Colleges ease second-year struggles

Traditionally the “forgotten students” in terms of extra support and services, sophomores are now getting increased attention in higher ed

“Sophomore,” fittingly, is derived from the Greek word meaning wise fool.

From finding a major to deciding whether to study abroad—and questioning their identity in and outside of the classroom—it’s a time when students settle in at school and begin realizing the decisions they make will impact the rest of their college careers.

Traditionally, student success programs have focused primarily on transitioning first-year students from home to college. But now more higher ed leaders are realizing that to retain students and help them make informed decisions, they must expand these efforts to sophomores.

Second-year experience programs tend to feature housing, social events, classes and other activities that target sophomores’ specific needs.

“This is the year of reflection—‘Is college something I really want to do? Is this the person I want to be?’—and it yields a lot of anxiety,” says Molly Schaller, an associate professor in the University of Dayton’s College Student Personnel graduate program.

16 sweet second-year ideas to swipe 

Examples of offerings within sophomore programs at Emory University (Ga.), Trinity University (Texas), The Ohio State University and Williams College (Mass.):

1. Dedicated on-campus housing for sophomores option: live-in academic advisor

2. Sophomore Pinning Ceremony

3. Love Your Major Week

4. Barbecue night

Schaller, who has studied sophomores since her own grad student years in the mid-1990s, says this group has been left behind by institutions. Sophomores often feel abandoned by faculty, who leave them to choose classes with a sense of “call me when you decide on a major.”

Thanks in part to Schaller’s research, many universities have started taking a renewed look at sophomores and creating experiences to support them during this year of reflection and transition.

Emory University: A sophomore experience veteran

Emory administrators have long made efforts to make freshmen feel like rock stars from the moment they step onto the Atlanta-area campus. In 2002, the Board of Trustees decided it was time to do the same for second-year students.

The first step: Make on-campus housing a requirement for all sophomores so students can feel more connected to each other, says Caleb Peng, co-director of Second Year at Emory. A live-in academic advisor is accessible to students in the evening.

New academic engagement programs bring faculty closer to students. For example, students wanted to learn more about Native American historical sites, so the second-year program partnered with the College of Health and Sciences.

Anthropology department professors formed stronger bonds with students when they took sophomores on a field trip to Native American historical sites. Faculty from various departments also cart cookies and hot chocolate down the residential hallways during finals to give sophomores a quick study break.

With more than 1,200 second-year students, impacting each one means creating a variety of social events, such as a barbecue-and-trivia night, and two days of programs that highlight study abroad opportunities, the career center, sororities and fraternities, and the alumni association.

(cont.) 16 sweet second-year ideas to swipe 

5. Trivia night

6. Masquerade ball

7. Field trips with faculty

8. Sophomore Summit on majors and study abroad opportunities

Selecting a major is considered one of the most challenging parts of sophomore year. In February, the second-year initiative partners with the Office of Undergraduate Education within the College of Arts and Sciences for a weeklong event to promote various department programs.

Then comes “Love Your Major Week,” corresponding with Valentine’s Day. It’s an opportunity to have breakfast and brunch with staff and students to talk about making the final major decision, since the deadline to declare is that month.

Later in the semester and because students are considered honorary alumni after two full semesters at Emory, a Sophomore Pinning Ceremony inducts them into the alumni association. Graduates help pass out the pins and meet the students, says Peng.

And this spring the university will hold a masquerade ball for sophomores.

All the programs evolve continuously as student needs are assessed, says Peng—adding that it still feels as if there’s more work to be done because it’s hard to out-do the university’s first-year experience with its extensive amount of activities and advising opportunities for students.

(cont.) 16 sweet second-year ideas to swipe 

9. Meals with faculty to help choose majors

10. Faculty mentoring option: faculty stipends

11. Pay students stipends to conduct projects related to sophomore-year initiatives

12. Cookie deliveries from faculty during finals week

Trinity University: Sophomore residential housing matters

Students at Trinity in Texas have been separated by academic year in residence halls since 2006. As part of the Sophomore College program, each sophomore is paired with an upperclassman resident mentor for twice-annual, one-on-one “Conversations of Care.”

Through that support, they realize, for example, that concerns over choosing a major or transitioning into second year are common. The goal: Ease some stress by providing advising through a peer, says Melissa Flowers, director of residential life.

Sophomore College’s other flagship program, “Major Meals,” takes place over three nights featuring a different course of study. Over dinner in the school’s formal dining space, which offers sweeping views of downtown San Antonio, faculty and alumni help undecided students choose their major.

Faculty talk about their courses, alumni discuss how majors relate to their jobs and students explain the workload. “This reinforces the fact this is a big decision,” says Flowers. An average of 300 students attend, of whom one-quarter are still deciding between multiple majors.

Today, the sophomore retention has risen above 90 percent, from 87 percent in 2005. “It’s an encouraging sign for the program’s value,” says Flowers. The Sophomore College Program won an excellence award in 2013 from NASPA – Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

The Ohio State University: Investment in faculty and sophomores

As at Trinity, sophomores at Ohio State have their own residence halls. Their opening four years ago was the starting point for the university’s Second-year Transformational Experience Program (STEP). Currently, 2,500 students are enrolled—almost half of the school’s sophomores.

(cont.) 16 sweet second-year ideas to swipe 

13. Midnight breakfast to prepare for exams

14. Half Way to Graduation Celebration (during final month of sophomore year)

15. Off-campus retreat to launch the academic year

16. S’mores story time, an opportunity to talk to upperclassmen

STEP offers peer mentoring, small-group advising with a dedicated faculty member, and an opportunity to apply for up to $2,000 in funding to support a goal proposed during the year.

One winning goal was a study abroad program to Haiti to design a solar power system, another stipend allowed a student to study the higher education system in Brazil, and a third used STEP funds to spend the summer in Colorado at a leadership training program through church.

This year, the 135 faculty members involved will each earn a $5,000 stipend. That means committing to advising 15 to 20 sophomores and helping them propose their STEP project by the end of the year.

After participating, faculty have said they better understand the needs of second-year students and where to send them for support services, says Linda Martin, associate dean and director of academic programs. Faculty also report being better at facilitating classroom discussions as a result of the program.

In 2009, about 89 percent of sophomores remained at Ohio State. Now, the university retains 96 percent of the students who take part in the second-year program. Graduation rates are also higher among this group.

This study found, too, that the biggest factor for this increase was requiring sophomores to live in residence halls because it increased a student’s likelihood of participating in campus activities.

Purdue University: Course-level change

Purdue researchers are changing the classroom experience for engineering sophomores as they experiment with ways to retain students who were receiving D’s and F’s. More than 25 percent of all students in this major were withdrawing during the semester, but that rate has now been cut by more than half.

Researchers found the traditional classroom experience was not evolving in the engineering department, and set out to see how instruction could be modernized.

Jennifer DeBoer, an assistant professor of engineering education, and her team started by revamping the textbook for a dynamics class. Instead of the book indicating how to solve a problem, this new book with one-third less text and more white space allows students to solve the problem in class.

Instructors also create videos and post to an online blog to help students work through the math on assignments. This site allows students to work together if they’re struggling.

“There has been an adjustment period for faculty because it’s like teaching a new class with the preparation,” says DeBoer. “But when they start seeing students do well within one or two semesters, the perception of teaching core engineering in a traditional way is changed.”

Since launching her project in 2008, DeBoer has expanded the program to three additional universities. Her next step: Study these new teaching methods in STEM classes across the mechanics courses as well as in science and physics classes.

She says, “Faculty are seeing a renewed interest in the engineering core courses and these are courses that haven’t changed in quite some time.”

Kate West is a journalist who teaches courses on reporting and television producing at The University of Texas at Austin.

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