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Helping Freshmen Find Their Footing

August 2, 2013

students studying

Moving from high school to college heralds a time of intellectual growth and personal transformation for young people. But it can also mean a daunting increase in the scale and complexity of the academic challenges they face—one that dooms some freshmen to failure before their college careers even get going.

An initiative launching this fall at Drexel University aims to help new students better navigate that critical transition. Targeting about 60 students to start, the Freshman Academic Seminar program will offer core math and English sequences taught in small classes by a single professor throughout the academic year, bolstered by a weekly seminar on succeeding in a university environment.

Freshman year is a critical period for student retention and ultimately graduation. There are many reasons why students don’t return for their sophomore years, but one frequently cited factor is feeling ill-equipped for math or writing requirements.

“I think some students have had a bad experience and they say they don’t like math, or they have a hard time writing,” said Patricia Henry Russell, a teaching professor in mathematics and director of the seminar program. “But really, I think each student just learns in a different way.”

Russell believes her program can help students by pairing them with a highly engaged professor in groups of 20—about 20 percent smaller than typical introductory English classes, and half the size of typical math classes.

“The idea is to give students the opportunity to build a relationship with at least two faculty members, so if they have problems they have someone to go to,” Russell said. She will serve as one of two math professors in the program this year.

In addition to the core classes, the one-hour weekly seminar will focus on the academic and social transition to college.

“We’re going to help them develop strategies for being successful,” Russell said. “How do you deal with a large lecture hall? How do you deal with having one person do your lecture, and then recitation with another person and lab with another person? We’ll have someone coming in to talk about personal finance, student loans, the Drexel Student Learning Priorities, co-op, to give them info up front so they don’t have to flounder and guess about what’s happening.”

The student cohorts are being drawn from a variety of majors across Drexel, which presents another benefit to participants.

“We did focus groups with current Drexel students, and they felt that getting to know people from other majors was a real plus,” Russell said. “A biology student, for instance, would have loved to have met an engineering student in their freshman year, so later on when they have a project, they have a friend—if the biology student isn’t good in math, they could go to their engineering friends, and if the engineering student has a senior design project that involves some bio, they could go back and forth.”

The offices of the Provost and Enrollment Management developed the seminar program and found a natural fit to help get it off the ground in Russell, who has served as associate head of the Department of Mathematics and STEM coordinator in the College of Arts and Sciences and has experience in student advising and teaching math to under-prepared students.

“We expect to learn a lot this year,” she said. “And then next year, we’ll create more groups. We have to recruit faculty members who are willing to spend the extra time. This isn’t just going in and teaching a class and then going off to do your research.”

Recruitment for the pilot program has focused on incoming freshmen not already involved in one of Drexel’s other academic support systems, which vary from the Pennoni Honors College to the Liberty Scholars Program to Living-Learning Communities. Russell doesn’t expect the seminar model to be adopted for all freshmen; rather, she sees it as another tool to help students thrive.

“This year, we want to see the number of retained students be higher than the regular population,” Russell said. “The other goal is to have all 60 students finish their math and English courses the first time through, which often doesn’t happen. If we can get everyone in our group to pass, we’ve done something really great.”