Teaching Freshmen?!


Q. I have a course with 150 freshmen. For the first time in 15 years. Any tips?

Ways of Framing the Problem

Freshmen vary enormously. You might say: some are still high school students, and some are already college students.

  1. They may be completely concrete and unable to deal with abstraction or ambiguity.

    • They may think everything either is a fact or an opinion. They may think all sentences are simply true or false.
    • They may not be able recognize a hypothesis or do hypothesis-generation and -testing.
    • They may not know what a theory is, that it’s bigger than a hypothesis.
    • In short, they may be very good memorizing machines.

  2. They may not know what a discipline is.

    • They may not know that experts see things differently than non-experts.
    • They may think there is one set of facts and ideas about society or international relations or chemistry, and one simply knows it or not.
    • They may not recognize that disciplines frame and approach reality in different ways, and that a sociological approach is different than a political, psychological or chemical approach.
    • They may not understand that disciplines have paradigms, which change over time, that it’s not a question of ‘discovering the truth’ but rather of changing goals and assumptions––or why-ever we think disciplines change.

  3. They may not have any kind of study skills or habits. They may have cruised through high school on sheer brain power.

    • They may only know how to memorize and repeat back. Their study skills may not be well-suited to examining arguments.
    • They may have a very limited repertoire of study skills, which may go out the window in the social environment of college.

Strategies & Tactics

  • Consider how you might lead them from one pole to the other:
    • from facts to arguments;
    • from common sense to disciplinary approaches, methods and tools;
    • from memorizing and cramming to spending their time strategically solving problems.


Consider how you move students from one end of the spectrum to the other.

  • Towards the beginning of the course, you can emphasize the differences between a common sense view seen and hear on the news and in everyday chit-chat vs. what experts in your discipline do. Consider this a kind of physical border that you’re walking them back and forth across––to sensitive them to the issue.
    • You can also demonstrate how different disciplines view the same issues––e.g., that the matters your discipline considers can be considered from other perspectives, but this is how your discipline does it.
  • In the middle of the course, you might focus on methods common to many disciplines: analyzing and supporting arguments with reasoning and evidence; generating and testing hypotheses specific to the discipline.
    • You can also pick out concepts and frameworks that define your field. The students need to recognize how these make sense but that they are also not ‘simply’ common sense.
  • Towards the end of the course, you might reinforce the way the specialized viewpoint of the discipline uniquely illuminates issues students are aware of.
    • If you don’t do this, the students just learned about how specialists act, and they may decide: uninformed common sense is better.

Consider presentations you do on the reading as double-duty presentations on writing.

  • Try to support their ability to do the things you want in their writing. These may be skills you see lacking:
    • Offering a hypothesis rather than a topic.
    • Limiting the scope of their claim.
    • Debating the significance and interpretation of evidence.
    • Making concessions.
    • Or whatnot.

Find out where they are, what their experiences are, what makes sense and is important to them, so you can hook what you’re introducing onto something they recognize.

Online Discussion

  • Online discussion forums, like those in Blackboard, can be a very good way to do this.
    • Pose questions that help you find out where the students are. What information do they have already that’s relevant.
    • Make the first discussion posts due 24 before class. This way you can browse them before lecturing, and you can key some of your lecture points to what the students already know.
    • In the middle of the course, you might shift to asking the students how they understand key concepts, methods or problems.
  • Evaluating online discussions for their scholarly merit can be time-consuming and may not be necessary.
    • In this case, the point is for them to share their experiences, not for them to rehearse course knowledge nor apply theories.
    • Consider giving a part of their grade (perhaps participation) over to online discussions. If it’s optional, it won’t happen. Ungraded ‘points’ can be appealing for students.
    • So you can simply give points for posting on time and on topic. (They may not even need to reply to each other.)
  • You can do something similar for study methods.
    • After each major assignment, ask them to post anonymously about how they studied and the grade they received.
    • The very simplest way to do this is: create a Google Form.
      • Ask three questions.
      • Each question is: “If you got an ‘A’ on the midterm, write a paragraph here about how you studied/prepared.” Then for “B” and “C or below.”
      • Be sure to caution the students not to use any personally identifying information.
      • The form can be set so users can see the results.
  • One freshman told me recently: he did not know how to handle free time between classes. (In high school, you just run right to the next class.)
    • Giving students short study tasks can help them a lot. E.g.,
      • “If you have 15 minutes, flip through the McKelvin reading and look for how he weaves in statistical evidence. Then next time, I’ll ask about it.”
    • Here’s a junior’s blog post about what he wished he had known freshman year.


  1. It is very nice to read this post. I appreciate your views about this. It helps us a lot. Thank you very much.


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