By Jennifer Myers
When Jalisa Barnett decided to leave her home town of Oyen, Alberta to study at the University of Calgary, she wasn’t sure how she’d find her way around a large, research-intensive university. Like many first-year students, she wasn’t even sure what university research was and how it would impact her learning.
“When I first came to U of C I didn’t know if this was exactly where I wanted to be—going to class and listening to someone talk,” she says. “It was a big adjustment.”
But within her first month in the Faculty of Communication and Culture, Barnett learned that university is about a lot more than lectures. Specific courses in the faculty have been designed to better prepare frosh by giving them the skills and resources required for university-level research. The faculty also strives to retain students by ensuring they interact one-on-one with their professors and their cohort so they feel connected to the institution.
“Hooking kids in their first year is important, so we want to give them a dazzling first-year experience,” says Dr. Kathleen Scherf, dean of the Faculty of Communication and Culture. “We use professors, not sessional instructors, to teach first-year courses and we offer first-year seminars where professors teach from their own research.”
Scherf herself stays connected with first-year students by teaching one of the faculty’s introductory courses. With 300 students, Communications Studies 201 is the faculty’s largest lecture course. In 2005, Scherf’s students nominated her for a teaching award.
“I teach the course because it helps me to understand and keep in touch with what is going on in the classroom and to role model for other faculty members the importance of teaching first-year courses,” she says. “It makes me remember why I got into this profession. I love teaching students.”
The value of placing experienced faculty members in front of first-year students is not lost on the students themselves. Barnett took Scherf’s course in the fall of 2006 and has come to think of the dean as a role model.
“She has so much knowledge and experience,” says Barnett. “I like the class because she has liberal views and goes against the grain. Also, she doesn’t regard us as just first years. Dr. Scherf interacts with us like we’re on the same playing field.”
Barnett also completed one of the faculty’s seminars for frosh. General Studies 201 is a small seminar class, capped at 25 students, that teaches inquiry-based learning and how to be successful in university.
Using the professors’ own research as themes for the seminars, students plan a research project and learn academic success skills such as time management and writing academic papers. In contrast to other junior level courses at U of C, which enrol an average of 81 students per class, these first-year seminars create a relaxed and friendly small-class environment where professors know their students by name and students get to know each other.
“The inquiry-based model turns the impetus over to students to guide their own learning, rather than just reading textbooks, listening to the instructor and handing it back in a final exam,” says Dr. Doug Brent, associate dean. “The value for students is they find the engagement they experience in the smaller seminar classes to be useful to their learning and their sense of who they are and why they are here at the university.”
Barnett learned about researching family and ethnic histories in Dr. Heather Devine’s seminar. Through conducting oral histories with their families, Devine teaches students about research ethics, how to construct questions and seek permission from the people they’re doing research with.
“When students first come to university they don’t really understand that a university’s mandate is to create new knowledge,” says Devine. “General Studies 201 was developed to provide an introduction to university research.”
Barnett’s own research project focused on her grandfather who played an instrumental role in bringing rodeos to small Alberta towns like Hanna in the 1950s. Her project included doing library research, using Internet search engines, conducting an oral history interview and learning how to record transcripts of interviews.
The class required her to develop a research proposal, create a bibliography, draft a paper, have at least one individual face-to-face discussion with the professor and present her findings to the class. She feels that the seminar put her ahead of other first-year students who didn’t take the class.
“Before this class I had no idea about the difference between scholarly resources and just taking information off a web page,” she says. “Now I’ve learned that research takes time and that asking questions means always continuing to think. What I’ve learned isn’t just related to one paper, it’s relevant to my life.”
Implemented in 2001, the seminars are taken by about 50 percent of the faculty’s first-year students. Those who complete the seminar are nine percent more likely to return to their studies the following year than those who do not enrol.
“Students sometimes don’t do well in first year simply because they get lost in the back of a 300-person class and they don’t get engaged,” says Brent. “The seminar seems to be helping with that crisis of engagement in first year where students ask ‘why am I here and what is the point of all this?’”