Contributor: Linda Dunham, Discipline Chair and Instructor of Academic Student Success, Central Piedmont Community College.

Many students view a study skills class as a requirement, an extra couple of credit hours, or a class that they don’t really need.

Challenge: How do we convince our students that this course is exactly what they need in order to jump start their college experience?

As an educator of first year students at a community college, I find that actively engaging students the very first week of class is one of the best ways to connect with them, to promote retention and to bring them back to class week after week. Connecting with students means that I can share my course expectations with them and give them an opportunity to share their perceptions, expectations and honest thoughts about the course with me.

The “fresh start” approach (or “clean slate” theory) is one that students can relate to. High school, for some of our students, was a time of struggle or even a time for slacking off. Students often come to college with the idea that doing little or no work is acceptable and is sufficient to get by. Others come with fears of failure or dropping out. In my student success course, students are asked to name their three worst fears about college. The most common fears cited are failing, dropping out, and not knowing which major to pursue.

Begin each semester by helping students to conquer those fears. Provide them with an opportunity to share their opinions and perceptions of the course and of college. Let students know that they each begin the class with an A. It is up to them to keep the A. How will they do it?

In Becoming a Master Student, Dave Ellis teaches the “I create it all” process, which puts students in charge of their own grade. To quote Dave Ellis: “I create the A. I create the F.” Encourage students to find something in each class that connects to their goals. For example: “This study skills class can help me improve the way I prepare for tests, which connects to my goal of completing a degree.”

Online courses also offer creative options for engaging students in the learning process. The discussion board feature is a very effective way to not only connect with students, but to establish a routine for participation. In the first week of my online study skills course, students are asked to read the article “Ways to Change a Habit”(Ellis, 2011), and to post in the discussion board one habit they would like to change, a start date for changing the habit, and one positive or encouraging comment to another student’s post. This engages and encourages students in several ways: Students are taking responsibility for one of their behaviors, they’re providing support to fellow students, and the process of “practical application” of skills begins to take place (not to mention some great changes in habits!)

I am energized by new ideas, and use my creativity, insight, and talents to incorporate those ideas into the classroom. My goal is to motivate and challenge my students to achieve their full potential in both their personal and academic lives. To quote a former student: “Mrs. Dunham has a remarkable style and passion for teaching. I can tell that she really means it when she tells us that she is here to help us learn about college life.”

What are your strategies for increasing engagement among first-year students? Share your ideas in the comments section.

Linda Dunham is the Discipline Chair/Instructor of the Academic Student Success (ACA) courses at Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC). With over 20 years of experience in student success, Spanish, and human services, Linda is recognized by the college and her peers for her outstanding leadership and teaching strategies in her ACA courses. In fact, in 2010 she received CPCC’s Employee Recognition Award for Faculty and in 2011 was a semi-finalist for the North Carolina Community College System Excellence in Teaching Award. Linda has presented at several state and local level conferences and in 2009 also coauthored the textbook & instructor’s manual, ACA 111 College Student Success at CPCC. When Linda is not working to motivate her students, she enjoys traveling, vacationing with her family, watching Jeopardy, hiking, and yoga.