Going to college is an exciting opportunity for every student; It’s a time filled with pride and hope. Imagine how strong those feelings must be for our first-generation (first-gen) students, that is, students whose parents either did not go to or did not graduate from college. You might be surprised to learn that, according to the 2020-2021 Temple University Fact Book,16% of our students had neither parent attend college, and 31% had neither parent graduate.
Along with feelings of pride and hope, however, some of our first-gen students may feel a sense of apprehension not knowing the “rules” of college that generational knowledge brings, and may face academic, economic, and emotional hurdles as well. For instance, Kamina Richardson, faculty advisor to Temple First (the first-gen student org) and a first-gen college student herself, explains that first-gen students are more likely to be caregivers of the home, so they juggle the goals of an academic education along with family obligations. (To hear firsthand from the students themselves, check out #FirstGenTempleMade.)
Temple helps our first-year, first-gen students acclimate to campus culture with a host of resources. In addition to the Temple First student club, Temple offers the powerful First to Fly program, including a glossary of terms with links to resources.
Let’s look at what faculty can do in our learning environments to build on these efforts and welcome our first-gen students.
- Send a message of welcome pre-semester and create an inclusive learning environment. It is important to introduce yourself, connect with them as a human being, and assure them at the start of the course that you have designed a learning environment that they can succeed in. If you were a first-gen student yourself, let them know! Throughout the semester, serve as a model by sharing how you felt as a first-gen student and your experiences and advice navigating the college experience. Be a resource for them by familiarizing yourself with campus resources.
- Learn about students’ individual assets and needs and respond accordingly. In getting to know all of your students, why not do a pre-semester survey? Ask questions that assess demands on their time or other barriers to learning such as their access to technology. Find out their comfort level with things like negotiating Canvas, coming to student hours (aka office hours), and with the content of your discipline. Then find ways to meet students’ needs, wherever possible. For example, because many students work or help their families in other ways, flexibility with due dates makes a real difference. Work with one of our research librarians in your field to investigate whether there are open educational resources that can reduce the cost of materials for your course. One way we can “see” our first-gen students is by explicitly asking them. Be sure that you describe exactly what you mean by first gen so they can answer accurately.
- Make what you’re asking them to do (and why!) transparent. Help your students see the value of the course. That means writing and articulating clear, meaningful course goals and coming back to them throughout the semester to continually link them to the “what” and “why” of your course content. Organizing your Canvas course in a logical, consistent way, providing rubrics, and giving motivating and frequent, actionable feedback are other ways you can help students see the “whats” and “whys” of your course.
- Provide opportunities for students to learn from and get to know each other. To reduce feelings of isolation and marginalization, be sure to incorporate multiple and varied activities that enable students to work together, everything from think-pair-share activities all the way up to sustained semester-long projects. Providing a class Zoom room where they can meet without you is another great way to build those connections.
- Help them become self-directed learners. We often think students already know--or should know--how to take notes, study effectively, and reflect on and adjust their learning strategies when what they’ve tried isn’t working. So with your guidance, take some time to have them share effective note-taking and study strategies with each other. Use exam wrappers (aka cognitive wrappers) to help them formatively reflect on their performance and develop a plan for improvement.
You’ve probably noticed that all the strategies above will work for all kinds of learners, not just first generation students. In our in-person and virtual classrooms, we can take a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) approach to help everyone succeed. UDL asks us to consider how we can provide students with multiple ways of accessing and learning content, expressing their understanding, and engaging with you and their peers. Taking a UDL approach means that you’re proactively creating a course and learning environment that provides benefit to as many students as possible.
November 8 is National First-Generation/College Celebration Day. Watch for information from Jennifer Johnson, Assistant Professor in the College of Education and Human Development and Juliet Curci of the College Access Community of Practice group, who are spearheading various events in celebration of Temple’s first-gen students.
As always, if you’d like to learn more pedagogical strategies and educational technology tools that can benefit our first-gen as well as all students, reach out to a faculty developer or educational technology specialist for a consultation or email us at email@example.com.
Cliff Rouder, Linda Hasunuma, and Jeff Rients are staff members of Temple University's Center for the Advancement of Teaching.