Helping Students Find Success by Helping Them Find Their People
One of the most crucial factors to students experiencing success in their first year of college is finding their people as quickly as possible. While first-year seminar (FYS) courses based on long-term goals and career preparedness have value, first-year students’ immediate needs include connecting to like-minded peers, gaining a sense of belonging, and achieving early success (Williams & Roberts, 2023). In contrast to long-term success–based courses, the priority of our college’s FYS course is to create a learning community (LC) that provides a platform for immediate success. This platform includes a purposeful, cohort-based approach that focuses on peer-to-peer connections between students with similar career paths, increased interactions with caring and compassionate faculty, and discussion-based presentations with university staff who oversee resources that empower students to succeed early in their first semester.
Having multiple years of experience teaching FYS community courses that focus on long-term success and those that focus on immediate connection with peers, the latter have proven to be more rewarding and beneficial for students and instructors. The logic is simple; students who connect with other students are inclined to feel a sense of belonging. Students make this connection and find their people through collaborative activities, meaningful assignments, valuable guest presentations, purposeful LC coenrollment, and social events outside the classroom. This article presents our college’s FYS approach to providing our students with three fundamental essentials that help them find success.
Providing the people
We have learned through experience that the first essential to students’ success is finding their people. This essential is stressed to our students through the mantra, “Show me your friends, and I will show you your future.” A core message we send our students is that if they genuinely want to earn a college degree, they must surround themselves with others who want to do the same. This message aligns with our goal of helping students realize that they do not need a lot of friends; they need the right friends. The need for students to have the right friends supports our ultimate objective of helping students find their people. The most logical strategy to help students find their people is by surrounding them with other students who are likely to be their people. We implement this strategy by placing like-minded students together through our degree-specific LCs.
Another crucial component of the right people element is the faculty members selected as LC instructors. These instructors are carefully chosen based on their passion for students and for helping them succeed. Selected instructors have ranged from department heads to associate deans, full-time faculty, academic advisers, and university staff members. Because of their devotion to helping students succeed, these faculty members have the innate ability to create a sense of belonging in students (Bell, 2022). These chosen instructors collaborate and develop a similar calendar of activities, assignments, presentations, and social events across all LCs. They create calendar content that includes university resources recognized for immediate student impact and content that previous cohorts have reported as being most.
Guest speakers invited to share their knowledge and expertise with our LCs are also integral to the right people element. These guest speakers are crucial as they serve as a bridge for our students to engage with the campus resources available to them (Lei & Yin, 2020). This connection becomes a bridge students are more likely to cross and seek out these resources when they need them the most. Information shared by guest speakers that students consistently identify as especially helpful include the
- availability of resources to enhance mental health;
- accessibility of medical services for students;
- convenience to free on-campus tutoring resources;
- opportunity for individualized Clifton Strengths™ coaching sessions; and
- obtainability of personal financial coaching.
Additionally, guest speakers tell students about our university’s history and traditions, which helps facilitate a connection and sense of belonging with our university.
Lastly, we have learned through the data that the correct number of people is integral to our LC success. We initially believed that 30–40 students per LC would heighten excitement and engagement within our classes. But a three-year review of the retention data showed that students enrolled in LCs with an enrollment cap of 20 were retained at a significantly higher level than students enrolled in courses with caps of 30 or 40. This significant data led us to cap all our LCs at 20, enhancing our overall LC retention rate.
Providing the place
Our second essential to helping students find their people is providing the place for them to do so. Our LCs are designed to be places where students can relax and reflect on the challenges they face as first-time, full-time college students. This reflection includes discussions on how these challenges provide them with the skill set needed for college success.
The similar course calendars of events and assignments also help students build this skill set for success by ensuring the consistency of campus integration and allowing each student to explore the careers that most interest them. This exploration helps students gain confidence in their chosen degrees, thereby instilling them with the motivation they need for initial success. Conversely, this exploration sometimes leads to a disconnect between students’ interests and their selected degree, allowing them to change to a degree that more closely aligns with their interests.
Another element to providing the place is ensuring that students have different places to interact. We create these other meeting spaces by linking our LCs with at least one university core course. The core courses linked with our LCs are ones we’ve purposefully selected to meet degree and possible professional school prerequisites.
Providing the activities
Our third essential to helping students find their people involves engaging with them once they find them. The most crucial component to students discovering the alignment, or misalignment, between their degree and their interests is engagement and participation in the activities that comprise our LCs. The following is a list of activities and events that students have identified as the most impactful:
- Submitting an assignment as part of learning how to navigate and use our university’s LMS
- Completing team building exercises to introduce the concepts of CliftonStrengths™
- Participating in laboratory experiences that incorporate skills needed in future degree-specific courses
- Engaging in teams to complete a campus scavenger hunt
- Attending an on-campus career, internship, or guest speaker event
- Participating in a session designed to teach students to utilize their student planning system
- Attending a home athletic event with others from their specific LC (especially critical as doing so allows students to build closer connections with each other and the university)
Because of the success of the out-of-class and home athletic events, we can confidently say that the most significant activities in our LCs happen outside the classroom (Lie & Yin). Many of these outside-of-class activities noted by previous students indicate that the simplest events or interactions are often the most impactful. Examples mentioned by students include casual conversations while walking to the class together, eating together in the cafeteria, developing study groups, and attending campus social events together.
In the five years we have taught the FYS course using our LC framework, students enrolled in our LCs have a 15 percent higher retention rate than nonparticipating students. A significant number of our LC students continue to self-enroll in classes together throughout their academic careers. Over the years, we have witnessed this phenomenon strengthen the relationships that originated in our LCs. This strengthening of relationships often continues until the day they graduate. We have learned that the most important thing we do to help create those relationships is to provide our students with the people, the places, and the activities for them to begin.
Bell, K. (2022). Increasing undergraduate student satisfaction in higher education: The importance of relational pedagogy. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 46(4), 490–503, https://doi.org/10.1080/0309877X.2021.1985980
Lei, S. A., & Yin, D. (2020). Curricular and departmental characteristics influencing satisfaction, retention and success of undergraduate students: A review of literature. College Student Journal, 54(3), 357–363.
Williams, H., & Roberts, N. (2023). “I just think it’s really awkward”: Transitioning to higher education and the implications for student retention. Higher Education, 85, 1125–1141. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-022-00881-1
Lorna Strong, EdD, LAT, ATC, is Department Head of the Sports and Exercise Sciences Department at West Texas A&M University. In addition to her administrative roles, her instructional responsibilities include athletic training, anatomy, motor development, and leadership courses. Her presentations and research publication collaborations focus on athletic training and leadership.
Rick Haasl, EdD, is associate dean for the College of Nursing and Health Sciences and faculty director for the Rogers LEAD WT Program at West Texas A&M University. Haasl has served as a coach, instructor, and administrator at five different universities during his 35-year career in higher education.