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Holly Martin, Advising First-Year Students Interest Group Chair 

Holly Martin.gifFor many students, their first year of college is a time of significant transition and the beginning of self-direction. Students’ first semester is often devoted to the basics of the transition and needed academic and personal adjustments. After the experience of their initial term, first-year students are generally more open to actively engaging in their education and receiving advice that can help them reflect on their academic interests, growth, study strategies, and progress toward their developing goals.

One method for assisting students in self-reflection and significant conversation is to ask students to complete a short on-line questionnaire before their first advising session of the second semester. Results of this self-reflection can be used to help the student and advisor not only assess student progress towards goals, but to work together to revise and brainstorm strategies better tailored toward reaching those goals.

Having students fill out the questionnaire before an advising session and then reviewing it with them during the session is preferable to simply asking the questions during the session. With the students’ responses already before them, advisors and students can choose which responses merit more discussion or raise important questions. Student responses,  however lengthy or brief, often provide evidence of students’ early academic growth and successes including student developmental stage, study skills abilities, changes of interest, and referral needs.

Pre-submission of the questionnaire allows advisors and students to concentrate on those responses most pertinent to students at that point in their academic careers.

Presently, advisors within the First Year of Studies at the University of Notre Dame use an on-line 'Self-Reflection Questionnaire' to help expand second-semester advising discussions into areas that promote academic engagement. The questionnaire consists of short, plainly worded questions that mirror First Year of Studies' learning objectives. The on-line questions are sent to all first-year students immediately prior to their return to campus for the second semester. Students’ responses to the on-line questionnaire are automatically returned to advisors as they are completed. In its first year, voluntary student response to the First Year of Studies questionnaire was excellent with over 75 percent of first-year students participating.

First-year students are asked the following:

1. In what ways have you grown intellectually over the last four months?

This question helps students take note of their growing skills and interests. In advising sessions students and advisors identify and celebrate intellectual growth and build on that growth.

2. What are your academic strengths?

This question challenges students to think about their interests and strengths. Advisors find answers to this question helpful in discussing possible majors and programs. While concentrating on the positive, answers to this question also can lead to specific suggestions for improvement.

3. Which classes have you found most interesting and why?

It is important that we pay attention to why students find some courses more engrossing than others. These insights into students’ learning habits provide insight into their developing interests.

4. Which classes have been most challenging, and how did you handle those challenges?

This important question helps students and advisors explore how students rise to academic challenges. This is another opportunity to celebrate past achievements and brainstorm student-specific suggestions for further study skills development.

5. Are you comfortable sharing your thoughts and ideas with peers in class?

Advisors can assist less secure students in understanding that they will become more comfortable sharing their insights in class as they become more confident in their knowledge of their major subject area. Tips concerning how to be ready to join in discussions are a natural part of the conversation here as well.

6. Have you taken advantage of opportunities to learn outside of the classroom? Please give examples.

Students generally interpret this question to mean their use of professors' office hours and/or attending review sessions or tutoring. While that is encouraged, answers to this question also provide an opportunity to point out that attending campus art events, joining volunteer and club activities, and participating in other forms of on-campus engagement are at the heart of learning outside of the classroom. At this point in an advising session, the advisor should know the student well enough to suggest specific events or activities to the student.

7. Is there a topic on which you might like to do research?  How did you become interested in it?

Except in the physical and social sciences where students can join on-going research projects, few first-year students are ready to identify research topics. This question challenges students to think about areas they might find most interesting as they move forward in their education. In other words, to think of their education as more than fulfilling externally prescribed requirements.

8. Are you becoming the person you want to be?

This question is primarily asked to help students think about their educations in the context of the whole person, but it also provides students the opportunity to indicate pressing personal difficulties that may be affecting their academic work.

The value of the mid-year self-assessment questionnaire is that it helps students build upon an analysis of their own experiences. Many students have never been asked to think about these kinds of questions before; they have focused on grades and requirements, not on the larger picture. These questions challenge them to focus on what they have learned so far about their academic likes and dislikes, their strengths, their goals, and what strategies have been effective for reaching those goals. Their answers provide a place for advisors to start productive conversations.

In addition to the students' high school records and tests, first-semester grades, and impressions gathered from earlier conversations, this brief mid-year self-reflection exercise can help guide advising discussions. Answers to these questions provide insight into students' development levels so advisors can work with them more effectively. More specifically, pre-advising session questionnaires can assist advisors in identifying students who feel academic or personal anxiety, students who are academically advanced in their interests, and how well students’ academic strategies are serving their needs. While this tool focuses conversations on student appraisals of their academic lives, students' self-reflections can also help advisors note emerging trends among all of their first-year students.

Mid-year self-reflections can help students become more directly engaged in their own educations. When kept with students’ records or portfolios these self-reflections can offer insight as students look back on their first-year goals, strategies and experiences.

Holly E. Martin
Assistant Dean, First Year of Studies
University of Notre Dame
hmartin@nd.edu

Cite this article using APA style as: Martin, H. (2011, December). Increasing first-year student engagement through mid-year self-reflections. Academic Advising Today, 34(4). Retrieved from [insert url here] 

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