Teaching First-Year Students

With anticipation each fall, we look forward to a new year on campus: new courses to teach, new teaching strategies to try, and a whole new group of students. In addition to the returning students whom we have not met, many of the new faces we see each new semester are college freshmen, otherwise known as first-year students. Although first-year students differ in age, experiences, traditions, and backgrounds, the majority at NIU (over 99% in 2018) are between 18 and 22 years old (Northern Illinois University, 2019).

Although first-year students differ in age, experiences, traditions and backgrounds, the majority at NIU are between 18 and 22 years old.

An important consideration when teaching first-year students is to meet students where they are, and this requires us to know where they are coming from and help them bridge the divide from what was expected of them in high school versus what is expected in college courses. As Castillo (2014c) notes, “The sheer magnitude of the academic and cultural transition from high school to college should not be understated.” Changes with which students must grapple are “course size, a different relationship with instructors…, and a looser structure regarding expectations” (Castillo, 2014c), not to mention all of the personal and cultural changes they will experience. First-year students will enter you classroom with a wide range of abilities in “[r]eading, writing critical analysis, and classroom presentation skills,” which can be anxiety-inducing (Castillo, 2014c).

First-year students have a different idea of what “learning” entails based on their prior experience. As a result, “many students define learning as accumulating facts and memorizing right answers, and they’ve honed their study skills to do just that” (Peters, n.d.). They are often unprepared for how learning works in college courses, which enails problem-solving, analysis, and judgement (Peters, n.d.). This new kind of learning may frustrate students, and they will need help to learn how to learn in these new, more sophisticated ways.

Connect with First-Year Students

Make connections with students despite age, values and experiential differences. When discussing new or controversial course content, bring in examples to which students can relate. For example, use a reverse-debate format in which students take opposing side to what they believe.  Here are a few tips for interacting with first-year students in the classroom from Carnegie Mellon University (1997):

As part of the non-instructional course objectives, teach first-year students how to prepare for assignments and exams.

Be Approachable

Share some personal experiences, such as how your interest in the subject started or stories from your college days. You can let students know that you can be trusted and that students can share feelings and questions. This is especially helpful for first-year students seeking to establish a place in the university community. Sprinkle in a bit of humor now and then to reduce the formal nature of class.

Make the Course Content Relevant

Relate what may be new course content to many first year students, to their knowledge and interests. Show students the importance of the content, how content relates to required readings, and how content can actually be used.

Give and Receive Feedback

Provide ways to give and receive feedback throughout the semester and use rubrics to help students understand expectations and methods of assessment. Grade assignments and exams quickly so students can use feedback to prepare for new content and future assessments. Give meaningful and timely feedback and solicit feedback to add credibility to your teaching approaches. Some examples are:

Give meaningful and timely feedback and solicit feedback to add credibility to your teaching approaches.

Believe in Students

Begin each semester with the assumption that all first-year students come to class eager to learn. Although it is expected that you are an expert in the discipline, students should be allowed to express their points of view. Listen to what first-year students have to say, allow discussions that diverge from the planned lecture and invite students to help devise course policies and rules related to projects and assignments. Students who have a voice in their own learning will find a more rewarding learning experience.

Begin each semester with the assumption that all first-year students come to class eager to learn.


It is essential that you help first-year students successfully adjust to new living and learning environments. By understanding what it means to be a first-year college student and recognizing the demands first-year students face while transitioning to the university community, you can provide engaging, challenging and supportive learning environments.


Carnegie Mellon University (1997). Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence. Best practices for teaching first-year undergraduates: Strategies for experience faculty.  

Castillo, A. (2014a). Classroom Tactics Especially for First-Years. Retrieved from https://teachingcommons.stanford.edu/teaching-talk/classroom-tactics-especially-first-years

Castillo, A. (2014b). Relating to the First-Year Student. Retrieved from https://teachingcommons.stanford.edu/teaching-talk/relating-first-year-student

Castillo, A. (2014c). What’s Special About Teaching First-Year Students? Retrieved from https://teachingcommons.stanford.edu/teaching-talk/what%E2%80%99s-special-about-teaching-first-year-students

Northern Illinois University Department of Institutional Research, Division of Academic Affairs. (2019). Age new freshmen fall 2016-fall 2018 [unpublished Excel file].  

Peters, C. B. (n.d.). Challenging and Supporting First-Year Students. Retrieved from http://www.nea.org/home/34713.htm

Vanderbilt University, Center for Teaching. (n.d.). Teaching First-Year Students. Retrieved from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/firstyears/

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Suggested citation

Northern Illinois University Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. (2012). Teaching first-year students. In Instructional guide for university faculty and teaching assistants. Retrieved from https://www.niu.edu/citl/resources/guides/instructional-guide

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