Engaging Students in the First Year: Challenges and Strategies

Image: Students in lecture room

As another academic year begins, our attention invariably turns to some of the challenges facing students who are starting at Griffith University for the first time. The challenges, though, are not restricted to students. Academic and support staff, too, face many challenges as they determine the most effective ways of connecting with first year students. Griffith has taken on some of these challenges through the framing of the Succeeding@Griffith initiative. This student lifecycle approach encapsulates much about what constitutes best practice in learning, teaching and student support practices in the first year.

To enhance student engagement with learning in the first year, I propose five areas of best practice. I briefly elaborate on these here, but a full paper, including further strategies, is available online under my GIHE staff profile: (Krause, 2006: 'On being strategic about the first year').

1. Curriculum: Strategic approaches to the first year curriculum
Coherent and holistic approaches to planning, delivering and reviewing the first year curriculum are foundational to success in the first year. Some strategies for good practice in first year curriculum design include:
  • A shared understanding of how to integrate assessment and feedback structures into the curriculum so as to enhance student learning. In other words, shifting from 'assessment of learning' to 'assessment for learning' in the first year.
2. Classroom: Strategic classroom practice in the first year
Once the curriculum has been developed, the classroom becomes the primary avenue for its delivery. The 'classroom' may be bounded by physical walls or virtual space. It may be on the campus or in the field. Strategies for enhancing classroom practices in the first year include:
  • Create an environment in which students feel that they are known and belong.
  • Use early and continuous assessment and timely feedback.
  • Ensure that active and experiential learning are part of the curriculum, including work-integrated learning.
  • Plan opportunities for students to learn from and with peers.
  • Use classroom interactions to develop intercultural competencies.
  • Integrate information and communication technologies (ICTs) into the curriculum to enhance learning.
3. Colleagues: Strategic approaches to support for and from colleagues working with first years
Make a point of working with and learning from colleagues in a range of ways. These include:
  • Actively build networks of 'first year champions' across the institution.
  • Work with and learn from colleagues across disciplines and beyond the institution.
4. Campus: Strategic approaches to first year life on campus
The quality of campus life and experiences is a critical 'C' in the first year good practice toolkit. Some strategies include:
  • A comprehensive system of induction to university life for incoming first year students. If students see the campus as a place to connect with people, to find support, to access services, to study and learn, then they will be more likely to make the effort to engage with the campus.
  • Consider the virtual dimension of 'campus' and the engagement it affords.
5. Community: Strategic approaches to first years in the community
The final 'C' of good practice takes learning into the community setting. First year students need to be integrated into the university learning community. A sense of belonging is conducive to enhanced engagement, satisfaction with learning and commitment to study. As part of building a wider learning community that extends beyond the campus, the value of authentic learning in real-world contexts is widely acknowledged. The challenge for academics is to support students in taking the scholarship of classroom learning into the community and to return to the classroom with real-world learning.

Kerri-Lee Krause (PhD), Director GIHE

Read the full article On Being Strategic About the First Year (PDF 535k)