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Navigating the college experience can be difficult for new students, but it can be especially challenging for students who are the first in their families to go to college. Our campus is full of resources, but it isn’t always clear when to use them and for what. Of all those resources, faculty are the best positioned to make a difference in the lives of our students. Read on for small ways to get students what they need.
#1 : What and Why are office hours?
Office hours can serve many purposes for you and your course, but students aren’t always eager to attend. For many students, especially first-generation students, going to office hours feels like “getting help” from your teacher–essentially an admission of failure. Linda Nilson in Teaching at Its Best (2003) has identified three main areas to consider, making sure you have the
- right place
- right time
- right encouragement.
Encouragement is the most critical issue, particularly for first generation students who may not know what office hours are or why they are important (Collier and Morgan, 2008). All students benefit from knowing that office hours are a comfortable time to discuss course content and get extra support for any challenges that they are facing. You may also want to be flexible with your time and location–try virtual “office hours” in the evening, or have one week a month where you have “office hours” in Trabant or a campus common area like Bleecker Street Cafe at Morris Library.
But communication is the key. Try providing students with extra clarity about your expectations for office hours. Do you want them to bring a problem set to ask specific questions about? Do you have a topic for that week you’ll focus your time on? Are you expecting each one of them to visit within the first 2 weeks? Once you set your expectations, share them in writing and verbally multiple times throughout the semester, and keep the encouragement coming.
WHEN WE SAY FIRST GENERATION…
There are actually several ways of defining “First Generation” but according to NASPA (The National Association of Student Personnel Administrators ) most institutions define a First Generation student as: neither parent or guardian completed a four year college degree.
#2 : Reframing asking for help
All students struggle to ask for help when they need it. For many students, especially first-generation students, there can be an additional challenge: imposter syndrome.
When students feel like they “don’t belong” in the classroom or on campus, they may be even less likely to reach out for help. Asking for help, for someone experiencing Imposter Syndrome, is akin to admitting that you don’t know anything and shouldn’t be here. For these students, and for all your students, you may want to reframe what asking for help looks like.
For example, make all students responsible for submitting clarifying questions, particularly before an exam or assignment. Ask everyone to turn in 1-2 questions (digitally or in paper) as a way to earn participation credit. Doing this regularly creates a classroom atmosphere wherein asking questions is expected, normal, and applies to everyone.
Don’t want to add an extra task? Try simple, clear words of encouragement. Tell your students, regularly, that perfection is not the goal. Consider pointing to resources such as the Writing Center, tutoring services, or the library reference desk in your syllabus to reinforce that seeking support outside of the classroom (as well as within it!) is a normal part of the college experience.
#3 : Connect students to tutoring and study groups
Freshmen and first-generation students are often shy to make friends within their courses, and in particular, first-generation students can feel isolated from their peers. For this reason, it is a good idea to strongly encourage study groups within a large course. You may want to incentivize study group attendance as part of participation, or require the creation of group study guides (e.g. via Google Docs) prior to exams.
For even more support, the Office of Academic Enrichment (www.ae.udel.edu) has a variety of ways that students can strengthen their skills and comprehension in your course. Many first-generation students are unfamiliar with tutoring, or assume that it comes with a fee. With a minimum of 5 students working together in a study group, they can request a tutor to attend their session and help them review materials at no charge. Or your class may lend itself to one of the OAE’s Peer-Assisted Study Session (PASS) formats:
- Level 1 includes weekly open drop-in sessions in demanding courses led by one of our tutors.
- Level 2 tutors are trained to facilitate group activities, attend the class and meet with the professor regularly, offering 2-3 free weekly review sessions.
Other options include extensive drop-in hours in 3 on-campus locations (also offering a wide range of subjects) and low-cost individual tutoring facilitated through the online TutorFind Directory.
#4 : Juggling it All
A recent mixed-methods study of first-generation college students (“First-generation student success: a landscape analysis of programs and services at four-year institutions,” NASPA and the Suder Institute, 2018) revealed some of the challenges they have in managing all of their commitments both in and out of the classroom.
Many of these students have full-time or part-time jobs, they care for family members, and are partially financially responsible for siblings or other household members. While navigating these challenges often means they are adept at multitasking, it can also mean that there is a significant toll on maintaining a balance.
As an instructor, you can help in small ways by making due dates and timelines as clear as possible from day one. Highlight all due dates on the syllabus, remind students frequently of deadlines, and scaffold your assignments so that students can do smaller pieces of work on a regular schedule. If you assign group work in your course, offer your students an opportunity to do a skills-assessment such that first-generation students can feel like they bring their unique strengths to their group.
#5: Academic Language
Students whose parents and perhaps grandparents have attended college have various opportunities to soak up the culture of higher education: its specialized language, the subtle verbal and nonverbal cues of the community, and knowledge of higher education’s social and political systems. First-generation students may not have this advantage prior to arriving on campus.
One major hurdle is terminology. Just as you wouldn’t assume that a freshman student knows what “encaustic” or “the Avogadro constant” is, don’t assume that they are familiar with campus terms either. Be sensitive to the fact that terms like “intramural”, “GPA”, “bursar,” or “course reserves” might be unfamiliar, and take care to spell out acronyms. If you use Canvas, you can always include hyperlinks to the specific campus office that deals with a concept (e.g. the registrar) so that students can find the information that they need quickly and without fear of embarrassment.
We’re First Student Group (must be a student to log in): We’re First is a registered student organization offered through the University Student Centers that is inclusive to first generation students and to those interested in supporting first generation students at the University of Delaware. First generation means that they are the first in their family to attend college. This initiative strives to create a web of communications that will ensure that all participants are given the necessary resources to SOAR (supportive, open-minded, aware, responsible) by creating an environment that is open-minded, inclusive, and functional for students who are first generation. More information can be found on UD’s engagement portal, Student Central.
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