One of the hottest new things at college is the first-year experience course - a one-semester course that matches the very best faculty of the school with an engaging and relevant subject of study - all in a small- group and friendly atmosphere. Some schools focus their first-year experience courses on easing the transition from high school to college: These courses emphasize academic skills, personal development, and learning your way around the campus. But other schools adopt a professor's prerogative model: Professors are invited to teach a course on a topic in which they are doing research-or are just plain interested in thinking about. To find out more about how best to succeed at these professor's prerogative seminars, we've invited visiting blogger J. Steven Reznick, professor of psychology and associate dean for first-year seminars and academic experiences at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, to offer his best insider tips. Here's what he advises:
1. Explore new territory. Each first-year experience seminar will be limited to approximately 15 to 25 students, so even at a small school, it is unrealistic to assume that you will be enrolled in the seminar that is your top choice. Enrolling in any first-year seminar is better than enrolling in no first-year seminar, so be strategic. Look at the first-year seminar offerings at your school, and come up with a list of seminars that would be of interest. For example, if you don't see dozens of new territory seminars at North Carolina, UCLA, or Michigan, you've had an amazing high school experience!
2. Play to your strengths. Some first-year seminars emphasize in-class discussion. Others stress hands on activities, social interactions, creativity, community service, etc. When putting together your list of seminars, get beyond the topic itself and pick a class that is built upon a type of activity that you enjoy.
3. Avoid your major. Some students enter school with leanings toward a specific major. It would be natural to look for seminars in that major, but this is a boo-boo. When you get further into your major, you will have access to lots of advanced courses on interesting topics in that field. Think of your first-year experience course as an opportunity to explore completely new territory because it sounds interesting or simply because it shows you an aspect of academics that you know nothing about.
4. Speak up. If your seminar encourages discussion, speak up! If speaking in class makes you uncomfortable, that's all the more reason to focus on doing it: A first-year seminar is a great context for you to get beyond your high school timidity and find your college voice.
5. Add some spice to the stew. Even if your seminar is not focused on discussion, it is supposed to be interesting, and instructors are always glad to have student participation. You can help by asking questions, introducing new ideas, and steering the course toward interesting topics. It is lame to complain that your first-year seminar wasn't interesting. If your seminar doesn't seem interesting, do something to make it more engaging.
6. Show up. Class attendance is always the right thing to do (not only because it is the key to getting a quality education but also because you're paying for the opportunity to attend class), but in a first-year seminar with 15 to 25 students, your absence from class will be very noticeable. More important, first-year seminars are often an ongoing conversation or debate that is being built on the basis of previous presentations and discussions. If you aren't in class, you aren't in the dialogue.
7. Experience courses are courses. Don't lose sight of the fact that although your first-year seminar has many special qualities that make it different from traditional courses, it is still a regular course in that it might count as credit hours, might meet your school's general education requirements, and might be graded. Have fun in your first-year seminar, but don't forget to get the job done.
8. Make friends. One important aspect of first-year seminars is the opportunity to make new friendships. The word make is an active verb. That is, sitting back and waiting for friendships to happen is not an effective strategy. You can play an active role in helping make friendships happen by starting conversations, issuing invitations, and organizing events.
9. Establish a relationship with your instructor. If most of your other first-year courses are large, the instructor in your first-year seminar could be the faculty member whom you know best. And he or she could be the faculty member on campus who knows you best. Relationships with faculty can be helpful in many ways: picking future courses, getting academic advice, and ultimately obtaining a letter of recommendation. Your first-year seminar offers a great opportunity to make this connection.
10. Spread the words. Interesting first-year seminar topics can initiate a wave that extends far beyond the classroom. Talk about your seminar with parents, friends, and the stranger sitting beside you on the bus or in the cafeteria. You'll learn more deeply about the focal topic by describing your seminar to others and by processing their questions and observations.