July 11, 2022

How you can Help First-Generation College Students: Eight Syllabus Edits and More.

Written by Holly Eva Allen. PFF Fellow. Student in English. School of Arts & Humanities.

The struggles of a first-generation student are numerous. Such a student might start their first semester of college excited about the journey ahead. Unfortunately, they may become quickly alienated as the differences between the high school experience and that of college are great. Does it cost money to visit the writing center and use the services there? What is the difference between dropping a class early versus “taking a W”? What is an academic conference and who attends them? These and many other questions may trouble the first-generation student, overwhelming them and possibly even deterring them from attending a second semester. Thankfully, college instructors are perfectly placed to help their first-generation students succeed. 

Of course, some might ask if first-generation college students actually struggle more than multi-generational students in a measurable way. The answer is a resounding yes. For example, in the article “Closing the Social-Class Achievement Gap”, the reader finds the following: “College students who do not have parents with 4-year degrees (first-generation students) earn lower grades and encounter more obstacles to success than do those who have at least one parent with a 4-year degree…” (Stephens et al. 943). The fact that first-generation college students struggle to obtain quality grades is not simply a problem, it is an exponentially increasing one. As many studies, including those of Candis Bond, report, this is due to the fact that “First-generation college students are a growing student population in the United States.” (Bond 161). By this train of sound reasoning, a professor who aims to help their first-generation college students is likely helping the majority of their students such as international students as well as non-traditional age and working students. 

One of the key ways a professor can center students, including first-generation students, and make sure that the given course is accessible and intelligible, is by way of the course syllabus. While some instructors might view the syllabus as an outdated tool without promise or else something to be handed out the first day of the course and then forgotten, the syllabus actually provides an instructor with an opportunity to help guide and assist their first-generation college students. Here are ten ways that a college instructor can better their syllabus and ensure that it is constructed with first-generation students in mind: 

  1. Detail the “resources” section of your syllabus with information that you and multi-generational students may think apparent but might be opaque to others. Such details include whether or not a given college resource is free (such as a writing center) or else may cost a fee depending on what services you use there (such as printing documents at the college library).
  2. Include additional resources in your syllabus that go beyond those offered explicitly by the college or institution in question. Outside resources you might consider adding include food banks, local libraries, sexual wellness/ reproductive resources, housing assistance, domestic violence shelters, and community resources geared towards specific groups, including veterans, immigrants, disabled individuals, and those in the LGBTQ+ community.
  3. Include expectations for your course in clear, simple language. This includes breaking down your course rubric and defining all the terms therein. For example, avoid listing single words, such as “participation” without noting how exactly you will keep track of and award points for such concepts.
  4. Include a flexible attendance policy. First-generation students – and others – may be caregivers. They may struggle with transportation, suffer from a chronic illness, or have multiple jobs. A flexible attendance policy that does not penalize students by bringing them down an entire letter grade for missing a few sessions is welcoming to students in such positions.
  5. Include customizable office hours. Make sure that your sections listing office hours also welcomes students to schedule custom office if necessary. You might also consider using this section to welcome students to email you with any questions or concerns they may have.
  6. Include course pathways information. Consider adding a section to your syllabus that lists what requirements your course fills, what majors often need to take such a course, etc. Some students may have misread the course catalog or else overlooked the appropriate section entirely. This may help a student realize that they are in the appropriate (or inappropriate) class.
  7. Clarify your course material. Make your input material list as clear-cut as possible. Always list if an item is “required” or “optional”. Including an ISBN makes it easy for students to find books online and including an approximate price range for each item allows students to budget accordingly. 
  8. Invite students to connect with you. Perhaps the most apparent way to make a syllabus more welcoming to first-generation students is to include an actual statement inviting first-generation college students to come see you with any concerns they may have. This might easily fit in your section on office hours or even in the very first paragraph welcoming students to the class.

While editing one’s syllabus into a tool that might aid first-generation college students is an intelligible, actionable way to get started, an overall change in outlook and approach is necessary. Consider the examples given at the very start of this blog. If a first-generation college student doesn’t understand what the term “taking a W” means, nor the difference between a “withdrawal” and an “incomplete”, will they easily grasp such topics if covered at an orientation or mentioned in passing by a fellow student? This hints at the change in outlook required. An instructor should never assume that their first-generation college students come to class with any prior knowledge, no matter how “basic” it may seem to the instructor in question or to other students. By changing their view in this way, an instructor readies themselves to answer any and all questions without judgement. This also may make it less likely that said instructor will use jargon without defining all terms first. In general, if an instructor wishes to provide a welcoming, informative environment for their first-generation college students, a honed syllabus and a pedagogy free from assumptions are key. 

Works Cited  

  • Bond, Candis. “‘I Need Help on Many Things Please’: A Case Study Analysis of First-Generation College Students’ Use of the Writing Center.” The Writing Center Journal, vol. 37, no. 2, Writing Center Journal, 2019, pp. 161–94, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26922021. 
  • Stephens, Nicole M., et al. “Closing the Social-Class Achievement Gap: A Difference-Education Intervention Improves First-Generation Students’ Academic Performance and All Students’ College Transition.” Psychological Science, vol. 25, no. 4, 2014, pp. 943–53, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24543535.