What a Difference a Year Makes!

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Pat Ford
Program Director
Martin Methodist College

Laura Morefield
Program Director
Martin Methodist College

First Year Experience at Martin Methodist College looked really good on paper—it was evidence-based with substantive student learning outcomes but somehow or another did not really seem to produce the results that it should have. After an unexpected change in leadership and a year of study, FYE faculty concluded that no, in its current configuration, the program was solid but it did not fit the needs of the demographics of our first year students; there was more emphasis on academic discourse and less on “how to do college.” FYE was not addressing the transition from high school to college for first-gen students from largely rural and poor communities.

One of the first changes to FYE was to replace the “common reader” with a very common reader that nobody was reading: the college catalog. The FYE students used the catalog in a variety of ways, from day one, including during opening week sessions and a “Catalog Question of the Day” at the beginning of each class period. “What do I do if I want to drop a class?” “What is drop-add?” “What does TTh mean on the schedule?” What is FERPA? FAFSA?” What??”—all serious questions that can lead to expensive lessons for those who are learning the language of college.

A second change that led to an immediate change in student behavior was the implementation of the philosophy to learn by doing, so instead of faculty telling students about campus resources, a whole class took a “field trip” to the support offices on campus. In the past these offices had come to meet with each class, inviting students to visit on their own. Now, though, students physically walked up the hill to the Clinic, down the hill to the Library, across the campus to the Student Resource Center, etc. These visits ensured that students not only knew what services were offered, but where they were located; more importantly, they met staff and were able to put faces with the office and its services. Student use of support services increased dramatically, especially in the library, the Clinic and the campus life house.

A third change focused on incorporating college students into the college community, of course, but also into the community at large. So the FYE program implemented a problem-based learning assignment and a service project. The semester-long, problem-based learning assignment began when students arrived on campus and concluded with a presentation during finals week. Each class was tasked with discovering a “problem” on campus or in the community. Once the project was identified, the group was charged with researching the solution to the problem and presenting their findings at the end of the semester.

Another component added to FYE was a day of service during opening week. All first year students, their faculty, some staff and about 100 other students walked “Into the Streets” with bright red “town and gown” tee shirts to engage in service projects across the community.

This project was invaluable in so many ways, from helping FYE groups bond to acquainting students with their community to emphasizing the importance of giving back.

Student evaluations told us we were doing something right and retention from fall to spring increased almost 10% over the previous year. Students told us they felt at home, felt a part of things, and many declared that FYE was their favorite class.

FYE will implement the following data-driven changes in the 2019-20 school year: A Peer Academic Leader (PAL) tip of the week, trending topic of the week and cultural/educational trips. The PAL tip of the week will be PAL-driven, based on a topic that the PAL in each FYE class wishes that s/he knew during their freshman year. The trending topic of the week will help teach cultural awareness by keeping students abreast of the news and discussing it each week.

We are also looking to implement cultural/educational trips for the FYE students, large numbers of whom have never travelled out of the local area. These day trips are designed to allow students an opportunity to expand their horizons, to experience different cultural or educational events such as a visit to the Tennessee Capitol Building, a play or concert at The Tennessee Performing Arts Center, a museum, a formal dinner. And very practically, these trips also allow faculty and staff another avenue to build relationships with first-year students outside of the classroom.

Assessment data from the 2018-19 school year showed that students have a better understanding of “how to be a college student.” We are seeing a big difference in the freshman class. They seem to be very knowledgeable about campus resources and offices, how and where to ask for help, and, yes, how to use their catalog. The FYE program 2.0 seems a good fit for our students; it is certainly student-oriented and will continue to serve as a clear resource for students transitioning to college.

 


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