How UW-Madison “[Reinvents] the First-Year Experience”

The Center for the First-Year Experience and the University of Wisconsin-Madison strive to understand and improve the first-year experience for all new students. Earlier this year, Inside Higher Ed outlined five ways universities are “reinventing the first year experience.” While the University of Wisconsin-Madison continuously works to improve the first year for new students, we are proud to say that our university is currently making strides toward accomplishing these goals through a variety of signature programs, resources, and opportunities.

CFYE’s Director and Assistant Dean of Students Carren Martin believes that, over time, the university has “embraced the transition to college as a longer process and not just a single event or program. New and improved initiatives have been developed, both inside and outside of the classroom.”

With various departments and campus partners contributing to a great Wisconsin Experience for first-year students, we are excited to show how UW-Madison is excelling in reinventing the first-year experience for #FutureBadgers.

Goal 1: Fostering a Sense of Belonging

With 27 first-year seminars offered at UW-Madison, students can better acclimate to academic and student life on-campus in a small, community-oriented format of their choosing. CFYE recommends all new students consider participating in a first-year seminar upon arriving at UW-Madison.

One option is the Wisconsin Experience Seminar (COUN PSY 125), open to both freshmen and transfer students. This one-credit course meets once a week in an active, discussion-driven, and community-oriented learning environment to extend the orientation experience and discuss campus resources, identity, and (of course) the Wisconsin Experience and its purpose.

Students living in Residential Learning Communities (such as BioHouse, GreenHouse, Open House, and the Studio) can take advantage of first-year seminars specific to their halls. These opportunities connect first-year students with others in their residence hall to help new students transition, create community, and delve deeper into a topic of interest. From music to social justice, each hall has a unique focus that appeals to its residents.

Goal 2: Encouraging Breadth and Curricular Coherence

First-Year Interest Groups (FIGs) are another opportunity offered to new students at UW-Madison. A unique subsection of first-year interest groups with clusters of three linked courses, FIGS allow first-year students to explore a common theme in a faculty-led cohort, with 60 topic options currently available.

Nathan Phelps, assistant dean for the College of Letters and Sciences and  director of the First Year Interest Groups (FIGS) Program, says that “often times we’ll break [the three courses] up and try to create a little liberal arts education in a box. If a student can have an experience that’s somewhat curated for them, they can better connect the general education curriculum with their major.”

Additionally, these small cohorts of 20 students connect the academic and social aspects of campus life, allowing students to form relationships and create community not only with students, but with a UW-Madison faculty member as well. In a dual effort to promote the unique interests of first-year students and cover a variety of topics/ general education requirements, FIGs realize the potential of early courses in students’ college careers.


Goal 3: Making Research an Integral Part of the First-Year Experience

180 students engage annually in the Undergraduate Research Scholars (URS) program, which allows first and second year undergraduate students to earn credit whilst completing research-based and/or creative work alongside a UW-Madison faculty member.

Beyond the obvious benefit of forming relationship with university staff, students also work hands-on with classroom concepts; contribute to valuable research in their field of interest; and showcase their findings at the annual Undergraduate Symposium.

With nearly 700 student presenters in the past year, the symposium provides an opportunity to improve presentation style, knowledge, and confidence about student research work; as well as be considered for Undergraduate Research Awards. All first and second year undergraduate students are welcomed to participate in the URS program, no matter their area of study or level of experience.

Goal 4: Building on Student Interests While Opening Windows into Majors and Careers

UW-Madison has invested in the Career Exploration Center (CEC), College of Letters & Science Career Initiative, and the Taking Initiative course (ILS210) to help new students engage in major exploration and career development.

The CEC, a department within the office of Cross College Advising Services (CCAS), is a key resource for students hoping to discuss potential paths for their future. CEC Student Services Coordinator Jonathon Ferguson says that it is never too early or too late to start seeking career advising. However Ferguson does believe that students often feel an “undue amount of pressure” to select a major and career.

Conversations with CEC advisors will help students gain a more accurate understanding of what the labor market is, how to explore opportunities, and how to ultimately find their best major and career path (a picture that is often skewed by “societal noise” according to Ferguson). Utilizing this information and speaking with CEC advisors will help students best plan for their major selection and career success.

Goal 5: Treating Students as Partners

Additionally, DoIT Academic Technology, College of Letters & Science Learning Support Services, UW-Madison Teaching Academy, and the Wisconsin Collaboratory for Enhanced Learning (WisCEL) support faculty in utilizing active, technology-aided pedagogy to support student engagement and learning in first-year courses.

DoIT Academic Technology, specifically, combines technology with in-person teaching methods to create the most engaging and effective learning opportunity for new students. Some of the services they offer to UW-Madison faculty include software training; course production assistance; and the “Blend@UW” program, which helps staff design courses that foster deeper, more active learning for students in a week-long workshop series.

Brian McNurlen, Assistant Director of DoIT Academic Technology, says that the department is “full of experts in several interconnected and diverse fields, including trainers, consultants, designers, producers and strategic thinkers. We’re here to support and assist instructors, to ensure that technology and teaching are connected in ways that make sense and get great results.”

In consideration of students’ unique learning needs, the Academic Technology team at DoIT makes sure that faculty think critically of the impact each element of their course will have on learning outcomes, while promoting the best programs and tools to create an efficient, engaging course.

We are proud to have these resources, as well as many more, currently available for first-year students at UW-Madison. Our university continues to excel at facilitating a smooth, successful transition for our new students upon their arrival. As for the future of the first-year experience, Martin says that CFYE “would like to support even more opportunities and encourage a greater percentage of first-year students to participate in at least one High Impact Practice in their first year here on campus.”

“I’d also love to see continued and increased collaboration, shared vision, and shared best practices across the many strong, but disparate, initiatives for new students,” says Martin.

With new projects already in the works, such as the further development of the “Our Wisconsin” all-student inclusion program, we believe the future looks bright for our #FutureBadgers and #UWTransfers.


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