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The following instructional resources are from outside The University of Iowa and have been provided to help generate ideas and additional context for course design.
- How Other Institutions View First-Year Seminars
- Teaching First Year Students
- FYS Topics Found at Other Institutions
- Examples of FYS Syllabi and Lesson Plan Resources
- Teaching Honors Students
How Other Institutions View First-Year Seminars
The University of Michigan
“Perhaps the most important of these is the obligation to introduce students to the new demands, expectations and opportunities of a large research university. Students in a FYS are only a few months removed from high school, and the FYS classroom can be an important location for educating them about the very nature of a university. Faculty members often include assignments that help students locate themselves physically and professionally on campus (libraries, labs, support services, computing resources, media centers, museums etc.). Likewise, good seminars also attempt to help students find their intellectual footing, schooling them in techniques and familiar forms of reading (entire books, professional journal articles) and writing (lab reports, review articles, research papers)”
“Poorly designed seminars have tended to dig too deeply, too quickly into the discipline, to treat the course as an introduction to the field, or to focus narrowly on faculty interests at an advanced level. Placing content delivery over skills development has not proven successful in these courses! Nor has converting existing upper-level or graduate seminars, or standard lecture classes. First-Year Seminars are a form all their own.”
The University of Texas at Austin
“Signature courses allow UT Austin students to have a shared academic experience to start them off well in their undergraduate careers. For faculty, development of these courses invites members from all disciplines to play a role in laying the groundwork for successful thinking, learning, writing, and presenting, as well as to join in the critical conversation about the goals of undergraduate education. By bringing first-year students into regular contact with top faculty, we begin to weave them into the academic fabric of the university and solidify the expectation that students interact with faculty from across the schools and colleges.”
“Our mission is to create and foster well-rounded, well-educated global leaders. We work to create student leaders on campus who impact society from their very first semester. The four pillars, our primary tenets, come together to help us accomplish this mission. They are leadership development, undergraduate research, community and global experiences, and interdisciplinary academics.”
The University of Wisconsin-Madison
“These courses are small (20 students or less) so students can get to know their instructor and classmates and engage in meaningful discussions. First-year seminars are considered a high impact educational practice because they have been proven to help students succeed by orientating them to the academic expectations of the university and connecting them to the resources, opportunities, and people that can help them make the most of their college experience and achieve their personal and career goals. Students who participate in first-year seminars have consistently been found to be more academically successful (higher GPAs), more likely to return to college each year, and more likely to graduate than students who do not participate in first-year seminars (Hunter & Linder, 2005; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005)”
“Will this be on the test?” is, perhaps, a common question from first-year students, but why is it so common? Students who assume their job is to memorize course material and regurgitate it on exams are going to want to know what to memorize, of course. What leads students to have this belief about learning? And what do we do to contribute to this belief? If we want to help our first-year students move beyond memorization to deeper learning, how should we approach teaching them? What kind of “deep learning” are first-year students capable of achieving?”
Teaching First Year Students
Teaching students who are just out of high school and are in the transitional space of a first semester of college can be challenging. Students are adjusting to a new way of life and some are learning how to be a responsible adult on their own for the first time. This transition can be difficult as students work through harder classes, being on their own for the first time, and living as an autonomous adult. Several institutions like Vanderbilt have compiled resources surrounding teaching first year students.
Teaching First-Year Students. (2021). Retrieved 31 March 2021, from
Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching
There is a difference between first-semester students and second-semester students relevant to this discussion. First-semester students do tend to focus on daily life management out of necessity as they adapt to a new environment. Second-semester students, having largely adapted, are more able to focus their attention on self-questioning. It is possible that Visions, Vanderbilt’s extended orientation for first-years facilitated by older students and faculty members, helps students more quickly adapt to this new environment.
- Provide Feedback, Early & Often – First-year students making the transition from excelling in high school to meeting expectations in a college class can benefit from feedback, early and often in the semester. A student who must wait several weeks for the first test to get a sense of how she’s doing in the course might have trouble catching up to her peers.
- Pose Complex, Real-Life Problems – One strategy to help students move out of the dualism and multiplicity phases of Perry’s scheme of intellectual development is to help students encounter complex, real-life problems where right-or-wrong and “it’s all just opinion” thinking does not suffice. Helping students progress past these phases is challenging, but they won’t progress if they’re not given the opportunity to do so.
- Minimize Memorization – Setting instructional goals that can be met by memorization reinforces students’ naïve beliefs about learning. While some memorization is necessary in many courses, success in a course shouldn’t be possible solely through memory work
- Teach Critical Thinking – Most students can’t “pick up” critical thinking skills along the way in a course that focuses on content. They need explicit instruction in thinking critically. Model this process for your students, make clear the “rules” for critical thinking in your discipline, give them many opportunities to practice critical thinking and receive feedback on their efforts, move from simple, well-structured problems to complex, ill-structured ones, and do all this in class where you can help students sort it all out.
- Clarify Expectations for Learning – Since students have naïve ideas about knowledge and learning, instructors should clarify their expectations for student learning and performance. Help students understand what is expected of them via description, examples, and feedback on student work.
- Clarify Strategies for Learning – Not only do first-year students not understand what is expected of them, even when they are clear on those expectations, they don’t know how to go about meeting those expectations. Help students understand and practice approaches to learning in and out of the classroom—listening for key ideas in a lecture, learning from a discussion, reading for comprehension, preparing for exams—that will help them make the transition to the kinds of thinking expected of them as college students.
- Prepare for Emotional Reactions – Some topics will elicit intense emotional reactions from students, particularly those students who haven’t learned to analyze complex situations in objective ways. Provide opportunities, structure, and guidance for discussing these reactions, explain why you ask students to do what you ask of them, and offer feedback that is not only critical, but also supportive and encouraging.
- Teach to a Variety of Learning Styles – We often teach as we were taught, but we were rather exceptional compared to our student peers—we went on to graduate school in our chosen disciplines. Be sensitive to the variety of ways that students excel at learning and include a variety of types of learning experiences in your courses to reach the broadest group of students as you can.
- Have Students Write Letters to Their Successors – Ask students to write a letter to next year’s students focusing on advice for succeeding in your course. These letters help your current students reflect on and cement what they’ve learned, they help you learn about your students’ experiences in your course, and they help next year’s students adapt more quickly to the rigors of college studies
FYS Topics Found at Other Institutions
Many universities have various topics that they wish to introduce to students. Some institutions encourage students to explore topics outside of their areas of interest. This is useful for professors to know because instead of working with students who might have prior knowledge around their seminar, professors are working with students who are either trying something new, or pursuing something that interests them.
Examples of topics from other institutions include:
Black Women in Popular Culture held at the University of Michigan, taught by Lydia Kelow-Bennett
African American Foodways held at the University of Michigan, taught by Jessica Walker
American Culture in 13 Songs held at the University of Michigan, taught by Manan R. Desai
Orpheous Redex held at the University of Michigan, taught by Netta Berlin
Climate, Catastrophe, & Cultures: An Environmental History of Rome held at the University of Michigan, taught by Laura Motta
Rhetoric and Rights: What Else Did the 19th Amendment Do? held at the University of Michigan, taught by Alisse Suzanne Portnoy
The Literature of Passing held at the University of Michigan, taught by Aida Levy-Hussen
Digital Visual Culture held at the University of Michigan, taught by Sheila C. Murphy
Berlin Reborn: Past Legacies and New Visions in the New German Capital held at the University of Michigan, taught by Peter M. McIsaac
Architecture and Incarceration held at the University of Michigan, taught by Claire A. Zimmerman
The World Turned Upside Down: Revolutionary America held at the University of Michigan, taught by Alyssa Penick
Fake! Fraudulent Production in the Visual Arts, Literature, and Historical Documents held at the University of Michigan, taught by Gary M. Beckman
Misogyny and Dehumanization held at the University of Michigan, taught by Ishani Maitra
Environment, Religions, Spirituality and Sustainability held at the University of Michigan, taught by Rolf T. Bouma
Games, Gambling and Coincidences held at the University of Michigan, taught by Yaacov Ritov
From Stars to Stones held at the University of Michigan, taught by Youxue Zhang
Ocean Resources held at the University of Michigan, taught by Jeffrey C. Alt
Using Cognitive Neuroscience to Help You Succeed in College held at the University of Michigan, taught by Cindy Ann Lustig
An Introduction to Hackers, Pranksters and Whistleblowers held at the University of Michigan, taught by Muzammil M. Hussain
Student Voting held at the University of Michigan, taught by Edie N. Goldenberg
Life Stories of Global Feminist Activists held at the University of Michigan, taught by Zhen Wang
Crossroads in Medicine held at Baylor University
Environmental Ethics and Human Health held at Baylor University
From Memex to Youtube: Media Studies held at Baylor University
Getting Away with Murder in Classical Athens held at Baylor University
Language, Thought, Identity, Action held at Baylor University
Philosophy of C.S. Lewis held at Baylor University
Examples of FYS Syllabi and Lesson Plan Resources
From Vanderbilt University
Riviere, J., Picard, D., & Coble, R. (2014). Syllabus Design. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved March 2021, https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/syllabus-design/.
This guide helps instructors create their syllabus with several things in mind like, tone, contents, policies and resources to help instructors compile an effective and useable syllabus.
Beyond the Essay: Making Student Learning Visible in the Humanities by Nancy Chick
Chick, N. (2013). Beyond the Essay: Making Student Thinking Visible in the Humanities. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved March 2021, from
“We asked faculty to ask themselves the most important questions they could about student learning in their courses. How did they know that their students were learning? Did the students’ learning promise to last? What did teachers really know about the processes of their students’ learning, especially what we call the ‘intermediate processes,’ or the processes that experienced or expert learners employ habitually in their work but that are often tacit or absent in instruction. By asking these questions, faculty members discovered early on that what most interested–or eluded–them about their students’ learning could not be answered simply by looking at regularly assigned course work.” (Bernstein & Bass, 2005, p. 39)
This resource explores how to structure visual activities like concept maps, word clouds, word webs etc.
Active Learning Classrooms by Derek Bruff, found on the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching website
This resource covers the concept of “Active Learning Classrooms”, which are particularly relevant for small classroom settings like seminars. With the smaller class size it is much easier for professors to engage in active learning through a unique, hands on experience that centers around engagement.
This resource from Vanderbilt teaching center covers topics such as how to start discussions in the classroom, the basics of leading a discussion, and strategies and tools to help discussion in a variety of classroom settings.
Teaching Honors Students
Texas Tech University Honors College
“Honors classes should not involve substantial extra work when compared with a non-Honors class. The emphasis in Honors classes should be on exploring the subject matter a little more thoroughly. The goal of an Honors education is greater breadth and more enrichment.”
The University of Northern Iowa
“You will find that honors students have a high capacity for learning. However, it is important not to assume they will be exceptionally advanced simply by nature of their honors standing. Students may need refreshers on basic, introductory material just as their counterparts do. Some may have writing, speaking or study skills that need to be improved over time. As a former president of the National Collegiate Honors Council stated, “we are in the business of creating honors students, not simply providing services for exceptional students.”
“What is an honors course? A typical answer is that honors classes aren’t harder; they simply focus on different styles of learning. Another common refrain is that the courses don’t require quantitatively more work, but instead provide qualitatively superior learning experiences. If an honors course isn’t just a harder class that requires more work, what is it? Honors courses have the following characteristics:
- Emphasis is placed on student participation and initiative (e.g., extensive discussion rather than primarily lecturing/note taking, students are responsible for presenting selected information, professor solicits student input on course direction)
- Active learning is encouraged through discussion, debate, writing, experiments, primary research, etc.
- Focus is placed on the development of oral and written communication skills
- Issues are explored in greater depth and breadth, making interdisciplinary connections whenever possible
- Course content, teaching style, or method of evaluation differs from a traditional section of the same course
- Expectations are placed at a level which makes the experience rigorous and intellectually stimulating”
From Faculty at the University of Northern Iowa on Teaching Honor’s Students
- “I discovered that teaching an honors course was not like teaching an upper division seminar in my department. Though they are bright, I could not assume the same kind of common base knowledge, and so I had to make appropriate adjustments in my plans for the course.”
- “I think that the honors classes are extremely well suited for experimentation. In a regular class when I try something new pedagogically, I don’t know when it doesn’t work out very well if the problem is with the idea or with the abilities of that particular crop of students. With the honors students, if a bright idea doesn’t work the problem is more likely to rest with weaknesses in the idea than with the students. I tried several new classroom activities this semester with the honors students that I would never have felt able to risk in a regular class because I would have felt that failure was likely. The ones that worked really well I am going to implement in simplified form in my regular classes.”
- “The main difference with discussion was that students could actually take an idea and run with it. Discussions could be developed and nurtured. In addition, students were not concerned that they would lose status in front of their peers if they actually expressed involvement with the subject matter. Therefore, our discussions were animated and very engaging to all.”
The University of Kentucky Lewis Honors College
This resource has examples of Honors syllabi.
The University of Missouri
“Honors courses should create an atmosphere of intellectualism, which we define simply as the love of learning, contemplation, and analysis. Students should be encouraged to think deeply about the subjects covered in the course and be given ample opportunity to express their thoughts in discussions and writing assignments.”
Notably, this resource also provides guides for developing an honors course at an appropriate level.
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