To help first-gen students: increase access, reduce acronyms

By Richard H. Miller, Global Campus

EiseleinPULLMAN, Wash. – Four out of 10 undergraduates at Washington State University Pullman are first generation. How can faculty help them succeed?

The answer, said Gregory Eiselein, professor and founding director of Kansas State University’s first-year experience program, is more about access than identity.

“Things that work for most students work particularly well for first-generation students,” he said. “We just need to make sure they have access to those educational opportunities.”

So what works for most students? Get them involved in their own learning, Eiselein told a crowd of about 60 WSU faculty, staff and administrators at Wednesday’s “First-year, First-generation Pedagogies That Work” presentation in the CUB.

Combine challenge with support

Students do best when they are equally challenged and supported and when they feel connected to a community, he said.  Examples are first-year experience programs, common learning experiences—such as WSU’s common reading—affirmation from faculty and service learning opportunities.

Gregory Eiselein speaks at WSU this week.

The first-year seminar program at Kansas State, he said, increased first-year retention by 6 percent and the four-year graduation rate by 14 percent.

A few of Eiselein’s tips were quite specific. Avoid confusing acronyms. Be as obvious as possible—“teach them how to do what it is you want them to do.” And use such highly effective classroom techniques as group discussions and peer teaching—as opposed to lectures and reading, which have lower learning retention rates.

“We are the people’s university”

Eiselein was introduced by Melynda Huskey, WSU interim vice present of student affairs and dean of students. Her father was a first-generation student, she said, and her personal commitment to reaching new students matches the university’s commitment to its land-grant mission.

“We are the people’s university,” Huskey said. “We bring students who might not otherwise have access to a four-year education here, and we expose them to an incredible range of gifted faculty members.”

Eiselein’s presentation shows how WSU can harness its research capabilities to its land-grant mission, she said: “There’s a kind of dizzying quality to using top-notch research to extend access. It folds the two together in a beautiful origami way.”

Wednesday’s presentation was hosted by the WSU Office for Access, Equity & Achievement, Critical Literacies Achievement and Success Program, Department of English, First Scholars Program, Office of the Provost, Suder Initiative for Faculty Professional Development, Student Affairs, Teaching Academy and WSU Global Campus.

It was live-streamed by the Global Campus. The video is available on YouTube.