Higher Learning Commission

Bridging Academic and Student Affairs in the First-Year Classroom

Sumie Song, Barrington Price and Jonathan Dodrill


North Park University (NPU) is a small, private, Christian liberal arts institution located in Chicago with an undergraduate student body that is 53 percent commuter, 47 percent residential, 50 percent Caucasian, 21 percent Hispanic, 7 percent African American, 7 percent Asian, and 15 percent Other. Following the lead of colleges and universities across the country, NPU introduced the first-year seminar with the aim of helping students successfully navigate the transition to college (Padgett, Keup and Pascarella 2013). As the foundational course of the General Education Program, the Cornerstone (CRST) seminar seeks to prepare students for successful learning across the liberal arts curriculum. Among its chief strengths is its integration of concepts and methods from fields as varied as world history, philosophy and psychology in its exploration of significant and enduring questions of human experience. Now in its third iteration, CRST also offers a host of cocurricular resources and experiences, such as engagement with the city, help with the details of registration and writing support to better equip students to thrive in a college environment.

NPU’s approach to the first-year seminar is distinctive in that it encourages full-time Arts and Sciences faculty as well as administrative staff in such areas as student affairs to teach courses in their given field of expertise. This challenges the long-held assumption that only full-time faculty members ought to teach first-year students (Griffin and Romm 2008). In fact, the opposite may be true. Data measuring the efficacy of NPU’s first-year seminar and students’ perceptions of the educational value of the first-year seminar support much of the historical research on the subject, showing it to be a reliable indicator of student success (Pascarella and Terenzini 2005; Cuseo 2009). Students who have earned As, Bs or Cs in the course have retained to the second year at rates 3 percent and 9 percent higher than the current and 10-year institutional averages, respectively. During the year 2015–2016, 30 percent of CRST instructors were administrative staff members.

This paper considers closely the role of the individual instructor in helping students adjust to and excel in a new environment. In other words, who teaches matters. We contend that academically trained staff and/or administrators are uniquely able to facilitate students’ transition to college by bringing a decidedly student-centered perspective to the classroom. Administrators who also teach carry with them an awareness of students’ lives beyond the classroom, an oftentimes intimate knowledge of the social, emotional, cultural and even financial obstacles a given student may face. The paper presents an example of a course that illustrates how this sort of integrated perspective necessarily informs pedagogy, resulting in an approach to teaching that foregrounds self-direction and agency, equips students to assume more responsibility for their own learning and helps them see themselves as part of a community in which they play an essential role, all of which have been found to be key contributors to students’ success.

CRST: Curriculum and Outcomes

The CRST seminar poses the question, “What does it mean to be human?” Students ponder what makes for a life well lived, wrestle with their own experiences of personal growth and discovery and learn how the act of telling or sharing one’s story with others can itself be transformative. Each CRST course conceives the question of “humanness” within the framework of a particular discipline or disciplines. It is worth noting that CRST is not a “study skills” course, nor is it intended to serve as a general introduction to college learning. CRST is academic in nature and discipline-focused. Learning outcomes emphasize the development of written, oral and visual communication skills and competencies; an understanding of personal identity, as well as the role of society in shaping personal identity; and the ability to think critically about one’s own assumptions, beliefs and prejudices. The range of disciplines represented in the CRST curriculum is extensive; it includes literature, art, religious studies, history, Holocaust studies and performance studies, among others.

Research on CRST

A regression analysis was performed that showed the first-year seminar to be a reliable predictor of students’ ability to retain to the second year. Students who earned an A/B/C retained at a rate of 81 percent, which is 3 percent higher than NPU’s current retention rate and 9 percent higher than the 10-year institutional average. The probability of retaining from the first to second year decreased significantly—at the .05 level with a marginal effect size of -0.056—for students who either did not take CRST or who failed to complete it successfully, earning a D/F/DW/I for the course (Table 1).

Table 1. North Park University Student Retention Model

Variables in Model Probit Coefficients Marginal Effects Pr > Chi - Square
Athletic Participation 0.279 0.070 0.007
Provisional Admission 0.428 0.108 0.005
Earned Work Study 0.257 0.065 0.090
Gender (Male) -0.006 -0.001 0.943
Poor performance/No completion
-0.221 -0.056 0.076

Note. Poor performance/no completion of Dialogue or Cornerstone pertains to performance in North Park University’s first-year seminar course and is defined as students receiving a grade of D, D-, F, incomplete, or no completion.

In 2015, NPU conducted a series of student-led focus groups on students’ perceptions of the value of the first-year seminar. By adopting a student-centered approach to program assessment and providing students with opportunities to offer critiques and insights into how the program might be improved, the study was also intended to enhance students’ sense of empowerment, ownership and agency in relation to their own learning, as well as their sense of relevance and connectedness to the institution.

All students who completed CRST who retained from the first to second year were invited to take part; the first 40 respondents were chosen. Students were asked a series of questions about how the CRST course had helped to (1) facilitate their transition to college; (2) improve their writing skills; (3) promote engagement with the city, thereby enabling them to better relate their classroom learning to their (urban) context; (4) increase their self-awareness about how they learn best and their educational goals; and (5) make them feel more connected to other students/faculty/staff and the school by and large.

The results of the study, briefly stated, suggest that awareness of self and a sense of belonging/connectedness to others are vital to successful learning. Participants who reported feeling a strong sense of community in the classroom said it helped them better adjust to a new learning environment by making them more self-aware. Some said this sense of community emboldened them to explore aspects of themselves of which they were previously unaware. Still others referred to the freedom they were given to craft their own approach to learning: “In CRST I was encouraged to deconstruct and reconstruct my education.” By all accounts, the research indicates that awareness about one’s learning strengths and/or styles can help solidify students’ integration into the university, their success in a major and, ultimately, a given profession. Students’ approach to learning and to the attainment of goals, more specifically, are key predictors of academic success (Hsieh, Sullivan and Guerra 2007).

Especially important was the role of validation in strengthening students’ motivation to learn. Several students stressed that the validation they received from their instructor led to a heightened sense of self-efficacy, which not only helped them succeed academically but also increased their desire to contribute in some way to the campus community. It has been shown that the practice of validating students as able and competent learners can have a positive effect on students’ engagement in all aspects of university life (Rendon 1994). The more involved students become, the greater their sense of self-efficacy, which, in turn, may increase the likelihood of persistence to graduation.

Equally significant is that students who feel part of a community are more apt to engage difficult and often divisive subjects like race/racism with an attitude of curiosity and a willingness to listen. An instructor, therefore, who emphasizes the importance of connection with the self as well as conversation with the other can increase students’ motivation to learn even in the face of cultural difference and disparity. Despite the ruptures that can and often do take place in such conversations, respondents who had formed intimate bonds with students in their class of different races and from other regions of the world expressed a greater openness to examining their own racial prejudices and assumptions (Young et al. 2011).

CRST: An Example

One CRST course taught by a student affairs administrator trained in medieval literature takes as its subject J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. “Lord of the Rings: A Journey of Self-Discovery” draws on a variety of innovative pedagogies to address the vastly different ways in which students learn, allowing students to experience learning as both a self-directed and collaborative endeavor encompassing not only the mind but also body and spirit. In the course students are asked to identify their strengths and limitations as learners, to deconstruct their past learning/classroom experiences and to contribute suggestions to course content and structure. Throughout, students are encouraged to reflect on what it is they learned, how they went about learning it and ways in which other students enhanced and focused their own learning. Students engage in critical analytical and reflective partnered writing in which they write to and for each other, rather than the instructor, which improves written skills by modeling real-world communication. Through experimentation with a variety of media (i.e., art, song, drama), students come to recognize and value the particular strengths of their fellow learners. Students are also introduced to mind-body activities, such as meditation, that foster connection with the self. Role-playing games like “Dungeons and Dragons,” historical reenactment and other simulation-type activities underscore the importance of play while honing students’ ability to think strategically, both individually and in a group. Debates that students help design make them more cognizant of how, precisely, they learn by having them work within a diverse group toward a shared objective. Taken together, such strategies force students to be more than simply passive receptacles; they equip students to become active, engaged, self-regulating learners who can then make decisions as to what and how they wish to learn while also instilling a sense of collective responsibility for others’ learning (Bain 2004).


As a comprehensive study involving more than 20 schools on the impact of the first-year seminar amply illustrates, assumptions governing first-year instruction can be pervasive (Griffin and Romm 2008). With a few notable exceptions, the vast majority of institutions rely on full-time or tenure-track faculty members when it comes to teaching disciplinary content (Smith et al. 2008). At schools where the first-year seminar assumes more the form of a study-skills course or a hybrid model combining curricular and cocurricular elements, administrative staff can and do in fact teach. Their teaching, however, is typically limited to providing practical guidance on career-development, study-abroad, and/or service-learning opportunities and processes.

Who teaches matters as much as what is being taught. NPU raises the possibility of a markedly different model of first-year teaching. As the research on retention suggests, the unique admixture of student affairs experience and academic expertise can be of great benefit to schools. As those who find themselves straddling the divide can readily attest, having a reach that extends well beyond the walls of the classroom compels one to become, as a result, an altogether different kind of teacher.


Bain, K. 2004. What the best college teachers do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard.

Cuseo, J. B. 2009. The empirical case for the first-year seminar: Course impact on student retention and academic achievement. E-Source for College Transitions 6 (6): 4–5, 7.

Griffin, A. M., and J. Romm, eds. 2008. Exploring the evidence, vol. IV: Reporting research on first-year seminars. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition. http://sc.edu/fye/resources/fyr/pdf/MExpEvid_IV.pdf.

Hsieh, P., J. R. Sullivan, and N. S. Guerra. 2007. A closer look at college students: Self-efficacy and goal orientation. Journal of Advanced Academics 18 (3): 454–476.

Padgett, R. D., J. R. Keup, and E. T. Pascarella. 2013. The impact of first-year seminars on college students’ life-long learning orientations. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice 50 (2): 133–151.

Pascarella, E. T., and P. T. Terenzini. 2005. How college affects students: A third decade of research. Vol. 2. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Rendon, L. I. 1994. Validating culturally diverse students: Toward a new model of learning and student development. Innovative Higher Education 19 (1): 33–51.

Smith, M., D. Ward, A. Darnell, and F. Martinez. 2008. University of Texas at El Paso. In Exploring the evidence, vol. IV: Reporting research on first-year seminars, edited by A. M. Griffin and J. Romm, 79–82. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition. http://sc.edu/fye/resources/fyr/pdf/MExpEvid_IV.pdf.

Young, A., G. Johnson, M. Hawthorne, and J. Pugh. 2011. Cultural predictors of academic motivation and achievement: A self-deterministic approach. College Student Journal 45 (1): 151–163.


About the Authors

Sumie Song is Director of the International Office and Global Studies Advisor, Barrington Price is Director of Student Success, and Jonathan Dodrill is Director of Undergraduate Advising and Vocational Exploration at North Park University in Chicago, Illinois.

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NOTE: The papers included in this collection offer the viewpoints of their authors. HLC recommends them for study and for the advice they contain, but they do not represent official HLC directions, rules or policies.

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