First-year seminars have become ubiquitous in the past two decades, finding homes in institutions of every type and size. We believe that these programs are vital for our students' achievement, yet the research documenting positive outcomes of first-year seminars is still in its inaugural stage. A review of relevant studies synthesized in the first and second volumes of Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini's How College Affects Students (1991; 2005) provides an overview of the current research and indication of a research agenda for the future.
Among the changes between the first and second volumes of How College Affects Students is the increase in the number of research studies about first-year seminars. When the first volume was published in 1991. the trend to focus the needs of students in their first undergraduate year through various programs had existed for fewer than twenty years, and there were few research projects to review. By the time the 2005 volume rolled off the press, Pascarella and Terenzini had been able to sjnthesize a considerable amount of research focused on first-year seminars. They found substantial evidence indicating that first-year programs increase persistence from the first to second year of college.
Pascarella and Terenzini observed that first-year seminars vary greatly in form and function across institutions. Yet these seminars have become quite prevalent and can he found at 95 percent of four-year institutions in the United States. The element that is most common to first-year seminars is a regularly scheduled meeting time with & specific instructor for new students. Elements that vary include the frequency and duration of class meeting times; content, pedagogy, and structure; credit hours and grading; and whether the course is required or an elective. The common goal of first-year seminars is to increase academic performance and persistence through academic and social integration. The long-term goal is increased degree attainment.
Persistence and Retention
Studies of first- to second-year persistence dominate the research, which has multiplied since the late 1980s. For example, the University of South Carolina-Columbia found that students who participated in their first-year seminar between 1973 and 1996 were more likely to persist into their sophomore year than students who did not participate in the seminar. The differences were statistically significant for lilteen of the twenty-three years. Several other studies of the relationship between first-year seminar participation and first- to second-year persistence found similar results.
While statistical significance tells us that it is unlikely these results would he found by chance, effect size can he a more useful indicator because it measures the magnitude of a result. Two studies at single institutions specificully matched first-year seminar participants on characteristics such as gender, ethnicity, high school achievement, and admissions test scores, which allowed Pascarella and Terenzini to measure the effect size of the seminar impact. They found that the chance of participants returning for a second year of college was 7 percentage points greater than for nonparticipants. Another study, based on random assignment of students to first-year seminars, found that re-enrollment for the second year of college was 13 percentage points higher for the seminar participants.
Through a synthesis of more than forty additional studies, Pascarella and Terenzini found that first-year seminar participants are more likely to graduate within four years than nonparticipants. The estimated effect size indicates an advantage of 5 to 15 percentage points for the students who take the seminars. However, a note of caution is warranted regarding these results because none of these studies controlled for students' precollege characteristics. Factors such as grades, commitment to education, and educational attainment of parents are likely to be confounded with the effects of participating in the seminar. …