Category Archives: First Year Experience Courses

First Year Reflections

On of the most anticipated features of Teaching Thursday is its annual first year reflections feature. Each year, we invite first year faculty to reflect on their time on campus. Over the past three years, these first year reflections have helped more experienced faculty see campus with new eyes and inspired them with the excitement of new arrival.

Daba S. Gedafa, Ph.D., P.E., Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering

Dr. Anne Kelsch requested me if I could write a post for their blog. I gladly accepted the request.

I had teaching experience at different institutions before I joined UND, but different institutions have different ways of doing things. I was assigned to teach Civil Engineering Materials Laboratory I in Fall 2011. Even though I taught Civil Engineering Materials course including the laboratory many times before, it was a challenge at the beginning. There are many different types of equipment to do the same types of tests. In some cases what I used before are different from what we have in civil engineering laboratory at UND. Even finding where the different pieces of the same equipment were not easy in a new laboratory. Dr. Charles Moretti, who taught the course before I joined UND, helped me at the beginning and I am really grateful for his help. Civil Engineering Materials Laboratory I is taken by junior and senior undergraduate civil engineering students. The course is one hour lecture and three hours laboratory per week. Students work in groups of three/four in the lab and submit the report. The course is also a writing course. The original plan was for the students to submit four long and six short individual reports. The long reports were reviewed, commented, and returned to students for final submission. Some of my goals for the course were: make the course as realistic as possible by relating the theoretical background to laboratory tests, improve analytical and writing skills, become independent thinkers and team players, engage the students, be flexible as long as the flexibility improves the understanding of the course, communicate the ideas clearly and effectively by all possible means, provide prompt feedback, etc. I posted laboratory procedures, lectures, reading, and miscellaneous materials a week before the actual events so that students get enough time. I also posted my own journal article which was submitted for publication in addition to guidelines for the short and long report.

At the middle of the semester, I did ask students to write the pros and cons of the course since they already knew how I taught, graded, interacted, etc. Different students said different things about the same thing. I summarized the cons, included in the slides, and discussed with the students at the beginning of the next lecture. Some of the comments were: lab reports take long time to write and reduce number of long reports, do not know how to use excel for some of the things, return graded reports during lecture instead of during lab time, more background of lab procedures, etc. I included their comments for the rest of the semester as much as I can as long as I believed that the comments were used to reduce unnecessary burden on the students and improve their understanding of the course. For example, I responded by reducing long reports from four to three, providing an opportunity to write group short reports instead of individual reports so that they become a good team player, started posting more backgrounds for the different laboratory procedures, returning their graded reports at the end of lecture so that they would get more time to revise, creating one-on-one opportunity to learn the use of excel, etc. I also included group evaluation in which all group members evaluate each other including themselves. This is critical to avoid burden on few group members and teach accountability for each other. Some of the comments on Student Assessment of Teaching (USAT) at the end of the semester which made them understand the course better: enthusiasm and knowledge about the course, explaining concepts clearly, genuinely caring about the students and respecting them, a good listener, connecting with students, consideration of student concerns and thoughts, timely feedback on questions, etc.

I believe that learning is a continuous process. I learn a lot from the students and colleagues through time. I attend many teaching seminars and workshops to improve my teaching effectiveness. I am going to attend two workshops during summer: teaching with writing and teaching with technology. I will include the knowledge I get from the training and workshops into my future courses. I will use a small group instructional diagnosis (SGID to provide feedback regarding the pros and cons of the course and adjust for the rest of the semester instead of doing myself in the future. Small group instructional diagnosis (SGID) is much better since it is based on a consensus by groups of students and it avoids contracting comments on the same topic.



Teaching the First Year Experience: A Dialogue

C. Casey Ozaki, Department of Teaching and Learning University of North Dakota 
Missy Burgess, Assistant Program Director for Student Involvement, University of North Dakoa

UNIV 115A- Making the Most of College: Experiential Learning in Higher Education was one of seven pilot First Year Experience (FYE) courses taught in Fall 2011 at the University of North Dakota.  The course was part of the FYE cohort, where regular meetings and training were held with all FYE instructors and coordinators.  This particular course was taught by C. Casey Ozaki, Assistant Professor in Teaching and Learning, and Missy Burgess, Assistant Program Director for Student Involvement.  Their section was unique from the other six in that it was based on a research experience, and it was co-taught by one person from student affairs and another from academic affairs.  The 24 students who signed up for the course via Freshman Getting Started were divided into five research groups.  Each group tackled a research project from start to finish related to experiential learning that occurs outside the classroom during the college experience.  The course culminated with a poster session for faculty and staff displaying the results of the projects.  Below, Missy and Casey engage in a dialogue about this unique teaching experience.

Casey: When the UND Undergraduate Working Group proposed the development of  First Year Experience courses, they suggested both seminar and research courses that were content focused while integrating transition components. While I felt confident teaching a course on experiential learning and taught previous transition-to-college type courses, it seemed to me that, for this type of course, co-teaching with someone from student affairs would be ideal in assisting students’ transition in both their academic and co-curricular lives.

So, in we jumped, and teaching together went beyond my expectations for this type of a course. First, we taught well together and in ways that complimented one another. While I had more teaching experience, you were great at connecting the material to examples the students could relate to. While I may have conceptualized the class initially, your alternate perspectives added more to the course than I could have anticipated. Second, given that our positions represent two significant aspects of the college student’s experience, academic and co-curricular, I think we were able to help students holistically transition to UND. Finally, while the workload was as heavy as if I taught the class individually, I appreciated having another instructor to examine outcomes, student work, and course correct as the semester progressed.

Missy, what was your experience? Did you think our collaboration was successful?

Missy: I also found the collaboration to be very beneficial.  For me, my knowledge of student transition issues and the first year experience outside of the classroom was strong, but it was my first time to integrate academic content into a course with this purpose.  I was able to learn from your classroom management expertise, and I tried to bring a knowledge of events and activities happening on campus.  Course planning took more time than I anticipated (I have a new appreciation for the work of faculty members!), but I think that having the ability to bounce ideas off of someone else enhanced the course and also held us each accountable for getting the work done!  Finally, I think our different roles proved very helpful throughout the students’ research project experience.  You were able to help them connect to the collegiate research experience,and I was able to help them see how their research on students’ outside the classroom learning experiences could be used by student affairs practitioners.

One of the neat parts about basing a course on experiential learning was that we were able to pretty easily connect the academic content to interactive transition activities.  For example, we attended the Involvement Expo as a class and then related it to how students learn from experience.  We played Campus Resources Jeopardy and then related it to surface versus deep learning.  This helped to make the incorporation of the transition activities a bit more seamless.

Casey- Do you want to talk about some of the transition-to-academics activities we did?

Casey: Sure. I would say that given the transition goals of a content course, we heavily scaffolded the work of this course. For example, at the beginning of the course when we focused primarily on the literature and theories behind experiential learning we attempted to help students learn how to read and take notes by, first, showing them what types of questions to ask and information to look for in reading through a very detailed reading guide that they filled out. The next reading guide was less detailed, less specificity was provided for the next guide, and even less so for future guides until they prepared their own notes. We gave the students feedback and tried to help them develop reading and note-taking skill, while still engaging with the content.

We also broke down the research process into small, multi-purposed steps to both help students develop academic skills while learning the research process and developing more complex thinking and information literacy skills. We focused on helping students learn about and do a qualitative research study during the second half of the semester. Each group of 4-5 students developed the research questions and design, conducted data collection and analysis, and prepare and deliver a poster presentation. Following is a sampling of the strategies and techniques we used to support students learning:

  • Library Scavenger Hunt: After a class tour of the library, students complete a scavenger hunt worksheet, identifying references relevant to the project. This project contributed to the literature required for the project, while helping them become familiar with the library;
  • Annotated Reference List:  Beginning with the library scavenger hunt as a starting point, students develop a list of five credible sources and annotate them based on specific criteria. Again, while contributing to the development of literature for the research project, students were challenged to learn about different types of information and evaluate their applicability and worthiness;
  • Development of Research Design:  After reading a chapter regarding the research design or methods (e.g., research questions, research techniques, interview questions, etc.) we had the students actively work on that part of the research project in class with our feedback and support;
  • Interview a Faculty Member:  Students interviewed a faculty member from a class they had fall semester, specifically asking about their research interests and how they do or do not utilize undergraduates in their projects. This assignment helped students learn how to interview, as well as learn more about research outside this course;
  • Document Analysis: Students found a document through the library’s Special Collections and conducted a document analysis. Using a guide, students were asked to evaluate the document, learning about another research method, and relate it to their projects;
  • Research Proposal: In small groups, students wrote a research proposal for their project, including a literature review based on group’s annotations, and the research design;
  • Research Report and Poster Proposal:  Beginning with the feedback received on the research proposal, student groups wrote up the final results of the project and presented them in a poster session.


This is only a sampling of the efforts we made to support student learning and transition, but I think we can say that at each point in the research process we attempted to provided activities for engagement and practice and extensive feedback on student work. If we teach the course again there are definitely aspects I would change–reducing the number of assignments and spending more time on test-taking are, for example, two areas to address.

Missy, what would you change about the course? What was your assessment of our ability to introduce freshmen to doing research?  Do you think it worked well to teach these concepts together?

Missy: For the most part, I think our plan worked.  We were able to introduce freshmen to the idea of scholarly research and help them to see a research project from start to finish.  Given the opportunity, I think I might change a few things, though.  As you mentioned, we heavily stacked the experiential learning theory at the beginning of the semester.  While it provided a strong foundation, I think that the students struggled to incorporate this into their project due to the gap in time from when we covered it to when they wrote their proposal.  If we spread this out a bit more, I think students would see the connection a little better.

Also, I think we were able to give freshmen some great transition experiences (learning to use the library, working in groups, executing a research project, attending campus events, etc.), but we realized towards the end of the semester that the students had not always realized what skills they had gained.  When they were asked in their final presentations how they would use what they learned in the course, many referred to using it if they chose to do research in graduate school.  I think I would be more direct with the students in sharing what the intended learning outcome of an activity or a project was and how they might use it in their undergraduate careers.  I think the students definitely gained skills they will use sooner than they think- it may just take them getting there to realize it.

One of the best experiences for me in teaching this course, though, was seeing the students do their final poster presentations during Finals Week.  It was the point where they saw that they could accomplish a project from beginning to end, they could present it professionally, and their research was useful to practitioners.  Seeing that ‘aha’ moment for the students is the reason I think we all do what we do.  So, I think we were successful at introducing freshman to research, and the University along the way.

How about you, Casey?  Would you teach a course in this format again?  Is there anything else you would change?

Casey: First of all, I agree, the final poster presentations were the pinnacle of the teaching experience for me as well. To see the students process and react to the culmination of their work was incredibly rewarding.

All in all, I too felt positive about the course and how it unfolded and, yes, for the most part I would teach an FYE experience as a research course again. One thing I would not want to change was co-teaching with a student affairs professional. Granted, it has to be the right person, but I think the differing expertise brought to the classroom was ideal for a course focused on holistic college student transition. If we were to teach this course again, I would also want to reconsider front-loading the content while making the end of the course research heavy. In other words, I would like to try to integrate the research and content a little more across the entire course…if possible. In looking back, I also think that we simply tried to fit a whole lot into one semester. While I think the course was still successful, I would want to examine how we might build more breathing room into the course and, in particular, more time to discuss experiential learning theory.

As I mentioned before, for a first try at a course format new to UND, I think the class was successful. For me, the opportunity to be part of a new institutional initiative with freshman students in a small class was very rewarding. I appreciated the opportunity to teach in content and approaches that are “outside the box.” It stretched me as an instructor and gave me the freedom to explore and try out teaching strategies that the learning goals for our students. I enjoyed and learned from our collaborative teaching experience. Having someone else weigh-in on HOW to teach concepts and ideas beyond my own perspective expands my own arsenal of teaching tools.

Last thoughts and reflections from you?

Missy: While maybe not the intended consequence, I would say that the entire FYE experience has been one of the best professional development opportunities I have had here at UND.  I appreciated your willingness to think outside the box and explore a nontraditional collaboration relationship.  This course gave us the opportunity to make a difference with and truly get to know a small group of UND students.  It was also fun to truly be able to design a course from start to finish.  If you could teach any course to first year students, what would it be?  How many times do you get an opportunity like this?  Finally, my passion is connecting students to the benefits of the out-of-class experience on campus.  This course gave me the opportunity to do this in an academic way.  I was also able to influence my everyday work with a theory refresher.

While we definitely learned several lesson throughout this experience, I would recommend this course be taught again (with revisions), and I would gladly participate in the experience again.