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Grad assistant Remi Douah and assistant professor Susan Staats with students in freshman seminar, "Math  in Cultural Context."

From left, graduate assistant Remi Douah and assistant professor Susan Staats give students one-on-one attention in the freshman seminar, "Math in Cultural Context."

Freshman seminars poise first-year students for success

By Suzy Frisch

Published on July 20, 2004

The transition from high school to college is a tough one. For many students, it's the first time they've lived on their own, they are adjusting to more demanding classes, and they have to figure out how to navigate a big institution like the University of Minnesota. Many freshmen have found that taking a freshman seminar is a great way to ease into college life. With class sizes of 15 to 18 students, the seminars are taught by tenured or tenure-track professors in topics of their own choosing. Being in a small class with all freshmen, under the guidance of an attentive professor, has proven to help first-year students acclimate to life at the University and set them up for success. For General College (GC) freshman Fleanisha Wells of St. Paul, the small class size of her first-year seminar, Women of Mathematics, gave her the chance to really get to know fellow students. After class was over, she and her classmates would have dinner together at Sanford Hall, and they often e-mailed each other with questions when class assignments were due. "I really know these people more than those in my other classes. We joke around a lot and we know each other's personalities," says Wells. The University started the freshman seminar format in 1998 as a pilot program and then launched it full speed the following year. There is enough state funding to offer seminars to about one-third of freshmen, and the University would love to expand the program. That's because students reap so many benefits from the seminars.

"This course is really different than my other classes," says Brianne Lindsay. "It was more about how to develop my thoughts and opinions on things rather than teaching me how to do a math equation or write a paper."

Laura Coffin Koch, Morse-Alumni Distinguished Teaching Professor and the associate vice provost who coordinates the freshmen seminar program, has researched the effect of freshman seminars on students. She found that students who take the seminars have a higher retention rate and stronger grade point average than those who don't. Faculty-student interactions, which typically don't happen in the large classes most first-year students take, are an important reason why. While students really enjoy the one-on-one attention they get from their freshman seminar professors, faculty who teach first-year seminars get a lot of satisfaction from leading them as well. This fall, Koch taught Women of Mathematics, her first freshman seminar, and found it so rewarding she wishes she had done it before. Like her student, Wells, Koch got to know the freshman seminar students better than students in her other classes and has been able to watch them take the great leap from high school student to college scholar. "These students were very quiet in the beginning. I'd ask questions and their answers were short and shallow," Koch says. "As the semester went on, they took more responsibility for their learning, they were more active in discussion, and their writing improved." Jill Barnum, Morse-Alumni Distinguished Teaching Professor of literature in GC, has been teaching freshman seminars for the past four years, and believes that students gain a lot from the seminars. With only 12 freshmen in her War and Peace in Vietnamese Literature seminar, "They can't get lost in the crowd. They really are invested, and they can't expect the class to spark an interest in them," she says. "They have to develop it on their own. It's like students are the co-teachers of the class and they are all learners together." One of Barnum's students, Jason Griffiths-Johnson of Duluth, felt very challenged by the seminar format, but that challenge turned the lit class into his favorite. "I've never been a strong reader and we had a lot of reading material," he says. "I learned a lot in class, probably more than in any other class I'm taking. It gave a totally different perspective, which was pretty useful. I never had an idea of how Vietnam viewed the Vietnam War." Brianne Lindsay, a GC freshman from Andover, Minnesota, didn't sign up for a freshman seminar on purpose, but she's glad she wound up in one. The class, The Art of Aging, definitely helped her adjust from high school to college life. Not only did the seminar open her eyes about issues surrounding elderly people, it also taught her a new way of thinking. "This course is really different than my other classes," Lindsay says. "It was more about how to develop my thoughts and opinions on things rather than teaching me how to do a math equation or write a paper." It also helped Lindsay that Professor Robert Yahnke's casual format gave her classmates time to check in with each other on how they were coping as freshmen. Students became friends and offered support to each other. "We got a chance to meet and sit down and discuss things and see where other people were coming from. We talked about things that were relevant to the class and things that weren't, and how we all are dealing with them," Lindsay notes. "It was very nurturing and positive." "I've had a wonderful experience teaching The Art of Aging," says Yahnke, a General College professor of film and the arts. "I'm changing one person at a time. I want to give students the opportunity to transform themselves in any way possible. I see myself as a facilitator, as a change agent. The reason I'm so positive about this is I've seen students rise to the occasion." In fact, students in Yahnke's class liked his seminar so much they insisted he hold a final class in December when he had planned to leave that week free for students to work on their final projects. How often do students request more classes, not fewer?

Excerpted from an original article in the Winter 2004 issue of Access, the General College magazine.

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