FIRST-YEAR EXPERIENCE FOCUS GROUPS, 2004 - 05
CoFYE (Committee on the First-Year Experience)
As part of a larger study of the first-year experience at St. Olaf College, the ACM First-Year Experience Committee (CoFYE) conducted focus groups with first-year students and faculty to gain a better understanding of how they perceive the first-year experience. The Committee interviewed a total of 90 students and 24 faculty from January 2004 through January 2005. Interview questions were designed according to National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) subject areas of particular interest to our Committee's overall objective to explore the degree of coherence in the first-year experience at St. Olaf. Through focus groups, we hoped to gather qualitative data to complement quantitative trends presented in the NSSE 2003 Institutional Benchmark Report for St. Olaf College and the NSSE 2003 Report Summary.
Student focus groups generated the following common points:
- St. Olaf has an academic focus with rigorous standards.
- Active learning (asking analytical questions, taking notes, practicing problems) is essential to success during the first year.
- St. Olaf students come with varying levels of preparation and identify specific critical thinking and study skills they need to succeed.
- Collaborative learning appears common across the first year. Responses to group work vary according to course, purpose, and dynamics of group. Different levels of student preparation within groups impacts group effectiveness.
- First year students find faculty accessible and supportive. Students both want and expect a high level of interaction with professors and advisors. The purpose of student/faculty interaction ranges from exclusively academic guidance to more personal advising and support.
- Students are generally aware of academic and personal support resources. While help-seeking is accepted at St. Olaf, some students still view asking for help as weakness.
- GE 111 and Religion 121 appear related to one another in that they encourage discussion and self expression. Students do not perceive connection of content and skills among courses in general. Discrepancy in workload, feedback, and evaluation among individual sections of GE 111 and Religion 121 frustrates students.
- Students benefit from explicit faculty emphasis on connections among courses. Connections among courses are strong in the Conversation programs.
- As early as their second semester at St. Olaf, students practice better time management and study skills. Familiarity with campus procedures (e.g., registration) and decreasing homesickness increase confidence and motivation.
Faculty focus groups generated the following main points:
- First-year students generally have difficulty making paradigm shift from high
school emphasis on memorization and reporting to college practice of critical reading, thinking, and writing vs. memorization, analysis vs. self-expression and reporting, and application vs. summary of theory.
- Courses across the curriculum incorporate group work to model professional collaboration and to foster learning communities.
- Individual accountability in group work presents a challenge. Because
students do not necessarily know how to collaborate, faculty must talk openly about process and responsibility.
- Faculty/student interaction varies, from limited interaction in class to intense one to interaction in labs and conferences to dinner at faculty homes.
- Faculty offer academic help through help sessions, referrals to Academic Support Center and Dean of Students Office, and one to one conferences. Students who need help the most often don't respond to faculty encouragement to get help. Faculty see no clear patterns of who seeks help and who doesn't.
- Faculty do not necessarily know what courses students are taking. Conscious connection among courses in which first-year students may be enrolled ranges from general reference to liberals arts concerns in ethics and moral reasoning to more specific reference to common "texts" such as the Bible, Origin of Species, and cultural experiences to even more specific, documented connections made through required attendance at community events such as lectures and book clubs.
- Faculty autonomy and lack of communication among faculty result in
disparity among individual sections of a course. Faculty can not assume students have had a common experience in a course with multiple sections.
- Parental involvement is intrusive. Are we enrolling students or parents?