Teaching the First-Year Seminar

What can you expect of your students?

Many instructors wonder what capabilities their students will bring with them to the first-year seminar classroom. All students entering a seminar have taken either Writing 2-3 or Writing 5.  In these courses, students will have written at least four papers in which they offer thoughtful responses to legitimate academic questions. Students in Writing 2-3 and Writing 5 have also been introduced to library resources. They have had experience revising their work, guided by comments from their instructors. In sum, they have begun to build the capabilities that will serve them in their future academic pursuits. 

Still, you should assume that your students will need to practice and polish these abilities in their seminars.  Moreover, it's likely that your students have never before worked within your discipline.  They may not know how knowledge is constructed in your field.  They may not be aware of what your discipline counts as evidence, or how arguments are structured.  Moreover, although Writing 5 and Writing 2-3 cover proper citation protocol, citation styles differ among disciplines.  You therefore should not assume that your students know how to cite in your field. Finally, while students are aware of the Academic Honor Principle, they will not know how you expect them to conduct themselves in your course. For fuller explanation, see Guidelines for Writing 5 and Guidelines for Writing 2-3.

What does the Writing Program expect of you?

First of all, we expect the first-year seminar to be a writing class. Although the seminars are designed around disciplinary or interdisciplinary content, their focus is writing.  Instructors are therefore expected not only to assign writing, but to teach writing as well. Teaching writing involves holding writing workshops, conferring with students about their writing, and making good use of the collaborative learning and active learning ideas described throughout this website. For a more thorough description of the program's expectations, please see First-year Seminars: Guidelines for Faculty. We hope that in your course you will consider the following:

  • Plan to spend substantial class time on student writing. Don't allow course readings to crowd out discussion of student work. Treat student work as another text for the class, using it as the basis for in-class writing workshops. See Conducting Writing Workshops for proven strategies.
  • Design a research assignment that requires each student to find sources beyond the assigned readings. Show students how to find, evaluate, incorporate, and cite sources. Discuss with your students how the Academic Honor Principle applies to your seminar, as well as its broader implications.
  • Incorporate a significant oral component, which could include presentations, discussions, or debates.

What do your students expect of you?

Over the years, we've heard from students the various expectations they have of their seminars. Here are some of the most commonly heard expectations:

  • Students expect the classroom format to be discussion-based, not lecture-based. They want a class that is intimate not only in size but in character.
  • Students want feedback from you on their writing. You should respond not only to the content of the writing, but also to its structure, form, and style.
  • Students expect that you will return their papers to them in a timely manner, so that they have sufficient time to absorb and incorporate your comments before the next paper is due.
  • Students expect that you will meet with them in conference at least once or twice during the term to discuss their progress as writers. They also hope that you will be available to them in office hours and via email.

They may not realize it, but your students also need you to show them that some of their existing research and writing practices, which they have brought with them from high school, won't work in the college classroom.   Once you've shown them that their existing models won't work, students will want you to inspire them to explore new models and to support them while they do. They'll want you to remain engaged with them as writers and as thinkers, so that they in turn can do their best work in your course.

If you have questions about the goals of your seminar and the methods you might use to achieve these goals, please contact Christiane Donahue, Director of the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric.

Useful Materials

If you are looking for materials to share with your students, please consider these.  We've developed them with Dartmouth students in mind.