A fresh focus on the first year
By Jacqueline R. Koch
The first semester of freshman year often is filled with unfamiliar faces in each new class, leading students to feel shy and uneasy. That’s not the case for a new linked section of English written composition and oral communication, which enrolls the same 23 students in both courses.
“The familiarity that happens in linked classes like these gives students a sense of comfort with each other that makes having discussions, doing peer response, and giving speeches so much easier,” says Dr. Debra Burgauer, a professor of English who teaches the written composition section. “Plus their enthusiasm level — because they chose to take these two classes together — is infectious. They are excited about learning about the natural connections between written and oral rhetorical principles and practices.”
Bradley’s first-year experience is designed so students become eager to learn and socialize on campus. In addition to the linked courses, Bradley offers a three-day orientation, a freshmen-only seminar, and many on-campus activities.
Dr. Burgauer and communication professor Jan Frazier began brainstorming about the linked courses five years ago and put it in place in fall 2010. Students benefit from both social and academic aspects of the classes.
“They need to make friends as freshmen, and this is an exceptionally bright group of young people; they seem to really blend well together,” Frazier said. “I have a feeling that friendships will continue long after this class is completed because they will have been together every day, every week, for the entire semester.”
Students research one major topic for their informative speech and essay. The linked courses allow them to delve into a subject in which they’re genuinely interested.
The classes use Zotero, which allows students to take notes and find sources online, then share those sources with other students.
Students also conduct research in the library and learn research methods from library information literacy staff. “We are hoping that these research methods will carry on to their biology, political science, and international studies — those are just examples — research papers,” Frazier says.
Both students and professors have benefitted from the linked courses. Linking classes takes “cooperation, time, and lots of planning,” Dr. Burgauer says. “We are very committed to good speaking, writing, and research skills because we know they are fundamental to academic and real world success.”
Getting oriented to Bradley
Bradley’s entire freshman experience is centered on helping students grow and succeed academically and socially.
A three-day, two-night orientation session allows students and parents to get accustomed to university life while also helping students develop one-on-one relationships with mentor students. A student aide sits down with individual students and shares his or her frustrations, successes, and questions about university life and life in general. The new student then asks any questions or shares any feelings he or she is experiencing.
“The student aides are so open with the students and so vulnerable with them,” says Dr. Joyce Shotick, executive director of student development and health and transitional services. “It leads new students into questioning, ‘Who am I?’ and ‘How do I fit in?’”
Students continue that orientation experience in EHS 120, also known as the “University Experience,” to help them transition to on-campus living. Offered to students during their first semester at Bradley, the course is an extension of summer orientation. It gives students a chance to open up to 20 peers and an instructor without the pressures of tests or grades.
“We’re creating a family out of a group of people who didn’t know each other,” Dr. Shotick says. “The beauty of being separated from an academic class is that students do feel safe and comfortable saying whatever they want to say.”
While there are no tests or grades, students learn more than they could have imagined.
Freshmen hear presentations on campus life, sex and health education, peer groups, and academic advising. They learn about time management, good study skills, and the history of Bradley University. They learn how to apply what they learn in class to practical problems in the real world.
Most of all, students learn about themselves. Dr. Shotick incorporates a Meyers-Briggs test into her classes so students can understand more about their personalities and behaviors.
Classes do not follow rigid schedules, and instructors are free to include any freshman-relevant material in the class.
Summer orientation sessions help students begin thinking about who they are and how they fit into the campus scene and society; EHS 120 helps them answer those questions.
It also allows them to ask questions they may not otherwise find answers to. A popular segment of many EHS 120 classes is “He Said, She Said,” which allows men and women to ask the other gender questions they’ve always wanted to know about the opposite sex.
“We have this debate and it helps them know who they are, see the bigger picture, and relate to others,” Dr. Shotick says. “They feel safe and this unlocks a lot of themselves. They can’t do that in an academic class.”
Students end the semester by writing a reflective paper. One student from each class is named “Outstanding First Year Student,” an honor given to the student who takes an active role on campus, helps inspire peers, and seeks to be a leader. Professors and upperclassmen write letters of recommendation for students, an endeavor faculty members have completely supported.
At the end of the semester, the Alumni Association hosts a banquet to honor the student-leaders. The event allows students to network with alumni who are leaders in their communities and career fields.
Bradley’s first-year experience is designed to give students knowledge they’ll use throughout their college careers and after graduation, says Dr. Alan Galsky, vice president for the Division of Student Affairs.
“It provides first-year students with the information we feel they need to know to ensure an enjoyable, successful, and safe first semester,” he says. “Chances are, if we do that, they’ll have great Bradley careers.”
The success of first-year programs is seen in the freshman-to-sophomore retention rates experienced by Bradley. Bradley’s most recent rate of 87 percent is nearly five points higher than the national average. The retention rate among students who take EHS 120 is even higher, Dr. Galsky says.
Other events that help new students get involved at Bradley include Welcome Week, Late Night BU, and Freshman Convocation.
Welcome Week consists of an activities fair, block party, food fair, and other events that help students meet people and get acquainted with the campus.
Late Night BU draws more than 90 percent of freshmen to its monthly events that include carnivals, casino nights, and other fun activities.
“And Freshman Convocation adds to the tradition, spirit, and involvement of our freshmen,” Dr. Galsky says.
On the academic side, freshmen must meet with their academic advisers before registering for spring semester classes. That ensures freshmen understand the classes they’ll need for their majors and gives them an opportunity to be mentored.
Freshman journalism major Emily Murdock has enjoyed her first year at Bradley, especially the opportunities for students to get involved and the friendly learning environment offered by professors and academic advisers.
Murdock also attributes the linked course for helping her improve her study and social skills: “Because we meet five days a week, we know each other very well. That allows COM 103 to be a much easier, less stressful environment.”