Teaching first year students: some strategies for week one

The first week of classes can be nerve-wracking for both students and teaching staff. If you are teaching first year students there are things you can do to help them make a successful transition, writes Rachel Chamberlain.

The idea of walking into a room full of  strangers is always daunting, so attending that first tutorial or lecture is likely to provoke a level of anxiety in most people.

For our first year students these feelings are intensified by the multitude of ‘firsts’ they will be experiencing in week one. It may be the first time they have met an academic, participated in a tutorial or lecture or had to find a particular classroom or building. Whilst there will certainly be a lot of excitement about all of these new experiences, students are also likely to feel uncertain about how things work, and how they, and others, are a supposed to act in this new environment.

There are some small things we can do in week one to welcome first year students and to help them make a successful transition to university:
  • An open door: Most students will get lost on campus at some stage and this will probably result in them being late to class. Having to enter a class late, particularly on day one can be terrifying for new students and a closed door is a lot more intimidating than an open one. Leaving the classroom door open for the first 10-15 minutes can make entering the classroom a little less intimidating for any student that does get lost. This also enables you to see students who might be tentatively approaching, or even nervously circling the door, allowing you to identify yourself and invite them in.
  • Making connections: It is a good idea to set aside the first part of class for students (and yourself) to get to know each other. A good ice breaker activity will allow students to start developing social connections with their peers. Remember that you can also participate in these icebreaker activities. In fact, your participation can be really important as it shows your students that you have a genuine interest in them as individuals. Depending on the activity it also provides an opportunity for some one on one conversations that can provide you with some really useful information about the students' backgrounds, interests and motivations for enrolling in your unit.
  • Explain the basics: Our first year students are an extremely diverse group. Your class is likely to include international students, those who are first in family, students from high and low socio-economic backgrounds, school leavers or mature age students. This diversity means that the students will have had vastly different educational experiences, and arrive at Monash with differing levels of knowledge about how university, including your unit or class ‘works’. Can students interrupt you during a tutorial to ask questions? Can they leave the room without asking permission? What should they call you? What is the relationship between tutorials, lectures and readings? In what order should students do these? The answers to these questions may seem self evident to us, but to many first year students this is not the case. Taking time to explain the knowledge we take for granted will improve students' confidence and can clear up misunderstandings before they occur.  
  • Speak English (not Monash): If you have been at Monash for a while, it is likely that you casually use acronyms and language that is distinctly “Monash” (Moodle, Authcate, SETU, WES, MULO). Additionally, you are probably fluent in the language of your faculty, or discipline area. Our first year students are unlikely to speak these languages and so avoiding these and/or explaining them is crucial in the first few weeks of the semester.
A student's first few weeks at Monash will have a significant impact on their overall transition to university, and a successful transition in first year will provide a strong foundation for success in later years.

Rachel Chamberlain is a learning skills adviser based in the Berwick Library. Rachel and subject librarian Diana Thompson work with other Library staff, academics and other teams in the University for social inclusion-related programs being implemented across the campuses. Contact Rachel to find out more.
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  1. Nice article Rachel. It's easy to forget how difficult it can be to do something so entirely unfamiliar. I hope the messages in this post reach a wide audience.

  2. Great article Rachel! Its so important to be mindful of how nervous first year students feel. If we reflect back its a feeling not forgotten in our own lives! A friendly and supportive welcome can make *such* a difference!