Missed Opportunities in First-Year Seminars

Jennifer Latino, the director of first-year experience at Campbell University, recently shared with us three ways to help peer educators succeed; in a follow-up interview, she spoke with us to identify some frequently missed opportunities in the design and execution of first-year seminars.

Latino highlighted the need to:

  • Review your own institution's student data, rather than relying on trends or on practices from peer institutions
  • Invite parents' participation in the first-year student experience in meaningful ways
  • Involve faculty more directly in the first-year seminar

Keep the Focus on the Unique Needs of Your Current Students

"It's easy to get too comfortable with the first-year seminar," Latino warns. "Often, when I'm speaking with representatives of institutions that have had seminars in place for 10 or 15 years, the missed opportunity is that institutions continue to focus on the same learning outcomes they identified years ago, without pausing to check if those outcomes still respond to the needs of their current students. It's also a risk to attend too closely to what your peer institutions are doing -- without checking that against the needs of your own student body."

Take a look at what your seminar spends the most time on -- are those topics and challenges still the most relevant to your students? Are the learning outcomes of your first-year seminar targeting behaviors that your students still exhibit? Review your current NSSE data, your current student demographics, and the challenges students at your institution have faced in the past several years.

For example, the design of Campbell University's current first-year seminar is based on the past four years of longitudinal data.

Are your retention goals realistic? What parts of your retention efforts are the most or least effective?  Which efforts are the most cost-effective? Knowing the answers to these questions will help you assess your retention programming and identify opportunities for improvement.

Join us in Orange County, CA on Oct. 16-18, 2017 for a conference designed to help you understand the four main areas of retention measurement to focus on: institutional outcomes, performance outcomes, learning outcomes and the ROI of retention initiatives.

Parents and the First Year

"Most of us spent the last 10 to 15 years labeling parents -- calling them "helicopter parents," for example -- and while doing so, we have missed something critical about this generation of students."
Jennifer Latino, Campbell University

"Many college students want their parents involved in the first year," Latino adds. "The NSSE results show us that students feel their parents are involved to an appropriate extent, and that they value their parents' input and look to them for support and advice. Help parents be as informed as possible."

For example, has your instituton considering engaging students' family members in the following ways?

  • In conversations about academic advising
  • Distributing a parents' newsletter with information about campus life and timely alerts (e.g., upcoming registration, financial aid, and add/drop deadlines)
  • Offering an orientation for parents that goes beyond just financial aid information and a session on "letting go" -- an orientation crafted to provide them with information about the academic and life development challenges their children may face, and specific ways that parents can support the students

"The parents' first-year experience should mirror the work you are doing with the first-year student experience," Latino adds. "As you prepare your students for their first year, invest in having well-prepared parents, too. Often, a parent will recognize that a student is struggling long before you do. Give them the resources and the information to make a difference."


Marjorie Savage, parent program director at the University of Minnesota and author of the book You're on Your Own (But I'm Here if You Need Me) (Simon & Schuster, 2009), suggests that parents can be invited to play a key role in the student's college experience -- if that role and the relationship between parent and college is clearly communicated and managed well. Savage offers tips for:

  • Setting specific outcomes for parent involvement
  • Designing an effective parent orientation
  • Providing online tutorials that inform parents about student support services and other institutional resources, as well as how parents can assist students constructively

Building Partnership Between Faculty and Student Affairs

"Ultimately, what matters most is developing and enhancing partnerships between academic affairs and student affairs. It's crucial that faculty are involved in first-year seminars and first-year orientation. We share the same goals. There is no "our" camp and "your" camp."
Jennifer Latino, Campbell University

Latino notes two high-potential opportunities in which increased faculty involvement can improve the quality and effectiveness of the first-year seminar:

  • Involve faculty in planning the seminar; invite faculty to sit on the advisory board and invite the perspective and questions of those faculty who teach first-year students
  • Have faculty and student affairs professionals co-teach the first-year seminar
  • Or, have faculty teach first-year seminars focused on their particular disciplines; for example, an engineering faculty member could teach a first-year seminar with an engineering focus, or a business professor could teach a first-year seminar specifically for students planning to major in business

"Sometimes student affairs professionals assume that faculty will not want to teach the first-year seminar," Latino notes. "But it's actually not a difficult case to make. Be direct with prospective faculty about the benefits of involvement in the seminar -- not only student success and increased persistence, but also the opportunity to present their discipline and their field to students early."


In our April, 2011 article "Student Success: A Team Effort," James Cook, co-editor (with Christopher Lewis) of the book Student and Academic Affairs Collaboration: The Divine Comity (NASPA, 2007) and past vice president of student services at Laramie County Community College, reviews:

  • The most significant barriers to effective collaboration
  • The role of division leaders in developing a shared commitment to student success
  • Hiring and training practices that support cross-division partnership