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Occasional Paper Series

Occasional Paper Series No. 3

In the Undergraduate Mind: The First-Year Experience from Three Perspectives


The courses that comprise the centerpiece of the University’s mission hold the potential to produce that magical, transformational moment that can change a life forever. Many of us have experienced that and value it for others, especially members of our own family. Yet it is often difficult to discern what kind of learning goes on in a college classroom, as well as to assess the longer-term effect of that learning. This Occasional Paper presents the opportunity to examine multiple viewpoints about the first-year University experience by exploring how one course fits into the larger picture. The ensuing essays offer three personal accounts-one from a student in the class, the second from that student’s mother, and a third from the course instructor. Writing independently, the authors responded to guiding questions about teaching and learning.

The course, a University Seminar (USEM) entitled “Drugs in Modern American Society,” was taught by Bill McAllister, who holds a Ph.D. in History and was at the time of writing an Assistant Professor and Faculty Consultant at the University of Virginia Teaching Resource Center. The Undergraduate Record states that USEMs, “are designed to give first-year students the opportunity to develop critical thinking skills and explore new ideas in an environment that encourages interactive learning and intensive discussion. The seminars are based on ideas that have changed the way we think about our relation to the world around us.” This two-credit course, which examined historical patterns of drug use and drug control, required students to read important texts, watch films, write papers, participate in class discussions, and make a formal class presentation on an individualized topic.

Each essay places the writer’s experience of this USEM within a larger context, providing insight into the impact of the University’s core mission on individual lives and the community. The student, who graduated from a private, college-preparatory high school, compares his USEM with the other classes he took in his first semester. The mother, a faculty member at a US university, contrasts the USEM and first-year phenomena more generally with her son’s previous academic life. The instructor examines how this course fit into his longer experience as a teacher. The identities of the authors and other U.Va. faculty (except Mr. McAllister) remain anonymous in order to assure confidentiality. Although this Occasional Paper does not presume to represent everyone’s University experience, we hope these perspectives might give readers pause to contemplate the potential inherent in all of us to grow and learn.

©2003, by the Teaching Resource Center, University of Virginia, Hotel D, 24 East Range,
PO Box 400136, Charlottesville, VA 22904-4136 
All rights reserved.


My first semester was interesting and very different from any previous four-month period of education that I have experienced. It felt like a whirlwind while it was going on, but in retrospect it seems like a vast expanse of time. I’m sure the changes in social and situational factors had powerfully influential effects on my experience, but those aspects will remain secondary in this analysis. I will focus on academic issues and in particular my experience with the USEM format.

I was interested in all my classes during my first semester. That may not seem like a shocking statement, but it is fairly significant in my mind. In high school, I was not particularly engaged in many of my classes. It was often a real struggle to force myself to complete assignments or do readings. This has not been a big issue at college. I feel that this new ease of self-motivation stems from a few factors. One is simply the difference in the collegiate schedule. I often felt trapped at my high school, like I had no escape; the education became forcible indoctrination. There was so much wasted time when I was just twiddling my thumbs with boredom. Now the education is happening all around me and it is incumbent upon me to get up, get out, and satiate my curiosity. This is made even easier when, like last semester, my classes really interested me. I found myself connecting ideas from different fields and disciplines and being excited by those connections. I would bring up an idea from my psychology class in my USEM, or connect physics with poetry. My education felt more like it belonged to me-it was my own little cohesive ball of exploration and discovery that I could dribble up and down the court as I pleased. This is a truly liberating feeling. I’m much less concerned with grades now than in high school. At the same time I’m much more interested in the process of academic exploration and the actual quality of the material. I find myself questioning everything that does not feel right or seems too easy, whereas in the past I would have simply accepted what I was told and regurgitated it on cue.

The USEM experience was definitely one of the highlights of my first semester. The topic was particularly interesting to me, and the class provided an excellent forum for discussion. The class structure and size were very similar to a typical class at my high school. This measure of familiarity was nice as I eased into college life. It was also nice to be in a class with only first-year students; I felt like we were all in the same boat. Aside from the comforting nature of being among equals, it was also a good opportunity to observe and understand a fairly representative cross section of my Wahoo contemporaries. I must be interested in these people because I have decided to associate myself with them in this academic setting. They are a reflection of me, my goals, my dreams, etc. I get to know them through some social exchanges, but mainly through the ways they approach the material and the discussion. For someone like me who is interested in people and their behavior, this is a fulfilling opportunity. My USEM provided a great atmosphere for getting to know what made these first-year Wahoos tick. We were guided by the texts and the professor shaped the discussion in certain ways, but never to the point where individual thought was hindered. This is very admirable; it must be hard to remain objective and effectively unobtrusive as a professor. My one gripe with the class was that it only met once a week for two hours. I feel like there was a lot more depth to the topic that could have been explored in a three-credit setting. All these factors influenced me to take another USEM the following semester, which was different but fun in its own way.

The USEM was a nice change of pace from the typical, huge, freshman lecture class. I understand that the large lecture classes are sometimes criticized for being impersonal. I think that it can be easy to lose oneself in the back row of one of these lectures, or to not even show up at all. Teaching one of these classes well requires a truly skillful professor. Lucky for me, U.Va. is full of very competent and excited teachers. I learned this first-hand last semester in my huge Psychology lecture. The professor was dynamic and captivating; I felt like he was speaking past the other three hundred heads in the room and directly to me. Consequently, I didn’t miss a class and I’m now considering a Psych major. Also, discussion sections for large classes provide opportunities to address individual concerns. I think a mixture of large and small classes is healthy because it shows the student that there are many venues for the pursuit of knowledge.

If a student finds a class unbearable for any number of reasons and is having trouble keeping up attendance then he should ask himself why he’s bothered to take the class at all. I feel like many students take classes with only long-term goals in mind: the grade, the diploma, the job, etc. Such goals are not bad by any means, but they can deflate the joy of learning. Higher education should be undertaken for personal reasons rather than perceived obligations. It can be a fun, fulfilling process in and of itself.


So, you send your first-born off to a University, with a zillion questions and concerns lurking just behind the goodbye smile and hug. OK, smile/tears and hug. You’ve worked in a University for many years yourself, so why are there still so many questions? Maybe I’ve been using only the far-sighted part of my mental bifocals, occasionally wondering how my students are doing in their other courses, musing on how their social lives and other activities may affect their achievement in my classes. Now I stare through the near-sighted part of the lens, all the fine-print questions and what-ifs clearly visible, in fact looming large.

A big question for my husband and me was how our son would adjust to, and learn in, large classes. He attended a small private high school with an average of about fourteen students per class. An early realization in visiting colleges was that he was drawn to bigger schools. He was outspoken about wanting a considerably larger pool of students and faculty as part of the college experience. Los parentos tilted the other way, certain that smaller classes are always better. His first semester at the University of Virginia consisted of three large (upwards of 200 students) and two small (16- and 20-student) classes.

Listening to him during and after the first semester we learned that his two favorite courses came from both categories, one large and one small. The virtues of the 200+ class seemed to be that it was large but not impersonal. The instructor “made you feel as if he were talking to you.” He was animated and in good command of the organization and presentation of complex material. This professor evidently enjoys introducing students to his discipline. He gave challenging tests and assignments, with some choice in the latter. He made an effort to call students by name. Taking this course (with this professor) confirmed our son’s initial desire to explore this field. The aspect of choice was important to my son’s embrace of this class. It was his choice to attend class, his decision whether to write papers or participate in labs. Such a welcome change from the strictures of high school!

He described a chief strength of the small class, the University Seminar, as a compelling topic (drugs in the modern era) with a terrific teacher who maintained objectivity about the material. This seemed to be a key point, that the prof trusted the students to read and share a variety of perspectives and opinions about drug use and abuse, and the history of international drug control policies, without trying to lead them to a pre-ordained conclusion. There were frequent short writing assignments and feedback on those from the instructor. Students were responsible for many aspects of the class, such as writing chapter summaries and leading class discussions. There was an irresistible final assignment, writing and speaking about the major ideas of the texts in pitching your idea for a film. The sequence of assignments and activities was both creative and demanding. Our son enjoyed the frequent opportunities to interact with fellow students, really getting to know many of them through discussions, editing each other’s writing, and sometimes viewing films together. However, he pointed out to us that he would not have these same 19 as his mates in every class; and for him that is another wonderful perk of attending a university rather than a small college.

During our occasional conversations we heard about ideas being tackled in his other classes as well as in these two, and I think there was a kind of serendipitous coherence to the semester. Major ideas from a larger history class (with a focus on war and ethics) linked to the psychology course and to the smaller history seminar, all of which was probably fodder for his writing class. And an introductory science class exercised the other brain hemisphere. His willingness to talk about what he was studying, to let us in on ideas he found intriguing or passé, revealed a new confidence and maturity, a willingness to formulate and share his thoughts. In retrospect, I think he found reinforcement for intellectual bents that have been evident in him since elementary school. First, he admired instructors who are not prescriptive, who remain intellectually on the hunt for the complexities inherent in the topic. Virtually all his university profs fit that bill. Next, his faith strengthened in his conviction that learning can’t be forced, it must be chosen. It won’t always happen in neat semester packages. The thing is to keep the spark of interest, of curiosity, alive so that it one day will flame as discovered passion. As a final observation, he (always self-directed in doing academic work) became more conscious of his approach to study (again, this theme of choice), planning when and how much to read, write, participate in discussions, and prepare for tests.

I’m coming to several conclusions as I work to remember and assess the changes perceptible after one semester of college. All tentative, of course, but here is what I think I learned:

  • that class size is not the most important factor in maximizing student learning; the skills, organization and mindset of the instructor probably have more of an effect.
  • that (note to myself!) I must expect ups and downs. The first semester was very positive academically (even including some not-mentioned-here bumps and surprises which he had to recover from or adjust to). He showed a real engagement in, an enjoyment of, learning. That had not been present often in high school; and when it was, it was muted. There are probably some predictable letdowns, disappointments, blind alleys in the semesters ahead. He’ll weather them.
  • that the “how to parent a college student” books and deanly talks are all pretty much on target. It is time to listen to, follow the lead of, the young person. I might be happier in a small liberal arts college, but this larger milieu is right for him. I will do best for myself and this young man to listen, to lay back, to not say everything I think, but rather to ask questions to extend and challenge his thinking.

So, you send your first-born off to a University, and find you’re enrolled as well, in the Parent Distance-Education Tutorial. The class meets at odd hours in late night phone calls, archaeological field trips to the old homestead, and flurries of e-mail. Some questions get answered, new ones emerge. The syllabus is a work in progress, a surprise a day. As learning is, by nature, somewhat destabilizing, we’ll consider it a plus that none of us is likely to become mortar bored on this college journey!


This USEM class proved typical of my experience over the years: it featured that combination of excitement, frustration, and mystery that keeps me coming back for more.

Most inspiringly, I witnessed some of those “light-bulb” moments that comprise one of the true joys of teaching. One day, several students audibly gasped as they suddenly understood a point that had previously eluded them-they clearly saw the “Big Picture” in a fresh light. As the semester progressed, I watched individuals formulate increasingly sophisticated arguments that demonstrated a new level of awareness. One or two displayed strong reactions when their conceptual universe or hallowed truths were challenged. I also detected moments of revelation secondhand in students’ written work-some of them had become much more articulate and insightful by the end of the term. These overt phenomena, however, are the exception.

More often, students toil for their gains. Even the best-prepared have weaknesses, and it’s my job to help them make progress in developing academic/life skills such as reading, writing, speaking, analysis, listening, critical thinking, creativity, and selfawareness. Similarly, they almost always learn to see the larger connections incrementally; spectacular breakthroughs are rare. In this class, students’ performances varied widely; some consistently improved while others fluctuated between competence and mediocrity. A few made no discernible headway, despite my best urging. Nevertheless, by the end of the semester, most students demonstrated in concrete, measurable ways a more sophisticated grasp of the subject matter as well as an enhanced ability to operate in an academic environment.

As usual, both unpleasant and pleasant surprises occurred. I conducted a midsemester assessment of my teaching and received a mixed report. Students indicated that the topic, the assignments, and interaction with peers prompted them to think in new and exciting ways. Yet they also voiced concerns about how I orchestrated the discussions, they questioned the value of some of the readings, and they did not seem to understand certain key issues I had covered repeatedly. Although I attempted to address those complaints, I sensed (and their end-of-semester evaluations confirmed) that I did not fully succeed.

On the other hand, my growing inclination in recent years to take chances and trust students yielded handsome rewards. Most notably, I devised a final assignment that required students to develop a concept for a film that expressed their viewpoint on the drug question, taking into account what they had learned during the semester. This was a great departure for me because it did not require students to demonstrate encyclopedic knowledge of the subject material. Rather, I wanted to foster creativity, and they responded well. Each made a formal presentation about their concept, and most of the projects evinced a sophisticated, nuanced approach that recognized the complexity of the topic. Many incorporated portions of what they had learned from other courses, deftly illustrating the value of interdisciplinarity in education. The other students in class comprised the audience, acting as true colleagues by reading closely, listening attentively, and asking questions that emphasized the creative and interpretative aspects of the assignment. At the end of the last class, I had the sense that students grew as individuals and cohered as a group-a living example of “academic community” in all its imperfection and splendor.

In the midst of these typical frustrations, uncertainties, and victories, I found (as I always do) the process of teaching exhilarating. There is nothing quite like participating in the excitement of minds at work, especially in the fluid environment of a discussion-oriented class. Each student arrives with a constellation of experiences, questions, puzzlements, understandings, prejudices, ignorances, knowledge, and ostensibly immutable truths. Combining one or two dozen of these conceptual universes in the same room inevitably leads to friction, destruction, and re-creation. I have learned to cherish the unpredictability and creativity that unavoidably occurs. For example, at one juncture a student unexpectedly made a point in a particularly cogent way. I tried not to get in the way, instead savoring the golden moment in which the words spoken are “just right.” The students even challenged me to think about the course in a new way by suggesting that I might be legitimizing certain social problems by promoting study of them. Their unsettling, insightful inquisition required me to contemplate more deeply the implications of my acts and words on the lives of others.

In the end, teaching is a faith-filled enterprise, animated by vital questions to which no absolute answers exist. How do I best teach my students knowledge, and how might they utilize that information? Does the study of a particular subject provide opportunities to impart a way of thinking that transcends a specific discipline? Can I help students acquire wisdom? Should I (consciously) teach values? What is my responsibility, and the University’s responsibility, to society, especially to the families of the students who cross my path? Can one really know the consequences and import of a specific college class on an individual’s life? I cannot say with certitude or precision what effect I have, but on balance I believe it is positive. That is why I find myself drawn into the classroom again and again; I want to wrestle with this experience of teaching and learning, at once both mundane and mystical.