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.

…and so it goes – Trevor Holmes

Bit of a dry spell on the blog this term! We’ll try to be more regular.

So I’m sure readers have been holding their collective breath, awaiting eagerly my update from the first day of class a couple of Fridays ago. That’s right: in my first blog post of 2011, I imagined a perfect pedagogical storm of a first day. I did do what I intended to. Many of the students in lecture contributed good thoughts to the definition of culture we were coming up with, collectively. They didn’t seem to tire of the pairs of images so much as previous years’ cohorts have. And in tutorials, when confronted again with some of the same images, they deepened their analysis still more, becoming comfortable with each other in the smaller setting. I even had them fill out tutorial logs at the end of each tutorial, so those who didn’t get a chance to contribute could let us know what they were thinking. Continue reading …and so it goes – Trevor Holmes

Overheard on the 7 – Trevor Holmes

GRT busWhen I’m not riding my bike to work, I usually take the bus. Waiting for any of the number 7 buses, one overhears things. In the spirit of the “Overheard at” websites, I’d like to offer occasional orts of wisdom from students who, at the end of their day, Continue reading Overheard on the 7 – Trevor Holmes

Troublesome workshop invited us over the threshold – Trevor Holmes


Relying heavily on one of higher education’s most recent door-opening concepts to run a workshop on, well, door-opening concepts, Gary Poole took a FLEX lab full of people through our paces Tuesday morning, May 5th, 2009. After his Presidents’ Colloquium talk on the Monday, in which he addressed the powerful phenomenographic notion of deep versus surface learning (more on that another post), Continue reading Troublesome workshop invited us over the threshold – Trevor Holmes

International TA Training: One year in service – Walid Omran (ITA Developer)

successHow am I going to teach these students? Will they laugh at me because of my accent and language mistakes? How will I control their behavior in the class? Is it true that culture can affect the students-TA relationship? How can I prove that I am a good TA? These were just some of the questions I had in mind when I received my first TA assignment, four months after arriving to Canada as an international graduate student. Now, after spending three years at the University of Waterloo and being a TA for a number of courses, I still think that teaching in the Canadian classroom can be a challenge for many international TAs (ITAs). This is mainly due to language barriers, cultural differences and uncommon backgrounds. Continue reading International TA Training: One year in service – Walid Omran (ITA Developer)