Karin Schalm asked her freshman seminar class to divide up into four groups: scholars, explorers, careerists, and hedonists.
“I know it’s your first day of college,” Schalm said, “but you probably have some kind of expectation about what you want from the college experience.”
The students mingled with like-minded classmates and discussed what kind of advice to give to the other groups.
In one corner of the room, the scholars politely suggested that the party-animal hedonists go to class occasionally. The hedonists told the careerists to chill out and focus more on having a social life. The explorers, happy to keep searching for their purpose, encouraged others to be open to options.
Homework assignments consist of watching TED-talks. Classes include community-building exercises and presentations from campus resource offices. Flipping through the pages of the syllabus, it becomes apparent that the new freshman seminar class is a breed of its own.
Incoming freshmen were automatically enrolled in a one-credit seminar course this year with the goal of increasing retention and aiding student success. The class focuses on cultivating academic skills and a sense of belonging on campus, said Associate Provost Nathan Lindsay, the driving force behind the program.
“They’ll develop skills, relationships and awareness of resources that they would not gain any other way,” Lindsay said.
Cohen Ambrose, one of the professors who taught the pilot course, believes that the class is worth it.
“It’s not yet another unit of work,” Ambrose said. “It’s spend a credit in your first year building a toolkit of skills that will actually help you cope with a really rigorous major.”
The freshman seminar is based on “decades of research from across the country,” Lindsay said, including a study from the “Journal of College Student Retention” by John Miller and Sally Lesik that suggested an approximate 10 percent increase in first-year retention, and eventual graduation, for students who took a freshman seminar course.
The course uses a dual-instructor system by employing a faculty instructor as well as a peer mentor. Peer mentors are upperclassmen that serve the students’ questions regarding on-campus services and day-to-day college life.
While all incoming University of Montana freshmen were pre-registered for the course, taking the class is not mandatory. As of August 31, the Office of the Provost said 722 freshmen enrolled in the course, while 822 were enrolled the week before classes started.
Some students were unsure if taking an additional credit and associated coursework could actually make their lives easier. Maddie Larchick, a first-year student at the University, said she agreed the course could be helpful, but “it might be kind of stressful to have an extra class.”
However, some students were optimistic about the opportunity to make personal connections and learn about campus services. Jalynn Nelson, a freshman majoring in theater education, looked forward to engaging her surroundings.
“It will make us 10,000 percent more prepared for the next semester and our future at the University,” Nelson said. “I’m really excited to learn about the Curry Health Center services and to get help with financial aid.”
Results from a pilot course offered last spring were encouraging, said Lindsay. In a student evaluation of the pilot, all respondents rated the course as either good or excellent.
Rachel Blanch, a junior peer mentor, is confident the program will be flexible enough to suit each student’s needs.
“It always feels good when you can actually answer the questions they are wanting to have answered,” Blanch said. “Sometimes with structured programs like this, the problem is that it doesn't necessarily show them the things that they want to know. I think ours really does.”
The University will be monitoring the effectiveness of the course for the future, but instructor Karin Schalm already sees the benefit of the course for students.
“We had a question from one of our students on our very first day about how to do the overrides,” Schalm said. “It was just really exciting to be able to point them in the right direction, instead of having them wander around anxious and lost — thinking that they just can’t take math.”