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The first year experience is ripe for reinvention.

Since a freshman experience consisting of a smorgasbord of disconnected general educational classes does little to engage or motivate new college students, a growing number of institutions have responded by instituting  “signature” first year experiences.

Honors programs and honors colleges have long offered such experiences, typically underpinned by a lecture and discussion course focusing on seminal literary, philosophic, political, and religious texts. But for too many freshmen, there is no coordinated, intellectually coherent plan of study – only a hodgepodge of disciplinary-based introductory level courses.

Not surprisingly, one outcome is a high attrition rate.

What are some alternatives? And are these alternatives scalable?

The innovations that various institutions are testing reflect certain larger institutional goals.

Goal 1: Fostering a Sense of Belonging
First year seminars – intensive, highly interactive, low enrollment courses – help students make the transition from high school to college and introduce them to the excitement of intellectual inquiry, discovery, analysis, and debate. Typically focusing on a particular topic, theme, or problem, these discussion-based classes allow students to get to know a professor and a cohort of peers while honing the argumentative writing, close reading, and critical thinking skills necessary for academic success. The larger goals are to increase freshmen’s access to expert faculty and to strengthen their writing, reasoning, and research skills.

Goal 2: Encouraging Breadth and Curricular Coherence
At UC Berkeley, “Big Ideas” courses bring together faculty from different disciplines to investigate a major topic, while“Course Threads” encourage undergraduates to explore themes (like human rights) that cut across disciplines and connect courses in various departments. Interdisciplinary clusters are team-taught or linked courses that address an issue from multiple perspectives. At UCLA, “Big Question” course clusters feature coordinated assignments, activities, and assessments, and emphasize inquiry and development of students’ written and oral communication skills. Such approaches encourage cross-disciplinary thinking while creating a more coherent, coordinated, and thematically unified first year experience in a format that allows more students to have personal contact with faculty.

Goal 3: Making Research an Integral Part of the First Year Experience
A freshman research experience typically consists of an integrated sequence of coursework and laboratory research in which students receive training in research methods, pursue authentic research collaboratively or individually under the direction of a mentor, and report their findings. A tiered approach to student support – using faculty, post-docs, graduate students, and near peers – makes such an innovative approach scalable and cost-effective. At the University of Texas at Austin, about 800 students a year enroll in 26 different research streams.

Goal 4: Building on Student Interests While Opening Windows into Majors and Careers
A meta major serves as a gateway into a cluster of careers, such as healthcare, business, or engineering, or into a community of interest, such as the arts, the humanities, or the social sciences, which share a foundation of common courses. Broader in scope than a departmental major, a meta major helps students identify their area of interest, exposes them to multiple faculty from diverse disciplines, and opens windows into a variety of majors and career options. Since the courses also meet general education requirements, they keep freshmen from accumulating unnecessary credit hours and expedite time to degree.

Goal 5: Treating Freshmen as Partners
This, in my view, should be our lodestar: Inverting the notion of students as consumers and instead treating first year students as creators of knowledge. Certainly, introducing students to laboratory research is one way to do this. But in my neck of the woods, the humanities, new technologies offer another possible solution, not as a way to transmit knowledge or to conduct drills, but as a canvas for creation. Here are twelve ways to integrate new technologies into a first year humanities course.

1. Annotating a Text on a Class Website

  • What better way to improve students’ close reading skills than to have them define unfamiliar terms, explicate difficult passages, and interpret challenging aspects of a text. One way to improve students’ close reading skills is to have them annotate a text: defining unfamiliar terms, explicating difficult passages, and offering interpretations of aspects of the text.
  • With plays, students can link particular monologues or dialogues to sample performances, indicating how various performers interpret the text.

2. Creating a Class Website

  • A class might create an online resource that examines multiple dimensions of a particular subject through capsule biographies, glossaries, annotated maps, photo essays, and other student-created resources.
  • My own students produced a project on “The Blues: From the Mississippi Delta to the South Side of Chicago,” while colleagues’ students created a website documenting the history of New York City and Chicago neighborhoods.
  • A variant involves creating a wiki, a collaboratively edited online encyclopedia, an annotated bibliography, a glossary, a collection of links, or a document repository.

3. Drawing a Concept Map

  • Students might collaboratively diagram the relationship between concepts and ideas.

4. Producing a Digital Story

  • Students combine audio, video, text, graphics, and music to produce digital documentaries and essays.
  • The most effective digital stories address a dramatic question, offer a distinct point of view, bring critical issues to life through rich multimedia, and are appropriately paced and economical in the use of detail.
  • Even simpler to create than a digital story is a podcast or an audio tour.

5. Conducting Field-Based Research

  • Students gather information outside the classroom, allowing them to apply theories, analytical techniques, and research methodologies in real-world settings.
  • A cellphone allows a student to take photographs, record interviews or oral histories, and communicate remotely.

6. Gamifying the Learning Experience

  • Gamification applies the elements of game play – including risk, reward, competition, graduated challenges, and role playing – to education as a way to engage and motivate students. Instead of chasing grades, students accumulate points and move across levels, separating reward from assessment.
  • An online version of “Reacting to the Past” – a gamified curriculum in which students assume roles informed by classic texts – might serve as a model of how technology can promote collaboration, strategizing, and debate. Drawing upon primary source documents, students draft speeches and position papers and debate issues over which people struggled in the past.

7. Engaging in Geovisualization

  • Students plot social phenomena or events on a map. By presenting information geographically, viewers can visualize the distribution of the phenomenon spatially.
  • Drawing on the writings of John Shelton Reed<>, students might map the South in terms of religion, racial composition, agriculture, naming patterns, and many other variables.

8. Creating an Infographic

  • Students construct infographics, presenting complex information in an easily digestible, visually compelling manner. Typically, an infographic includes charts, diagrams, and timelines to make a complicated topic readily understandable.

9. Producing an nGram

  • Google nGrams allow students to chart how frequently a word or phrase appears within published books over a selected period of time.
  • Students might, for example, plot the shifting usage of the words “liberty” and “freedom.”

10. Creating a Virtual Case Study

  • Students examine real-life scenarios that raise thought-provoking issues and require decision-making.  The cases require students to apply theory to practice and can result in a debate, a discussion, a trial, a public hearing, or a formal recommendation.

11. Designing a Virtual Museum Exhibition

  • Students act as curators and create their own online exhibition.

12.  Conducting a Virtual Tour

  • Students explore a particular place or a series of sites through text and visual images.

Steven Mintz is Executive Director of the University of Texas System's Institute for Transformational Learning and Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.

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