“If University 101 is a student’s hardest course, we are not doing our job.” Alex Karlheim, Director of First Year Experience (FYE) at Shippensburg University, sees those words as a professional mantra. Karlheim helped develop University 101 (UNIV 101) and supervises the dozens of Peer Anchors that work to help incoming first-year students transition to the college atmosphere.
Each fall, Karlheim and the FYE faculty co-coordinators hear from students who struggle to see the value of the course and occasionally deal with professors who teach material not aligned with the goals of UNIV 101. ”We do a lot of follow-ups, and they usually say ‘I have other hard courses, and this is the course I don’t focus on.’ In my professional opinion, it takes work to fail University 101. It shouldn’t be your hardest course,” Karlheim said. According to the FYE website, UNIV 101 is based on the following four objectives: Cultivating Academic Success, Engaging With the University Community, Fostering Personal Development and Wellness, and Promoting Understanding of Diversity and Social Responsibility.
“UNIV 101’s blanketed goal is to serve as the promise that students do not have to go through their first semester alone and that our job is to connect students to resources, to connect them to peer group and to provide transitional materials,” Karlheim said.
The goal of UNIV 101 sounds relatively straightforward, but factor in several dozen faculty that each brings a unique background and field of expertise to the course, and classes could quickly stray from the core objectives. To limit this, the faculty co-coordinators and experienced UNIV 101 professors worked to construct a model syllabus, which was implemented for the first time this semester. This includes a checklist of things that “should be common elements of all classes,” such as three reflection essays, a one-on-one meeting between each student and their peer anchor, a meeting with the career center to craft a resume and attendance at two campus events.
There is also a general weekly schedule so that all students are learning the same things at relatively similar times. For example, Week 7 is when students should be taught about the registration and scheduling process, and they should know what early warning grades are. “Three things have to happen: reflection essays (we have to collect essays at random to evaluate 101 effectiveness), anonymous pre and post-test surveys and a general weekly schedule,” Karlheim said.
Professors still have the flexibility to add their flair to how they teach the course, but Karlheim explained that moving towards a more standardized curriculum helps limit comparisons between students. What University 101 does not aim to do is have one student tour the Ceddia Union Building, walk on the Rail Trail and do the Ropes Course while their roommate sits in a classroom and takes notes for the entire semester. Not each professor will opt into every available experience, but standardizing the course makes it more equal across the board.
“I like the standardized portion of it because it gives all freshmen the same concepts, so even though the professor may teach it differently than someone’s friend or roommate, it still gives them the same idea,” peer anchor Lindsey Foor said. However, some professors still stray from the guidelines.
One first-year student, who asked to remain anonymous, took a test in their University 101 class that was composed of mostly biology questions. One question asked about how old the Earth is, another asked what varsity sport their peer anchor is involved with and a third asked what the ”central question or theme” of the course is — the correct answer was marked as ”science and a sustainable world.” “[I think my first weeks of class would have been] better, because I wouldn’t have gotten a 67%. This is the class I am doing the worst in. Besides science notes, I’ve gotten nothing [out of University 101],” the student said.
This is a stark contrast to the official goals of the course mentioned above and is not a standard first-year experience in the course. In one recent FYE Assessment Survey, a student said that UNIV 101 helped them learn about the available resources and that “I really got to know how college works, which was really helpful for a first-generation student.”
Depending on how and to whom the issue is raised, the professor in question will have a meeting with the department chair or one of the Faculty Co-Coordinators, Karlheim explained. According to Dr. Laurie Cella, one of the faculty co-coordinators of the FYE Program, these are productive meetings, where they discuss how the course is going and ways to incorporate resources and presentations that would support students. A time window will then be provided for the professor to make any necessary changes; if that does not happen, that professor may not be asked back to teach UNIV 101.
"University 101 should not be a difficult class that students could have a possibility of failing. Realistically, you should not fail University 101. It should strictly be about the university. I don’t think it should be about learning bio – that’s a gen ed. That’s not what the class is for,” peer anchor Nayely Peña said. University 101 is unique in that it does not live in any one department, so faculty from across campus can opt-in to teach it.
“Staffing in general for University 101 can be a challenge because it does take a special type of faculty member to want to teach it. Every year, we get a handful of faculty who teach it for the first time, and they always say it is one of the hardest courses they teach because the student need is higher,” Karlheim said.
First-time faculty will meet with the FYE coordinators over the summer to develop their syllabus and understand assignments. They then have three meetings throughout the fall semester to discuss problems and any necessary adjustments.
Karlheim makes an effort to intervene in issues as needed because her priority is helping students absorb what they need from the UNIV 101 curriculum. “The students in University 101 are the biggest priority. Not everyone is going to like what you teach, but I do need them to learn. If they aren’t learning the resources and how to advocate for themselves, they’re at risk of not retaining. We really want to make sure everything is focused on the student,” Karlheim said. Karlheim bases her confidence in University 101 on several sets of data. Fall 2021 surveys found that 79.3% of first-year students passed the course, just 3.47% declared it “not effective,” and 59% got involved with a campus organization. Additionally, benchmark data from the Class of 2022 — the first to take University 101 — has been reviewed by Institutional Research and PASSHE. The four-year graduation rates of first-time, full-time students of the 2018 cohort increased to 40.7%, which is a 5.2% increase from the 2017 cohort.
University 101 will likely never please everyone, but for Karlheim, that’s OK. “Often in higher ed, we are so focused on the customer and we want them to like everything: but you don’t have to,” Karlheim said. “Even if they only take away a handful of points — if they learn, that’s what is important. When I’m negotiating with my toddler to eat something that he does not like, he is still getting the nutrients. You can not like something but still learn and grow.”