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Center for Teaching Excellence

  • Diverse College Students

Strategies to Effectively Teach First-Generation Students

According to TRIO,  a national organization with programs for low-income and first-generation college students, a first- generation student (FGS) is any individual whose parents did not complete a baccalaureate degree. On the University of South Carolina campus, 17% of the student body population was first-generation in Fall 2019. First- generation students are a wonderful and appreciated part of our USC community. The university is honored to be named a First Forward Institution by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrations (NASPA) for its support of programs that help FGSs. This resource was created to help faculty in assisting first-generation students push themselves academically and personally to overcome struggles that can derail their education and goals.  

General Characteristics

Below are some general characteristics of first-generation college students.

  • Not a monolithic group, but have some shared experiences, traits, and patterns of behavior
  • Likely to attend college close to home
  • May work full-time
  • May serve as cultural brokers or translators at home
  • Often, but not always low-income
  • May feel separated from family and friends at home as a result of upward mobility. This can cause loneliness, isolation or alienation.
  • May experience imposter syndrome or feelings of inadequacy
  • Often seen as the “Golden Child” to family and the community
  • May see college in vocational terms and pursue majors that are more “practical”

Obstacles to Success

FGS may face a variety of obstacles, including:

  • Lack of self-esteem and self-efficacy
  • Financial challenges
  • Psychological barriers
  • Lack of support from home
  • Trouble fitting in on campus
  • Balancing social life with academics

Student Attrition

Many obstacles that FGS students face contribute to student attrition. Student retention is an important metric of student success. Inadequate student support is one of the general factors of attrition. Student attrition is also related to academic boredom, anxiety, lack of academic preparation, social isolation, finances, self-doubt, struggling to navigate higher education terminology used in guides, websites and course material and lack of connections on campus. Educators can take steps to foster an inclusive learning environment for FGS and help retain all students.  

Effective Strategies

  1. Recognize obstacles that first-generation students may face and allow flexibility as appropriate.
  2. Create clear, simple and measurable course learning outcomes. Create measurable weekly learning objectives. Connect course activities and assessments to outcomes and objectives.
  3. Learn the names of students in your course and use names when addressing students. Try to get to know everyone in the course so that each person in your course feels valued. Ask students to share if they are a first-generation student during the first day of class. Use note cards or the discussion board in Blackboard to gather information about students.
  4. If you are first-generation student, share that you are a first-generation student with your students early in your course. Consider sharing your experiences with class.
  5. Highlight diverse individuals and scholars in the field that you are teaching. Consider inviting colleagues from the University, and/or country or world as a guest lecture to your course. Incorporate first-generation experiences in your course. Include instructional materials by first-generation authors in your curriculum.
  6. Clarify expectations by communicating high expectations, using grading rubrics and providing students with example work. Be clear and explicit with instructions and directions. Share important course information multiples times and in a variety of ways. Explain acronyms and abbreviations.
  7. Reach out to students who are struggling. Encourage students to seek help.  Share with students the FGS resources on campus. Include helpful support services in your syllabus, including Library Services, Student Technology Resources, the Writing Center, Student Disability Resource Center, Student Success Center and the Career Center. Connect students with campus activities and groups.
  8. Utilize a variety of instructional strategies. Incorporate multiple ways for students to demonstrate knowledge in your course. Create authentic assessments. 
  9. Create a supportive class climate by ensuring that your course is a safe space where students can make mistakes, learn from mistakes and contribute openly to class discussions. Consider allowing multiple attempts on assignments.  Model classroom discussions. FGS bring a different perspective to class discussions. The diversity of experiences and ideas of FGS can strengthen discussions.
  10. Have flexible office hours and clearly define what office hours are. Some students think “office hours” are office time for faculty, during which they are not to be disturbed by students. Consider the work schedules of students. Some students may not be able to attend in-person office hours. Consider a virtual office hour option. If possible, arrive to class early or leave class late to talk to students.

Additional Resources

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