficiencies.

Assessment
A well designed first year curriculum can support a student's appreciation and understanding of higher education assessment. Effective assessment introduces students to a range of appropriate assessment practices and provides timely, well-articulated and constructive feedback on student progress to both students and other staff. The complexity of assessment may be increased as the student progresses through the program.

Strategies that may support assessment include:

  • developing a Feedback Strategy and communicating it to students. The strategy should support the students growth by
    • occurring in a timely fashion so that they may utilise comments in future work
    • providing insight into errors and misunderstandings
    • guiding students on how they can improve
    • including examples to demonstrate good and bad work
    • being tailored to the individual etc.
  • examples of the standards of work that is required to pass and excel may be made available to students and
  • demonstrating how work is assessed by correcting a piece of writing or mathematical problem in a large class using the track changes function in MS Word.

Evaluation and Monitoring
Mechanisms that monitor student engagement and performance and allow timely intervention in aid of students at risk of not succeeding need to be present in first year curriculum design.

Strategies that may support evaluation and monitoring include:

  • using attendance sheets so that absent students may be identified and followed up
  • academic staff learning student's names
  • requiring students to participate in peer mentoring programs
  • maintaining a log of online interactions (through FLO)
  • requiring all students enrolled in a course to participate in online tests that identify competence in math, English grammar or other prerequisite knowledge which is followed by face to face support in acquiring proficiency (rather than providing remedial support only after a problem is identified)
  • noting non-submission of assessment and following up with the student and
  • noting poor performance on early assessment and addressing this, in private, with the student.

Detailed information regarding Kift's transition pedagogy is available from the FYE Curriculum Design Symposium website.

For further discussion regarding the development of the transition pedagogy see: S. Kift. (2008). The next, great first year challenge: Sustaining, coordinating and embedding coherent institution-wide approaches to enact the FYE as "everybody's business". In 11th International Pacific Rim First Year in Higher Education Conference, An Apple for the Learner: Celebrating the First Year Experience, 2008, Hobart, 16. Retrieved August 20, 2009 from www.fyhe.qut.edu.au/past_papers/papers08/FYHE2008/content/pdfs/Keynote%20-%20Kift.pdf.

Inspiring Achievement in First Year University Students provides further information, resources and details of fora and workshops.