Transition to College

There are many changes associated with entering college: new place to live, new friends, new routines, new demands, new activities and even new food. At first the adrenalin of being in a new place is exciting for students. Some students find it an easy adjustment but most experience some challenges. Making new friends and finding a compatible peer group, adjusting to a schedule that is full of “free” time, getting into routines of sleep and work and managing the increased performance demands of college can be intimidating. During this first phase of college, the roles of faculty and advisors are key to a successful transition.

First-year student

Orientation is a time for learning about the campus, meeting peers from different regions, cultural backgrounds and diverse perspectives, choosing classes and discovering activities for service, leadership, social and religious engagement. The time passes quickly.

In Emory College, first-year students usually find themselves in a combination of large lectures and small classes. In the smaller classes, students are apt of find others with similar interests with many opportunities to discuss and share ideas and information. The instructor may become more than a guide for learning but also the adult who relates to the individual student in more personal ways. A positive environment in class may lead to a student seeking the guidance of the instructor, resulting in a mentoring relationship. Social bonds with peers and instructors help with adjustment and, ultimately, with a positive academic experience, resulting in retention of students. They feel comfortable and stimulated when the environment is welcoming, organized and stimulating.

Below are excerpts from a recent Vanderbilt University panel discussion2 regarding first year students:

Characteristics of First-Year Students

                   Students begin to question aspects of their identities as a result of a variety of university experiences other than classroom learning experiences. Several participants described experiences students have had in the Commons, Vanderbilt’s living-learning community for first-years, that have led them to examine their personal beliefs. Others pointed to the importance of first-year students seeing personally relevant engagement modeled by older students in the Commons and elsewhere.

                   There is a difference between first-semester freshmen and second-semester freshmen relevant to this discussion. First-semester freshmen do tend to focus on daily life management out of necessity as they adapt to a new environment. Second-semester freshmen, having largely adapted, are more able to focus their attention on self-questioning. It is possible that Visions, Vanderbilt’s extended orientation for first-years facilitated by older students and faculty members, helps students more quickly adapt to this new environment.

                   More generally, different students become “ready” for more personally transformative experiences at different points in their college careers. Several participants pointed to this as a reason to provide students with opportunities for such experiences frequently through their first years, even as early as their second week on campus. Some students arrive on campus ready for these experiences.

                   Encouraging first-years to engage in personally relevant ways with their education can be difficult in the classroom. Some students are hesitant to express their personal interest in course discussions in front of their peers; others are too focused on grades and other external rewards to engage in personally meaningful ways. These issues are exacerbated by large first-year classes.2

Principles and Strategies

                   Provide Feedback, Early & Often – First-year students making the transition from excelling in high school to meeting expectations in a college class can benefit from feedback, early and often in the semester. A student who must wait several weeks for the first test to get a sense of how she’s doing in the course might have trouble catching up to her peers.

                   Pose Complex, Real-Life Problems – One strategy to help students move out of the dualism and multiplicity phases of Perry’s scheme of intellectual development is to help students encounter complex, real-life problems where right-or-wrong and “it’s all just opinion” thinking does not suffice. Helping students progress past these phases is challenging, but they won’t progress if they’re not given the opportunity to do so.

                   Minimize Memorization – Setting instructional goals that can be met by memorization reinforces students’ naïve beliefs about learning. While some memorization is necessary in many courses, success in a course shouldn’t be possible solely through memory work.

                   Teach Critical Thinking – Most students can’t “pick up” critical thinking skills along the way in a course that focuses on content. They need explicit instruction in thinking critically. Model this process for your students, make clear the “rules” for critical thinking in your discipline, give them many opportunities to practice critical thinking and receive feedback on their efforts, move from simple, well-structured problems to complex, ill-structured ones, and do all this in class where you can help students sort it all out.

                   Clarify Expectations for Learning – Since students have naïve ideas about knowledge and learning, instructors should clarify their expectations for student learning and performance. Help students understand what is expected of them via description, examples, and feedback on student work.

                   Clarify Strategies for Learning – Not only do first-year students not understand what is expected of them, even when they are clear on those expectations, they don’t know how to go about meeting those expectations. Help students understand and practice approaches to learning in and out of the classroom—listening for key ideas in a lecture, learning from a discussion, reading for comprehension, preparing for exams—that will help them make the transition to the kinds of thinking expected of them as college students.

                   Prepare for Emotional Reactions – Some topics will elicit intense emotional reactions from students, particularly those students who haven’t learned to analyze complex situations in objective ways. Provide opportunities, structure, and guidance for discussing these reactions, explain why you ask students to do what you ask of them, and offer feedback that is not only critical, but also supportive and encouraging.

                   Teach to a Variety of Learning Styles – We often teach as we were taught, but we were rather exceptional compared to our student peers—we went on to graduate school in our chosen disciplines. Be sensitive to the variety of ways that students excel at learning and include a variety of types of learning experiences in your courses to reach the broadest group of students as you can.

                   Have Students Write Letters to Their Successors – Ask students to write a letter to next year’s students focusing on advice for succeeding in your course. These letters help your current students reflect on and cement what they’ve learned, they help you learn about your students’ experiences in your course, and they help next year’s students adapt more quickly to the rigors of college studies.2

                   Plan Lecturing Strategically - Many lower-level or intro classes rely heavily on lecturing to cover course content. While it is good for imparting information, it does not help with any of the deeper levels in Blooms. Especially with first year students, use lectures only when appropriate (to keep their attention), and break them into 10-15 minute, easily digestible chunks.

                   Make Homework Engaging - Classes are more than what is taught in the classroom - the outside component is almost as important. Professors often expect students to spend more time outside of class on homework than they even spend in class per week, with little guidance. Try to add a product to assignments - require students to turn in something related to their reading, like a summary or concept map, to encourage deeper thinking and engagement.3

Additional Resources

                   Best Practices for Teaching First-Year Undergraduate Students (2002) from: Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence: Carnegie-Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, retrieved from:

                   For an in-depth discussion on considerations regarding first-year students see, "Improving the Odds for Freshmen Success" in "Advising First Year Students" from the National Academic Advising Association.

Special student populations

Transfer students and Oxford continuees: students who enter during their second or third years often need additional guidance and support to become part of the academic and social community. The Office for Undergraduate Education director of orientation and the advising staff work with these students to help with the transition and advise on course selection, referrals and opportunities. 

Contact info:

Tammy J. Kim, Director of Orientation (Interim) for information about transfer students (404-727-9236)

Wendy L. Newby, Assoc. Dean, for information about Oxford continuees (404-727-5300)

Race, class, disability, country and religious differences

Coming to Emory can be a huge change from a home environment where students have established social support groups. During the first weeks after entering a new environment, it is natural for students to seek familiarity. Finding someone from your hometown, country of origin, language or religious background can be comforting, but breaking through barriers helps our community become cohesive. A comment from a professor provides an example of how we all can benefit. He was concerned because several international students seemed to struggle with the language requirements of the class: dense reading and complex writing tasks. At first, these students were quiet observers in the class. With guidance and opportunities to access the required course information in a variety of ways, these students became better able to contribute. Once they started, both he and the other students found their contributions valuable because of the different perspectives they offered and the challenging questions they asked.

Instructors can break down some barriers by helping students feel included and valued in the classroom. One complaint that is frequently heard from both national and international students is that undergraduates who seek to engage with a diverse circle of peers do not find opportunities for this. Arranging for students to get to know one another through group activities in and out of the classroom helps achieve this goal. Group work also allows students to support one another's learning.