Q&A With Dr. John N. Gardner
John N. Gardner is an educator, university professor and administrator, author, editor, public speaker, consultant, change agent, student retention specialist, first-year students' advocate, and initiator and scholar of the American first-year and senior-year reform movements. He serves as the Executive Director of the Policy Center on the First Year of College, funded by a grant from Lumina Foundation for Education. Read more at http://www.jngi.org/johngardner_bio
April 7, 2008
Q&A with Dr. John N. Gardner following the Plenary at the WESTOP Conference in Waikoloa, HI
TRIO Question #1: You were at our campus recently, and one of the things you mentioned [was] how TRIO professionals serve a unique role on our campuses, alluding to a unique type of faculty, educators. We have the title of "counselor" a lot of times, but you put it in a different light, and I wondered if you could talk a little bit about that -- and how do we get that idea conveyed on our campuses?
John N. Gardner: I did indeed in my remarks this morning talk about the unique role of TRIO educators. I can fully appreciate the importance of the question based on my own experience and so let me put it that way.
When I went to first work with the TRIO program, I like all of us was a product of my own environment, upbringing and education. And my upbringing to understate the matter was lily white. I had no experience in racially-integrated education at all, and I had never been educated with economically-disadvantaged students. I was a product of an affluent environment. My first teacher of another ethnicity other than my own had been my drill sergeant in officer training in the military. I tell you that because what happened to me when I went to work for TRIO was that I received a first-rate, professional-development education in how to work with adolescents from poverty. I had to understand a culture that previously I had no vantage point on, and it was a profound developmental experience for me. So I think that the role then of TRIO leaders, TRIO professionals is to identify promising educators like myself, like I was then, but who haven't had the same opportunity yet that you had and to incorporate them in a number of your activities so that they derive a professional development experience to this.
Secondly, I think your role is to be what I call an "advocate." Decisions are made all the time by colleges and universities, and decisions are made assuming all students and their families have a certain standard of living. This is unfortunate because this is not the case, and I think that TRIO employees have to constantly be vigilant and be advocates for remembering the needs of students who are less fortunate. That's the kind of role that I was suggesting.
TRIO Staff #1: I know we're advocates and we serve that role, and I think we all understand that's our role, but I'm also referring to, and help me with this, the idea of almost a faculty-like role that we play in a teaching sense -- sometimes we're viewed as the support people, but we're also so integral to the teaching role that we play.
John N. Gardner: Fundamentally I see you as higher educators, and I think that when you start organizing your own campus version of the training you're experiencing here, to the extent that you can include non-TRIO staff in those professional development activities, the colleagues on your campus are more likely to see you as teachers and as trainers. This is part of my concept of mainstreaming TRIO, reaching out to influence other educators who aren't on the TRIO staff and payroll. No matter how strong the support you've got for TRIO, no matter how many students you're funded for, you're never going to get all of the TRIO-eligible students in your own program. What you've got to do is help the lives of your other college or university students be more successful -- the same kinds of students you're working with. It's just that those students aren't fortunate enough to be in TRIO. This is what I mean by your faculty-development, faculty-leadership role.
One way to institutionalize might be to make sure you have an advisory committee made up of faculty. Make sure you have a faculty advisory committee made up of people who are not in TRIO so that you have an established communication with the larger college.
TRIO QUESTION #2: In your presentations on the freshman-year experience and the sophomore-year experience could you mention to the audience that TRIO professionals are uniquely-qualified campus professionals who are available? I think too often our colleagues see us as soft money-funded counselors who are there but who may not have the same level of professionalism. Of course that is very much not the case. And so I would ask you if in your presentations you could mention us as people who have been through the same hurdles as the first-generation, low-income students that we serve but who also have backgrounds in counseling and psychology and social work and education and, in addition to that, have TRIO training.
John N. Gardner: Thank you. I understand and I will do that. And actually I already do that. I frequently share with audiences my indebtedness to TRIO, and I would like to talk about what were the formative experiences for me as a young professor in coming to understand my students better and learning how to more effectively communicate with them and also learning about how to create meaningful faculty development programs.
The training program that we developed at the University of South Carolina for now 36 years for the faculty and staff who teach the University 101 instructors was designed by the TRIO program at the University of South Carolina. We've always used TRIO people there in a faculty staff development setting. I really believe in that.
I do want to share with you an important semantic revision we've made in our language. You asked me to clue in others in presentations I make on the freshman-year experience on the role of TRIO. I will do everything that you suggested except use the word "freshman." I don't use that term anymore. I haven't used it in 10 years. We've had a wakeup call, an epiphany. We recognized that the majority of America's college students are not men, and the overwhelming proportion of them are not fresh by multiple definition. We've talked about them as new students or first-year students, okay? I think language is very important. Whatever terminology we use to describe students influences how we see and treat those students which is why I said to you, I've got it on that handout we gave you, that we call the Students Support Services students at my university "opportunity scholars" as a form of respect.
TRIO QUESTION #3: I don't know if you're familiar but we had a few changes in the pre-college programs that have really forced programs to work with younger students. They might not have ever set foot on a campus and yet we are dropping them into a very, very fast-paced summer residential program where they have a lot of responsibilities and are taking very challenging classes. My question for you is would you recommend taking a University 101 model and in some ways having some of the same elements of that used to introduce our Upward Bound and Talent Search students to our programs?
John N. Gardner: Yes, a resounding yes. I would argue that you could and should create some type of course, credit or non-credit to teach someone who's say in the sixth grade what are the success strategies you want them to begin to really think about seriously and how does this relate with the maturation process, the ultimate college selection. I'm aware that for many students the beginning of high school is too late. They've already made a lot of choices by then that prevents them from making choices in the 9th grade say that would fast-track them in math and science, so they're already very disadvantaged in that respect.
Some years ago I worked with the El Paso, Texas School District to develop a first-year seminar for ninth graders. I've never personally been involved in anything below that age range, but this is really a generic concept. It's about saying, "Okay, what is the group that we want to assist? What are their common characteristics? What are their needs? And what do we know that we can teach them that would help them be more successful? And then you set out to do so intentionally and you do so in an instructional course format where you integrate faculty and student-affairs officers or in a high school setting it would be features and guidance personnel and also building some kind of family education component with that. I believe that's very doable.
TRIO QUESTION #4: What about retention in the second-year?
John N. Gardner: One of the pressures that's building is the pressure to go beyond the first year, to pay more attention to developmental issues that succeed the first year. There is a growing recognition that many students simply because they've accumulated either 30 credits or they've been 9 or 10 calendar months in college they're not over the hump. We have many students who time-wise are second-year students and may not have yet reached sophomore standing or we have students with sophomore standing who still have significant developmental issues that are interfering with their success. When you look at the persistent rate on American college campuses, on some campuses the dropout and transfer rate in the second year is almost as high as the first year, so the interest in the second year is growing.
I'm working on a book right now for Josie Bass on this topic and there's just a lot more conversation about it. The main issue in the second year are issues that TRIO has always spent more time dealing with than most college-experience type issues, and those issues are the central quest of purpose for the student, helping students to sort out what is their purpose and how can this institution at this time in my life serve my individual purpose, which means that this translates into even greater attention for sophomore students on advising a career planning. Those are the real key areas advocacy.
TRIO QUESTION #5: How can we get our best practices from TRIO into the larger college or University community?
John N. Gardner: First of all, I want to remind everybody that even though retention is a very important institutional goal and societal goal that retention is not a learning outcome. Let me repeat that; retention is not a learning outcome. So in your case, you're an accredited institution. They're not going to buy retention as a learning outcome. What you've got to do instead is to focus on how you help students achieve greater success in the formal learning goals in the curriculum.
Now you asked me how do I think you can connect to this broader conversation on retention? Because you folks are federally funded and because for 42 years you've had to have site inspections and you have to submit periodic reports. TRIO's staff has always been accountable. Accreditation is all about accountability. There's nothing new about that TRIO personnel, all right? You have long had to know how to document your objectives, document what's happening to your students, show what your students are like when you take them into Talent Search and Upward Bound and Student Support Services and what they're like when they finish their pipeline.
I think by showing other educators on campus some of the strategies you're already using and you have been using for assessment and accountability, that's a strategy that you should be thinking about. You should be encouraging colleagues in the larger college to think positively about assessment, to try to get beyond their negative perceptions that it's something imposed on them. I'm persuaded that one of the reasons that TRIO has been so successful is because you've been accountable. You've had to demonstrate your outcomes in order to get refunded right? In other words, what you've got is you've got a culture of assessment. It's already built in, and you can show that to your colleagues.
The primary work I'm doing right now is this thing called Foundations of Excellence which is a self-study of the beginning college experience including TRIO, and we're doing this in synch with the accreditors because what the accreditors want to know very simply are three things: They want to know, number one, what's your public mission? Well TRIO has a mission. Each one of the components of TRIO has a mission. The second thing they want to know is what evidence do you have that you're achieving your mission? Show me the evidence. And the third thing they want to know, and it's the most important of the three, is they want to know what are you doing with what you know? In other words, you collect this evidence and how are you using that evidence from TRIO to bring about effective change? How are you using it to improve your practices? That's what assessment is all about.
TRIO QUESTION #6: I'm with Student Support Services. Earlier you were talking about older students mentoring younger students. Do you have any thoughts on how that can be achieved in community colleges?
John N. Gardner: Sure. All right, he was accurately describing me as urging the importance of having older students mentor younger students. And by older I did not mean chronological age. I meant older in terms of educational accomplishment and educational experience, and that might mean a 22-year-old mentoring a 32-year-old. How do you do that in a two-year setting? Well, the reality of the two-year setting is you have many excellent students who stay for years. They may be part-time. They're there term after term or they're there a couple of terms. They drop out. They return because life gets in the way. But they're still outstanding students.
I was vice-chancellor for academic affairs for five two-year colleges for 13 years. During my career on all my campuses we always had outstanding students that we could use to be student mentors for other students. I think if you say to yourself, "We're a two-year college and we can't do this" then you have a kind of negative self-fulfilling prophecy. The reality is you do have outstanding students, and the challenge is to identify them and put them in roles of responsibility. I believe you have within your own college plenty of outstanding students who would do very well in this role.
TRIO QUESTION #7: A follow-up to that question, mine is a four-year school. We tried to implement a mentoring program, but it's very difficult to get older students to volunteer their time to do such a thing. Do you have any suggestions on how to get students involved in a mentoring program?
John N. Gardner: The first suggestion I have is to enroll upper-division, advanced students in an upper-division course that would give them credit, a course in interpersonal communications, a psychology course. There are any number of potential courses in which as part of the course for which they are receiving credit they do a lab practicum in which they actually serve as mentors. This is being done on a number of campuses where the peer leaders that are being used in first-year seminar courses are learning to be mentors by taking a credit-bearing course. Another way you could do this is if you have something like a co-curriculum transcript to honor and recognized students for serving this role. Make this role a highly-competitive, high-status role.
The gentleman that spoke before you was wearing what looked to me to be a very attractive blue blazer. I've seen college campuses provide students with certain clothing garments that have status symbols on them. They identify them as mentors or ambassadors and their status symbol is in the college sub-culture. Another strategy is to pay your mentors. And the college work study federal program permits your campus to allocate up to 70 percent of its college work study budget for the performance of service activity so you can pay your students. I find that students are generally more interested in receiving course credits than they are money because credits applies to a degree and gets them through the degree program faster. And in the academy, credit is the currency in the realm, but there are a lot of strategies.
Some years ago I visited Mercer. We just had a representative from Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. Their idea of a focus group was students who were peer leaders. I asked them what they got out of this. And they told me they got a shirt out of it. One of them was wearing this t-shirt. And I said, "Well what's so special about this shirt?" And she said, "There are only 24 of us that get these shirts and there were 150 that applied." So she said, "They're really a big deal here because we've achieved at a high level to be given this position." There are lots of ways to motivate students to do this. I think fundamentally students like helping other students. They want to do it. They want to be given opportunities to do it.
TRIO QUESTION #8: I am the director of a longtime SSS project at a State University. I've been there for 40 years. We recently were awarded a McNair Scholars Project. My question is about the McNair Scholars Project. It's becoming very clear to us, even in these early stages, that as much as first-generation students have barriers to obtaining their four-year degree, there are even more barriers and more difficulties with regard to conceiving a graduate school and in particular conceiving being able to obtain a Ph.D. For instance, many of our very high-performance students who will be in the McNair Project just assume without thinking about it they should be in a Masters program because they are not "good enough for a Ph.D. program." And as you know, a Ph.D. program in a lot of ways can be cheaper and also amount to a lot more. So my question is any thoughts on that particular kind of conceptual barrier with regards to graduate school and especially any source that you might be aware of that would demonstrate and show the student that a Ph.D. program is really what you should be entering.
John N. Gardner: I am also very familiar with the McNair Scholars Program. It is named for Ronald McNair who was a native South Carolinian who grew up about 70 miles from where I spent 32 years. And, as a matter of fact, six months before McNair was killed in the Challenger accident in 1986, he had resigned from NASA, entered his resignation. He was going to come to the University of South Carolina to hold a chair in engineering after his resignation from NASA. But of course he was killed before this happened. He once spoke to a graduating class at USC and I remember what he told the students, and I think this is a message that is partially a response to your question. He told the students, and I quote, "You are better than good enough. You are better than good enough."
Now the question for me becomes who is a credible spokesperson to deliver the message that you are better than good enough? If you can't bring in an African-American astronaut from a poor, cotton-growing farm community in South Carolina to say that, who have you got? Well, in California you have a number of Ph.D. holders who came from very inauspicious backgrounds. I think what you've got to do is to get them in front of your McNair scholars very early in the experience.
I remember in teaching the University 101 course in South Carolina which of course are first-year students, most of them had no conception at all of what a graduate degree was. For them, the thought of getting through undergraduate school was a huge hurdle. One of the first things you have to do is simply provide them with information on the structure of the American higher education and what are the preparation routes that would give them what all American citizens want which is maximum freedom, maximum economic opportunity, maximum ability to support a family and earn a legal living.
I think you lay a foundation in the first year by providing them with an overview of educational opportunities. And TRIO -- that's one of your great strengths. You understand what is meant by educational opportunities. But try to find some still relatively young Ph.D. holders who are first-generation college students themselves who can model this more effectively than some of us who are much older or who don't look like they were ever poor, you know, and who look more credible to the students. I think that's the key -- very early mentoring and early information.
TRIO QUESTION #9: I work with students from a very rural background, and I was wondering if you could speak specifically if there are any strategies to working with rural students in the process of getting them to college.
John N. Gardner: I think there are several things. That's a very interesting question. One is to put in positions of mentoring authority with them other students who come from rural backgrounds who can better empathize with the challenges they're facing. I'll give you an example. The first time I taught University 101 first-year seminar which was 36 years ago I had a young woman in my class who was the only African-American student in a class of 19 other white kids. And she told the students on her first day of class that there were more people living in her residence hall than lived in her hometown.
Well that was a wonderfully graphic and poignant way of describing a lot of her adjustment issues. What I think needed to be done for her was to try to pair her up to another successful student who had come from a rural background but also to approach this issue academically and intellectually and to lay out for students the differences between a rural environment and an urban environment in terms of making a transition to a university like UC Davis. UC Davis is much more like a city than it is a rural community. It's more of a city because there is more anonymity. It's easier to hide. It's easier to be private. You're less visible there. You have to be more assertive and it's more complex. There's a higher rate of change. There's more stimulation. All of that can be explained to students.
By the way, the student that I referenced went on and got a Bachelor's degree and a medical degree and she's a pediatrician now. But I think it's a combination of mentoring and it's a combination of getting students an intellectual and informational foundation about how is a university-- and you had mentioned in your case one of the elite, highly-selective institutions-- how is it more like a city and what are the implications for your transition here?
So, by the way, I'll give you a study that is relevant here. There was a major study done after World War II on what the United States' Army called Combat Grief, and they were looking at the differences in soldiers who experienced psychiatric-related casualties in World War II. Their initial prediction was that rural people were going to fare better in combat because they had had more time outside, they were familiar with guns, they hunted, and they actually found just the opposite, that urban dwellers were better able to cope with the stresses of combat. The hypothesis that eventually developed was that urban dwellers are more accustomed to noise, a higher rate of change, greater degrees of differences in people that are around and just more familiarity coping with stress. I think that's relevant. But thank you for your question.
TRIO QUESTION #10: This is kind of a follow-up point to one of the earlier questioners who was asking about universities that have achieved the full integration of their SSS program with the university hierarchy and you mentioned South Carolina as a place that was not only fully integrated but also leading the way in certain areas.
We look for opportunities to do that too, but the problem remains that when you're explaining what an SSS project does at a university you tell faculty and others that we support 350 low-income, first-generation students with disabilities and they kind of latch on to low-income and maybe students with disabilities and they figure that's a small segment of the university, so that these TRIO professionals have sort of a narrow slice of the university and hence then there are questions of status and what the project we're actually doing is in the context of a large university.
Well one of the things we found was using language like we know how many low-income students there are at the college, and there are actually a lot more than what most people seem to think. Just about anybody can be a first-generation student. We did a survey that showed 45 percent of faculty were first-generation students. And I've used that language before to try to communicate to the stakeholders that we do in fact serve the entire student population. We only funded 350 students, but we're actually in there assisting everybody and it's the 350 lucky ones that actually get our services.
So I wonder what you thought of that technique, using the first-generation status as a way of explaining to university stakeholders that the SSS project is really into everything.
John N. Gardner: Right. I commend that. I think you can take it further though. I think you could argue that the 350 students you served can have a broad impact beyond them. If each one of those 350 students could find just one other student who is also a first-generation college student and share with that other student what they're learning in TRIO, that would have a magnification factor of the impact.
Another thing that I think you need to argue is that this is an example of the university exercising and demonstrating its commitment to social justice and improves opportunity and that you are not sufficient to do that by yourself. Other elements of the university ought to step forth on their own resources and do this. Of course that's something that the federal government looks at when it's trying to decide who to give a competitive award for. They ask questions about the level of institutional commitment, right? So you do need help in demonstrating that.
Another benefit that can come into play for the campus is that those of you that are on the staff and the faculty of TRIO programs, this gets back to the very first question I was asked in the discussion section. Do you have contributions to make to the larger university through your own professional development opportunities by inviting people to participate in TRIO initiatives? Have you served on other committees of the university? Do you perform university service by virtue of the fact that you're a university employee even though your funds come from the federal government? You're still providing a larger university mission. The university will not be as effective in meeting its overall goals to provide access and opportunity and payment were it not for TRIO.
November 26, 2007
TRIO Question #1: You speak a lot about first year retention. Right now, a lot of research statistics are coming out about the alarming rates of minority males -- more particularly African-American and Hispanic males -- not going on to enroll in higher education, and then when they get there, those that are not graduating. What practical recommendations would you have for especially Student Support Services? What things can they do, what programs can help increase the number of males that are retained in higher education?
John N. Gardner: For one thing, this notion of the underperformance of males in higher education is not a new phenomenon. This has been the case ever since men began going to college when we compare them to women. We've only been able to do that since 1833. But men have always performed at lower levels at post-secondary educational settings than women.
The reason that we're much more aware of this now is that college-going has become a mass participatory process in the United States. We now have so many more women able to attend college that their difference with men has become so apparent. There is a demographer who has been tracing this and reporting the best data I've seen on this, and that's a gentleman by the name of Thomas Mortenson, who publishes a newsletter 12 times a year called Postsecondary Education Opportunity. It's really excellent. I recommend it to you.
What is it about men that makes them more at risk? We know a fair amount about this. The question is, what are we going to do about it? For a variety of reasons, men are increasingly less adaptable to the kind of behaviors, skills, and attitudes that are called for in the work world of the 21st century, such as patience with detail, writing ability, interest in reading. The only area where men tend to perform better that's adaptive is mathematically.
One of the central differences is the cultural factors that discourage males from seeking assistance. So when I look at first year initiatives that are especially needed by men, I think those are initiatives that not only make those male students aware of assistance-seeking sources, but actually mandate their use of assistance-seeking facilities and resources.
I'll give you an example. It's one thing to tell first year students that they really ought to use the career center or they ought to use a learning center. It's another thing to actually create a structure in which they must do this and for which they're held accountable. So it's both the use and the knowledge of helping resources. Secondly, as I indicated in my plenary remarks, the influence of peers is profound. This means that you just have got to provide the kind of role models that might inspire these students. The challenge is they're very hard to find because men are much less willing to volunteer for those kinds of roles. So they're at a premium.
There's an institution that I particularly admire in terms of its work for black male students. That is Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York, an institution that was chartered in 1970. It's named for the late slain Civil Rights leader. It was initially a two-year college. It's a four-year college now and a member of the City University of New York system. But they have a number of male empowerment initiatives that have shown to be very, very effective for their students. They are historically a black college.
If I could write my script for male students, what would I do? I would have them going to summer bridge programs, whether it's Upward Bound or a summer bridge that would be sponsored by the institution. Does your institution have a summer bridge? You do? Okay. Well, that's good. So I would make sure that you target males disproportionately for a summer bridge. If you got them in a summer bridge, hopefully they could pick up three or six hours in the summer, which would mean you could give them a lighter course load in the fall.
One of the things we do that particularly is not working for men is five courses the first term in college. They're just much less likely to handle a load like that. This is where we've got a paradigm -- an educational model that was fine for white guys like me, pre-1965. I didn't tell you all this, but I should have. My first term grades in college were three F's, two D's and one A. So I have a tremendous empathy for what it means to almost not make it in college. My college is a kind of case study of everything not to do for a college student, initially anyway.
So I would start them in a summer bridge, a lighter load in the fall. Very intensive and intrusive academic advising, preferably seeing that those male students have an academic advisor who teaches one of the courses they are enrolled for in the fall term so that the advisor sees the students regularly -- on a weekly basis -- and is able to determine are they there, for one thing. How do they look? Do they look like they're getting enough sleep? Are they prepared? Are they participating? Et cetera. In other words, there's a higher level of intrusiveness that's needed for men.
Personally I think that males who are in the right kind of structured athletic environment may actually be more successful. Athletics gets a bad rap because of the two primary revenue sports, but when you look at all student athletes combined, student athletes have a higher graduation rate than like-qualified non-student athletes. So in the right kind of athletic programs, these students are getting a tremendous amount of attention and structure. They're more likely to be monitored in terms of what they're eating, their study habits. So a structured experience like that.
Other analogs might be something like ROTC. Males tend to need more structure, more defined goals and very immediate goals. Goals for today, tomorrow, and this week. We often talk to students about goals that are months and years away. That's not the focus they need. Anyway, I strongly urge you to look at what they're doing at Medgar Evers, but my key theme here is mandating intrusive use of resources. All students, including men, who are in a first year seminar in the first term and who are also in a learning community and preferably who live on campus -- I mean those are environmental experiences that we know generate higher retention.
The idea is to combine them. We know that students who both live on campus and take a first year seminar are more likely to be retained than students who just live on campus or just take the first year seminar. When you get them doing both, you further increase the probability that they're going to persist. Anyway, that's an important question. It's very hard for most institutions to grapple with because most institutions are run by men. We don't want to look too closely at these significant gender implications because it has implications for us.
I think it would be helpful if you put together some kind of advisory group between your program and the university counseling center and the learning center and a number of these other stakeholders that could help you focus on your males. Ideally involving the faculty. Gender studies, seminars, courses that would help men critically examine themselves. We have experts on our faculty who know a great deal about what's happening to men in society and why we behave the way we do and why we are under-performing. So thank you for the question.
TRIO QUESTION #2: My question is as I look at all of the research and all the data -- and I've read your research and a lot of other people--what can we do, what are the best practices for persistence?
John N. Gardner: What are best practices in the first year? Let me give you a site. The site would be a book called Challenging and Supporting the First-Year Student. It's in the resource list that the University of Washington TRIO Training asked me to provide. The authors are Upcraft, Gardner, and Barefoot, Jossey-Bass, 2005. I receive no personal royalties for this. I'm not trying to sell you a book, okay? The royalties go to the center that I am employed by.
Now, that is a book where we look at topically best practices in the first year. We've mentioned some of them already. I can mention and will mention others to you. There are two fundamental ways I look now at this issue of success in the first year. One is topically. What are the best practices by topic? That's looking at individual programs. The other way I look at this is what is the institution doing at the institutional level? Does the institution have any kind of a vision or a plan for the success of new students?
We've been doing a lot of case studies on institutional excellence in the first year. Institutions that have really developed a set of coherent strategies which are integrated and connected. I want to reference again another book that's on that list. The lead author is a woman by the name of Betsy Barefoot, who happens to be related to me by way of marriage. I'm the second author. It's a book called "Achieving and Sustaining Institutional Excellence for the First College Year" where we look at institutional case studies in both two- and four-year institutions.
Some best practices. One is the first year seminar. Let me take it a step further. It's not simply enough to have a first year seminar. We know there are three characteristics of the first year seminars that seem to make the greatest impact on student learning and success. One is the amount of credit that first year seminars award. More credits equal more impact. Three-hour seminars have more impact than two hours. Two hours have more impact than one hour.
Now, that's unfortunate because the most common type of first year seminar is a one credit hour course. A one credit hour course is better than nothing, but one credit hour courses have not been shown to have significant influence on critical thinking or academic skill building. The one credit hours -- those courses are good for socialization, acclimatization, friendship formation, learning the services and resources, getting comfortable on a campus. But in terms of significantly influencing academic skills? No.
So the first characteristic of an effective first year seminar would be the amount of credit. Second would be whether or not the first year seminar is offered as a standalone course or a course that's part of the learning community that I've already talked about this morning. We know that students report higher learning gains in the first year seminars that are part of learning communities. That moves you to another strategy, which is the learning community.
The third characteristic of the most effective first year seminars are those that are co-taught by undergraduate students. So if you're not using undergraduate co-teachers, I strongly urge you to consider doing so because it's the undergraduate student leaders who can say things to your students. You know the good cop/bad cop routine? When I teach with a peer leader, I'm the good cop, okay? I let my student leader be the heavy, do the heavy lifting and the dirty work. For example, it's my peer leader who says, "Why wasn't your butt in this class last meeting? Where were you?" I don't get into that because students are much more responsive to their peers.
We've talked about the impact of residential living on student success, particularly residential living in environments that are in some way connected to the learning mission of the institution where students might be grouped around academic majors and they can register for classes accordingly. Academic theme floors or residential environments where students take certain classes that are offered for students in the hall. A very common one would be to group, to create learning communities for students that are registered. So the residential environment is important, particularly if it's connected to the academic mission.