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Focusing on the First Semester

A student’s first semester matters more than you might think.

November 5, 2019
 
 

Often, our beginning foretells our ending.

At Hunter College, which Princeton Review calls the crown jewel of the City University of New York system, the best predictor of whether students will graduate or drop out is their record during their first semester. A low GPA or low credit accumulation during that semester can serve as a red flag for what lies ahead.

To be sure, there are some warning signs even before these students enroll. Their high school GPA and College Board scores, and whether they took four years of math and English, offer some clues about potential challenges. But as my colleagues Michael Steiper and Arad Namin have found, these warning signs are not nearly as determinative as first-semester performance.

The challenge is to identify those struggling students as early as possible and intervene proactively.

Faculty are indispensable partners in helping these students succeed. Many instructors regard their students as adults who must assume responsibility for their own behavior. Mandating or even monitoring attendance strikes many as patronizing and paternalistic. Asking faculty to institute an early diagnostic exam or paper strikes some as a violation of the sanctity of the classroom.

And yet, if at-risk students are to succeed, we must reach out to them promptly.

There are other ways to trigger early alerts. Some institutions monitor card swipes, online activity and library visits. We know, for example, that students who fail to view their class syllabus before the first class are especially risk-prone.

But early alerts are only of value if the students follow up by meeting with an adviser or a tutor at a learning center. And at-risk students are notorious for failing to take steps that might get them back on track.

Still, getting students help can make a big difference. At Hunter, we know that even a single visit to the advising center or a learning center can adjust students’ mind-set, improve their study skills and dramatically alter academic outcomes.

Incentives -- such as extra-credit points for going to an advising or learning center -- can help, even though successful students are the ones most likely to take advantage of these opportunities. Some institutions go further, for instance, by requiring students to co-enroll in a supplemental instruction section or even relocating them in a smaller section of a class. A handful extend the semester for students who need additional time to achieve command over the course material.

Is this paternalistic? Perhaps. Is it ill-advised? No.

In some instances, the problem lies less with the individual student than with an instructor’s grading practices. A growing number of institutions now monitor variance in grading across sections of gateway courses. Certainly, there is a danger that scrutinizing grade distributions can threaten academic rigor, but it can also alert department chairs to instructors whose grades are far out of line with their peers’.

Disparities in grading, in turn, can signal a failure to effectively motivate students, deploy engaging teaching practices and successfully scaffold student learning.

We shouldn’t be surprised that the first semester looms so large in determining students’ academic future. Early failures are profoundly demoralizing, devastating a student’s self-confidence and denting their sense of belonging and connection. Academic momentum falters, self-doubt intensifies and performance spirals downward.

For many students, the first semester is the decisive, defining moment in determining academic success. If we admit a student, we have a moral obligation to act on this fact. We need to take pre-emptive steps to help these students achieve success.

Steven Mintz is senior adviser to the president of Hunter College for student success and strategic initiatives.

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