Book by Barbara F. Tobolowsky & Associates
Review by Stephen Pepper
Office of Undergraduate Advising and Academic Programming
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Special courses for entering college students appear in nearly every setting of U.S. higher education, from community colleges to research universities, from tiny Bible colleges to mammoth state universities. First-year seminars, often linked with advising, vary widely in duration, purpose, structure, grading, funding, and many other dimensions. To help disseminate best practices, the National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition has conducted and published triennial surveys of seminars since 1988. The current volume, based on the 2006 survey, offers exhaustive information: who knew that the first recorded first-year seminar was at Lee College in Kentucky in 1882 (p. 1)? 

This monograph is primarily a reference book, of most value to administrators seeking to begin or refine first-year seminars. Two hundred fifteen clearly organized tables present data on types of seminars (extended orientation, academic, basic study skills, pre-professional, hybrid); targeted populations; who teaches and administers seminars and how they are trained and compensated; course objectives and assessment; and much more. Extremely brief comments are threaded through the tables; Chapter 6 summarizes the most important findings. This structure allows either a quick skim for conclusions or a more detailed study of the data. 

The 2006 survey shows that more than half of reporting institutions offer first-year seminars with academic content; nearly all seminars, academic or not, earn letter grades and degree credit. Seminars are required for all students at just under half of reporting institutions; 90 percent are taught by faculty, though in another 72 percent student affairs professionals or other staff also participate in teaching (pp. 97-98). These findings have been consistent since the survey began; other characteristics have fluctuated widely, but the authors caution that changes in questions and reporting institutions make these fluctuations statistically suspect (p. 99). In fact, the 2006 survey may be less useful than earlier versions because the number of responding institutions is so much lower: the 1988 high of 1,699 declined to 968 for 2006, partly because of a switch to the Web (though 2006 participation rebounded significantly from 2003 when the switch occurred; p. 99).

Individual advisors may be interested to place their own work with seminars in a larger context. I was surprised, for example, to learn that the class size of our Freshman Advising Seminars (8-10 students), is reported by just 0.7 percent of 808 reporting institutions. The majority of institutions report class sizes of 16-20 (36.9 percent) or 21-25 (29.8 percent) students (p. 25). 

While most of the survey is quantitative, one open-ended question answered by 540 institutions asked for information on innovative or successful components of first-year seminars; pp. 60-62 present a stimulating summary of these answers. Ideas range from common approaches like linking seminars to living/learning communities and summer reading to virtual library tours and student mission statements. The National Resource Center’s website provides more extensive food for thought, including seminar syllabi and other resources on its website, http://sc.edu/fye/resources/fyr/index.html. 

Tobolowsky and Associates have performed yeoman service for those concerned with first-year programming by carefully conducting and analyzing these surveys. This monograph is a valuable snapshot of one of the fundamental building blocks of US undergraduate education.

2006 National survey of first-year seminars: Continuing innovations in the collegiate curriculum (Monograph No. 51). (2008) Book by Barbara F. Tobolowsky & Associates. Review by Stephen Pepper. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, 140 pp. $35.00. ISBN 9781889271644
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