Pen & Book
Office of the
Associate Vice-President (Academic)

First Year Seminars

First Year Seminar courses are designed to be interactive, small group sessions (enrolment is limited to 15 students) led by some of the university's most dynamic professors. The topics range from sex to music, from science to communication, from chocolate to human rights. Each seminar reflects the research or professional interest of the instructor and the format is designed to allow students to engage closely with fellow students.

First Year Seminar courses are just like regular courses in that they count as a 0.50 credit, the class is scheduled every week of the semester, and there are assignments and projects. Numerical grade are assigned for the course, and it will count in the cumulative average of the student. The course is used as a free elective and can also be used to fulfill the appropriate arts, social science or science distribution requirement for B.A. and B.Sc. students. There are no pre-requisites.

The First Year Seminar Project was initiated in the Bachelor of Arts and Science degree program in Winter, 2003, after approval from the Board of Undergraduate Studies (October 2002) for a pilot project offering.

The goal of the First Year Seminar project is to provide opportunities for students to participate in small, discussion-oriented classes in the first year. In a research-intensive university like Guelph, first year seminars provide an opportunity for faculty members to bring their research interests into the undergraduate classroom providing a link between research activities and teaching and learning. The intent is that these seminar courses do not simply serve as reformatted intro courses, but as new and creatively developed approaches to intriguing topics. Interdisciplinary and experiential methods are encouraged. In introductory level courses, where students are still in transition to the new environment, responsibilities, and opportunities of post-secondary education, the constant participation requirements of a seminar highlight to the instructor those students who may be having difficulties adjusting to University - students who can easily fall through the cracks in a large lecture.

Ideally, the chance to teach a first year seminar course should be something that generates excitement and is seen as an opportunity for faculty to share and indulge in their specialized research interests. This program is an opportunity to explicitly and more closely link the teaching and research enterprises of the University.

From assessment sessions held following the pilot program, participants were unanimous in the opinion that that the pilot program had been a success. Attendance at assessment sessions was nearly 100% indicating a high level of engagement and commitment: participants were eager to communicate the benefits they obtained from the program. Standard departmental teaching evaluations were also collected for each seminar. Overall ratings for the courses were certainly above average.

In the sessions and in evaluation form comments, there was, as expected, overwhelming support for the small group learning environment-something, it was thought all first-year students should have the opportunity to experience. Students also greatly appreciated the chance to interact closely with other students and faculty in a cooperative environment. Many indicated that this helped them with the transition from high school, and dispelled the myth that they would only be a nameless number in massive first year courses.

As intended, the seminar format emphasized a number of important transferable skills that are often neglected in large lecture courses: writing, oral presentation and communication skills, and time management. Students were well aware that they were responsible for active discussion of the reading, not just passive absorption of material. They indicated that this helped motivate a more aggressive approach to their other courses-that they were more willing to participate and contribute and that their confidence in their writing and communication abilities increases.

The research orientation of the program was also another source of student satisfaction. Students enjoyed the opportunity to become engaged in the active research interests of the instructors, as a more immediate form of inquiry compared to typical textbook-based approaches. They also appreciated the more individualized approach to in-course research projects, and the ability afforded by the seminar format to be involved in the design of their projects as well as implementation.

Faculty assessment of the program was also very positive. Not surprisingly, faculty appreciated the more intimate, interactive teaching format, which allowed them to see more immediately how their teaching efforts had 'paid off'. They commented on how rewarding, in a professional and personal sense, it was to observe the development of critical skills and analytical insights in their students.

The instructors also enjoyed the opportunity to build a course around a research interest that might not often fit into the usual program schedule. Some indicated that teaching their seminars had led them to new and interesting sources. Others pointed out that the intensive discussion and the varied student perspectives had significantly contributed to their understanding of the seminar topic and especially its relation and relevance to current cultural issues.

The program continues to grow with more instructors volunteering every year. Comments from post-teaching focus groups say it best:

"This sort of teaching is enormously important… it does carry over into other teaching but also into research as well….dialogue with first years can really put you back into touch with the most basic reasons for teaching in the first place, and that means re-connecting with your discipline in a way that allows you to translate it to first year [students] in a language that gets through….It's a crucial time to get through to students who can really turn off so easily at that age and who need to be energized by the system and to have faith that they will come into contact with people who can matter to them…That's why I don't hesitate to loudly proclaim the virtues of what Guelph is doing in this unique program wherever I can…."

The program has grown from four seminars in the Pilot Program in 2003 to thirty-two First Year Seminar offerings for Winter 2006.

For more information on the First Year Seminar Program, or see what courses are offered for Winter 2006, go to the website :



© 2006, University of Guelph