Innovative course calendar at U of A's Augustana campus helps new students adjust to university

First Year Seminar offers incoming students a chance to take just one class in their first three weeks-and gain skills and friendships that will see them through to graduation.

Geoffrey Dipple hasn't decided what to tipple: pale ale or brown ale?

The chair of the University of Alberta Augustana campus's social science department is in the midst of teaching a three-week block course covering everything from Animal House to zymurgy, the chemistry of fermentation. During their first taste of post-secondary education, students will visit Dipple's home kitchen to brew a batch of beer.

It's all part of First Year Seminar, an innovative program at Augustana where all new students take one and only one class for the first three weeks. Students choose from one of 15 themes-such as beer, superheroes or dinosaurs-while picking up the skills and friendships that will take them to graduation.

The long game of short courses

Augustana realigned its semesters in 2017 into a unique configuration: a three-week block followed by a traditional 11-week session. The First Year Seminar was created based on research that the best predictor of student success is a successful first term, and the best predictor of that is the first weeks of university life.

Each seminar is limited to 25 students, who rank their top five preferences and are then filtered into rosters to ensure a mix of gender, disciplines and international students. Each seminar requires library work and regular assignments. And Augustana conducts a secondary assessment of each year's writing, oral presentations and work completed in orientation sessions.

The first two years have shown that the intensive course helps catch problems long before a whole semester is lost, said Karsten Mündel, Augustana's associate academic dean.

"It might be coincidence, but our 'required to withdraw' has come down since the introduction of the First Year Seminar," said Mündel. "It is pointing out to us that we are doing the right things in terms of helping our students transition academically and socially."

Because new students are often intimidated by professors, each First Year Seminar also has a senior student helping facilitate the course.

Computing science student Arnold Gihozo is currently tutoring for a seminar on artificial intelligence, but back in 2017 he was a wide-eyed newcomer to Augustana who didn't know a soul on campus. His first course was structured around a murder mystery that required students to solve a fictional homicide by knocking down doors-a wayfinding exercise that came in handy once the regular courses began.

"We had to go through the library, the cafeteria, the athletic department, while trying to find out who killed that professor," Gihozo said. "Once you got into the 11-week, you're so stressed with your classes, you at least know where to go."

In his mentoring role, Gihozo holds open office hours, helping students structure their arguments, pick courses or find the doctor on campus. The tutors also complete additional assignments for course credit in a three-week class led by Mündel, who is teaching them to develop leadership and teaching skills.

The flexibility of the semester encourages these different educational opportunities, Mündel said. Students can conduct intensive field research, take a travel course or hone in on readings during a guided study. Mündel himself has used the format for senior research projects. The first three weeks set up the question, the next 11 are used to complete the project.

When switching to the staggered "three-eleven" semester, Augustana also held onto the longer 11-week session, Mündel said, because intensive courses are often like exam prep. Cramming can't always replace incremental learning.

Next year, Augustana will likely move ahead with a project-based approach to a degree. It means a bigger emphasis on practical problem solving and thinking outside the box. The staggered semester will build into that emphasis on interdisciplinary learning.

"The workplace of today and tomorrow is asking our graduates to work on 'wicked problems,' issues that don't have easy solutions," he said. "We're trying to position ourselves to help students in that regard."

Lesson in responsibility

Dipple's beer seminar ends right around the time the home brew is ready to bottle. When the time is right, he'll hold a mid-semester get-together for his seminar students, setting aside bottles for those who haven't turned 18.

As an early modern historian and avid home brewer, Dipple sees beer as a potent recipe for conversation about the place of alcohol in everyday life, a subject of high relevance for students with a new taste of freedom.

"It's a cautionary tale," he said. "One of the challenges students face is increased personal responsibility and the pitfalls that come with that."