Academic changes reformat freshman learning

Azusa Pacific University’s freshman orientation lecture class, “Beginnings,” will not be returning for the 2015-2016 school year, but will be replaced with a first-year seminar course that works alongside the Alpha program and the newly developed student leadership program, APEX, to try to create a meaningful and academic transition into college.

The First-Year Seminar:

Incoming freshmen will no longer see Leadership 100 on their fall schedules, but the three-unit First-Year Seminar, composed of two Alpha groups, an APEX leader and a faculty member.

“The course is really supposed to be about how new students transition into college and in into a “life of the mind.” Students We’re all [student] researchers, we’re all writers, we’re all thinkers no matter what degree they’re after,” said Karen Sorensen-Lang, First-Year Seminar Coordinator.

“It’s about how students start to see themselves as thinkers and take themselves seriously as learners coming into a college campus,” Sorensen-Lang continued.

The course will have a more academic focus centered around a theme that students self-direct. Freshmen will have the opportunity to select from three themes on their preference forms: Faith, Doubt and Reason; Beauty and Meaning; or Global Citizenship. Faculty members selected to lead course sections will get to interpret the theme and develop their classes around it in their own way. The focus is not on making sure everyone learns the exact same things in class, but the exact same outcomes.

“The heart of it is really that it’s interdisciplinary and it could be a math professor teaching your ‘Beauty and Meaning’ course, it could be a lit professor teaching your ‘Beauty and Meaning’ course, and all majors are going to be in it,” Sorensen-Lang said. “They’re interdisciplinary to really get at the course outcomes. We want students to become critical thinkers, engage in diversity issues, information literacy and writing, so they’re prepared to go into other classes in their major.”

Faculty members applied Jan. 12 to teach the 45 different class sections in the fall, and according to Sorensen-Lang, the faculty who applied “caught the vision” that all departments are contributing to one GE course as opposed to other GE courses like Freshman Writing Seminar or College Algebra, which are housed specifically in one department.

Sophomore psychology major and the Student Government Association’s academic senator Matthew Kriege said: “I think it’s going to be so much more engaging. Beginnings was nice, but the huge lecture style often allowed people to tune out. This program will have lots of different facets to engage students.”

Faculty, staff and admin on campus attended a seminar last summer and grabbed on to the idea of a first-year seminar for APU. From there, the team assembled to create the course, which has gone through three rounds of faculty governance and has been officially approved by the faculty senate to launch alongside the Office of Academic Advising and Retention’s new APEX Program.

Dr. Eileen Hulme, professor in the Department of Higher Education is the author of current beginnings course textbook Momentum. According to Sorensen-Lang, Momentum will remain a course textbook. Additionally the course will continue using a core educational theory created by Dr. Laurie Schreiner, department chair in the Department of Higher Education.

“We have a couple of people on our faculty who are outstanding scholars in first-year seminar and first-year experience,” Sorensen-Lang said. “We are connecting the dots on experts, resources and best practices in higher education to form this course. We want to see students who are curious and confident coming into their major coursework.”

Numerous universities across the U.S. have adopted similar orientation and first-year experience class models in order to help with academic retention and performance of students throughout their entire college experience.

Bradley McCoy, who is part of the GE Leadership Team, said, “A strength we expect out of this is better retention.”

The APEX Program and what happens to Alpha:

Freshmen can still expect to see the familiar line of sophomore Alpha leaders to welcome them to APU come move-in day. The orientation program will ultimately face little change itself and remain focused on transitions, relationship and connection as students begin their college careers.

The StrengthsFinder test will also remain a part of Alpha and tie into First-Year Seminar to help students learn to best use their strengths. The new APEX Program is meant to bring an academic peer leader and a new dimension to the freshman experience.

“Alpha does a phenomenal job of encouraging spiritual and relationship development. There isn’t a black-and-white line between Alpha and APEX; they’re both intended to support holistic development. We just want to add to and strengthen the academic goal-setting and motivation,” said Tracie Burt, APEX program coordinator. “We want to help students figure out what their calling is and how academic support resources on campus can foster their forward movement towards meeting those goals.”

Burt and graduate intern Alex Reddin have worked to develop the training and interview process for APEX as well as what the position looks like. APEX leaders are required to have a minimum 3.0 GPA and, unlike Alpha, commit to a full year as an APEX leader.

APEX leaders will work out of the Office of Academic Advising and Retention, serving as a resource in First-Year Seminar as well as outside class in one-on-one meetings with freshmen.

“I think that what I’m most excited about with APEX is that there will be one-on-one interactions. There will be a mentor who is able to meet with each student, and in those meetings, there will be talk about requirements to be successful academically. It’s not tutoring, but it’s also not just looking at adjusting into college,” Burt said.

The creation of APEX creates a new set of leadership positions on campus for students to get involved in. Freshmen, sophomores and juniors have applied for the APEX position, which can also be held for multiple years, though it requires reapplication each year. The application deadline for the 2015-2016 school year was Friday, Jan. 23. Burt is excited about what leaders see as a large number of applicants for such a new position.

How does this affect you?

In order to create the three-unit First-Year Seminar, one unit was taken from the Beginnings course and two units from PE 240 Health Education. This means that Health Education is no longer required for incoming classes starting in 2015, and sections will begin to phase out.

Current freshmen, sophomores and juniors who haven’t met the PE 240 requirement should try to enroll in the next year or two, as it won’t be offered much longer.