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February 28, 2003

Guiding freshmen into college life

Freshmen are an increasingly large part of the CSUS student body, and two programs are helping meet the challenge that presents.

The “freshmen experience” programs – Freshmen Seminar and Learning Communities – are keeping students in school and leading to improved grade point averages. At the same time, first-time freshmen in the programs report having an easier time adjusting to college life and making friends.

“Freshmen Seminar gives students an understanding of what higher education is and what it means to be an educated person,” says Greg Wheeler, director of general education at CSUS. “And in Learning Communities, students are offered a small group learning experience, with everyone taking the same two or three courses together.”

Both are growing along with the CSUS freshmen classes, which in the last five years have gone from 3,143 to 4,958 students, a 58 percent increase.

Freshmen Seminar is a one-semester course that looks at the “big picture” of higher education. Students also learn strategies for academic success and are introduced to various student services. They earn general education credit for taking the course.

There are now 37 sections of the seminar, with nearly every one filled to capacity. In fact, the course is so popular the sections fill during freshman orientation in the summer.

In the most recent survey, most students who took Freshmen Seminar say they’re more motivated in their studies (73 percent), have a better understanding of what it means to be educated (86 percent) and feel more connected to the University (77 percent).

And of students enrolled in the four Freshmen Seminar sections when the program began in 1999, 63 percent are still at CSUS. That’s compared to 60 percent for the entire class. They have an average grade point average of 3.05, compared to 2.87 for the entire class.

Faculty enjoy teaching the seminar, Wheeler says. He’s always looking for additional faculty to teach more sections, he says.

“Once I get faculty interested, they really enjoy it and they stay. They never want to leave,” Wheeler says.

Learning Communities, meanwhile, began in 1994 with a limited offering and now enrolls more than 300 students in 17 different communities.

As with Freshmen Seminar, classes in the Learning Community program fill during the summer orientation.

Each learning community includes two or three courses, and groups of students take all the courses together. Themes for the learning communities range from “scientific communication” to “getting started in business.” There is even one community made up of almost all students living in residence halls called “adventures in higher education.” Assignments from one class often relate to learning in another class.

“Students come away with the idea that they didn’t just get pigeonholes of knowledge, but that they’ve begun to weave different ideas together,” Wheeler says.

Grade point averages of students who take part range from .05 to .16 higher than the rest of the student body. Retention rates are also a bit higher.

Wheeler says many students report one of the best things about Learning Communities is getting to know classmates. Students in the communities form study groups and socialize outside class.

Some groups of students even keep taking clusters of classes together informally after their freshmen year. Wheeler says one professor told him about a group of about a dozen of his students who sat together, studied together and ultimately did very well. He found out later that the students had been in a learning community together the year before.

For more information on either program, contact the general education office at 278-5344.


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