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Designing a Successful Introduction to the Major Course

Curriculum Planning and Development Students

Designing a Successful Introduction to the Major Course

Imagine first-year and sophomore students interviewing faculty members associated with their major, discussing possible research projects and sharing common passions. Picture these students attending student organizational meetings, learning about services available to them, assessing their “fit” for their major, and reflecting upon their professional goals. These are some outcomes that faculty in the special education program at Northern Illinois University (NIU) envisioned when we developed the one-credit Introduction to the Major course four years ago.

Like most majors, our undergraduates largely take general education courses during their first two years and therefore are not well connected with coursework, student organizations, or faculty associated with their major. This is an unfortunate disconnect. Interactions with faculty during the first year of college positively impact persistence (Roksa & Whitley, 2017). Similarly, social and academic connectedness to a university increase learning and engagement outcomes (Jorgenson et al., 2018). Further, more than half of our undergraduate majors are first-generation or transfer students, represent diverse backgrounds, or have a disability. These students especially must feel a sense of belonging to the university and need differentiated supports to succeed and feel connected (Museus et al., 2017). To address these issues, the special education faculty developed a one credit course to connect first- year, sophomore, and transferring special education majors to program, department, college, and university services, supports, and activities.

Students typically take the one-credit required course during their first or second year (or the first semester after they transfer to NIU). The university catalog course description reads, “Exploration of the special education major at NIU with an emphasis on learning about faculty, resources, student organizations, advising, requirements, and the program of studies. The course has no prerequisites.” We offer one section in the fall and spring semesters with 20–30 students enrolled in each.

The instructor grades frequent short assignments on the traditional A–F scale using clearly defined point systems and rubrics. She typically teaches the course in a hybrid format. Guest speakers include the program academic advisor; the student teaching coordinator; and directors of student services, the office of student engagement and experiential learning (OSEEL), and the College of Education’s educate and engage office. Students are graded on these assignments:

  • Documented meeting with program advisor: Students schedule an appointment with their academic advisor and document the meeting.
  • Documented attendance at one student organization meeting or event: Students attend and document their attendance at least one meeting from an approved list.
  • Interview paper with a faculty or staff member: Students select a faculty or staff member to interview and write a short reflection paper about what they learned.
  • Completed “passport activities”: Students complete and document various activities requiring them to become acquainted with people or places of interest (or both) within the buildings where most special education courses are held. Some activities include meeting with the department chair; going to the clinical office and meeting the clinical coordinator; locating the assistive technology lab and asking lab attendants questions; finding the College of Education Learning Center (where computers, study tables, coffee, and microwaves are available) and taking a selfie; drawing a map from the advising office to another student lounge with vending machines; and going to the faculty office suite, asking a faculty member they do not know a question, and documenting the response.
  • Choice activity: Students become acquainted with university services, resources, or programs; select one resource or office of interest; and write a paper describing its services. Some choices include the counseling center, tutoring services, writing supports, services for those who speak or write English as a second language, supports for students with disabilities, faculty-student research opportunities, and various College of Education services and opportunities. Another choice is to attend an upper-level special education course.
  • Goal- setting/self-assessment paper: Students complete a learning and study strategies assessment and write a self-assessment and goal-setting paper describing their strengths, areas in need of improvement, and short and long-term goals during their time at NIU and in the future.
  • Online modules: Students complete and document online modules associated with dispositions and academic integrity, an introduction to the educative Teacher Performance Assessment (edTPA), requirements for the special education major, teacher licensure in our state, mandatory reporting, and school safety operations.
  • Assistive technology lab and checkout: Students visit the assistive technology lab and document their use of various assistive technology tools.
  • One to one chat session with the course instructor: Students schedule a time to meet individually with the instructor to discuss their field experiences, goals, and progress toward those goals.
  • Class participation: Students earn points for attendance and class participation.

Additionally, the instructor overviews the special education program and shares what students can expect once they enter their professional courses. Students learn about courses offered each semester and meet faculty who typically teach them. They learn about faculty areas of expertise and research interests and are encouraged to contact and interview faculty whose expertise aligns with their interests. Students are also introduced to professional organizations, free professional development opportunities, and professional conferences to attend.

Data from course evaluations, focus groups, student interviews, and course surveys indicate that students benefit from the course and that the course is meeting its objectives. Students state that they enjoy the activities and guest speakers, find course information valuable, and feel more connected to their major and faculty than they did before taking the course. One student who recently took the course wrote,

This course provides students with valuable information, extra resources, and guest speakers to learn and feel comfortable with the program. This course allowed me to feel more motivated and inspired to continue in the special education program.

A recent graduate shared that

SESE 230 was an excellent course for knowing about the Special Education program at NIU and so much more. Some of the benefits I gained by completing this course included: (1) Finding out about the Learning Center where I could spend time between classes to study, charge my devices, and get much-needed coffee; (2) Learning about many programs and services available to me; and (3) Gaining more confidence in my abilities. I was introduced to the NIU Office of Student Engagement and Experiential Learning (OSEEL), and I received a grant allowing me to present on research at an international conference.

The course continues to change on the basis of student suggestions, teacher licensure requirement modifications, and the availability of additional university resources and offerings.

Based on our experience with the course, we recommend the following:

  • Determine whether students’ schedules can accommodate an additional one-credit course that will not pose a disadvantage or negatively affect graduation requirements.
  • Be purposeful in assignments. Emphasize connections with faculty, organizations, and relevant services as well as self-reflection of entry into the major.
  • Invite guest speakers who can add expertise and variety to the course.
  • Be purposeful in selecting the instructor. The instructor sets the tone for the course and the major and should be knowledgeable about the major and be student-focused.
  • Consider various ways to assess course effectiveness, such as through student focus groups, course evaluations, and reflection papers. Student retention and student involvement in organizations and faculty research projects are also important course-related outcomes.

Given its benefits, data indicate that this “major exploration” course is an effective way to improve students’ early experience and success. A course such as this might be one additional way to improve students’ experience in your program.


Greenberg, J., McKee, A., & Walsh, K. (2013). Teacher prep review: A review of the nation’s teacher preparation programs—Executive summary. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2354106

Museus, S. D., Yi, V., & Saelua, N. (2017). The impact of culturally engaging campus environments on sense of belonging. Review of Higher Education, 40(2), 187–215. https://doi.org/10.1353/rhe.2017.0001 

Roksa, J., & Whitley, S. E. (2017). Fostering academic success of first-year students: Exploring the roles of motivation, race, and faculty. Journal of College Student Development, 58(3), 333–348. https://doi.org/10.1353/csd.2017.0026

Greg Conderman is a professor in the Department of Special and Early Education at Northern Illinois University. His research interests are co-teaching and effective instructional methods for students with mild disabilities.

Toni Van Laarhoven is a professor in the Department of Special and Early Education at Northern Illinois University. Her research interests include video-based instruction, employment for individuals with disabilities, assistive technology, and functional behavioral assessment. She teaches the Exploring the Special Education Major course. 

Angela (Angie) Lobdell is a December 2019 graduate of the special and early education program at Northern Illinois University. Angie currently teaches resource reading at Lincoln Elementary School in Sterling, Illinois.

Obed Fernandez is a junior from Montgomery, Illinois, studying special education at Northern Illinois University. He would like to teach elementary students with autism or intellectual disabilities after graduation.


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