The first year is critical – Jane Holbrook

Students leaving campus
Who will stay?

Coming into campus on Monday morning was a shock, but a nice one. We don’t get a lot of downtime on our campus but the last two weeks of August and days leading up to Labour Day are usually pretty sleepy; many folks are on vacation and it’s hard to even find a coffee shop open. The throng that I biked into at the main gates Monday morning at 8:15 was a bit disorderly, but the excitement in the air was electric. And it’s the first year students, all fresh faced and enthusiastic, frantically looking for their classrooms and with high expectations that generate the most excitement.

The first couple of weeks of term are exciting but then, of course, the realities of a five course load, weekly assignments (lab reports, readings …) and then midterms set in and those first year students are often challenged to just make it through first term. Our IAP statistics show that our first year retention rate (percentage of students who return to second year here after first year) is close to 92% (UWaterloo IAP), well above the reported retention rate of 80%  for four-year public US institutions (see National Student Clearing house report ) and higher than most other Ontario universities where retention rates hover around 87% (CUDO – Common University Data Ontario). This isn’t the old case of “look to your right, look to your left, one of you won’t be here next year” that we were admonished with as students in years gone by, but if 1 in 10 students do not return after first year, this is a definite loss to the university community and setback for that young person.

Universities have recognized that students face a number of challenges in their first year and provide orientation programs, peer mentoring, study skills sessions and other supports to help new students handle the emotional and educational transitions that they will be experiencing. However, even with these programs in place, our instructors who teach first year courses have a critically important job ahead of them. Studies show that although a student’s personal situation (family background, economic stresses, etc.) and prior academic performance in high school affect first year retention, student engagement in this critical first year is also a major contributor to student retention (Kuh et al., 2008). Creating rich and engaging classroom experiences for first year students in large classes when students are coming in with a wide range of skills is a challenge, but by integrating active learning into large classes (CTE tip sheet – Activities for Large Classes), considering student motivation (CTE tip sheet – Motivating Our Students) and providing frequent, formative feedback to students, instructors across campus are helping to keep students engaged and successful.

Welcome first year students, and kudos to those great first year instructors who work hard to keep them here!

Kuh, G.D, Cruce, T.M., Shoup, R., Kinzie, J. & Gonyea, R.M. (2008) Unmasking the Effects of Student Engagement on First-Year College Grades and Persistence. The Journal of Higher Education, 79 (5), 540-563.

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Jane Holbrook

Jane Holbrook

As Senior Instructional Developer (Blended Learning), Jane Holbrook helps to develop faculty programming that promotes the effective use of the online environment in on-campus courses. Working closely with Faculty Liaisons, CEL (Centre for Extended Learning) and ITMS (Instruction Technologies and Multimedia Services), she helps manage initiatives related to “blended learning” courses. She received her BSc and MSc from Dalhousie University but has also studied Graphic Design at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.

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