First-year Interest Groups take off at UW-Madison

by Bobbi Jo Snethen for UW Communications

Alex Sevett remembers the vast amount of choices she was presented with upon entering her freshman year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Aside from deciding where to live, what mode of campus transportation to use and where to find the cheapest textbooks, Sevett was overwhelmed when choosing her fall semester classes.

At SOAR (Student Orientation, Advising and Registration) , Sevett encountered First-Year Interest Groups (FIGs) , learning communities of approximately 20 students who live in the same residential neighborhood and are enrolled in a cluster of three classes that are linked by a common theme.

Sevett enrolled in a FIG, which included introductory courses in philosophy, anthropology and geography. Apart from the FIG, she also signed up for a Spanish course that gave her enough credits to be a full-time student.

“I went to SOAR with absolutely no idea what I wanted to major in. I had so many interests and the FIG topic sparked my interest and made things more convenient during registration,” says Sevett.

Today, Sevett is a junior majoring in international studies and LACIS (Latin American, Caribbean and Iberian Studies) who works at SOAR part time encouraging incoming freshmen to enroll in FIGs.

Beginning as a pilot program in 2001, FIGs set out to provide diversity education, connect academic pursuits with residence life and offer integrated learning across a cohort of courses. In its first year, FIGs supported 75 students within four FIGs. Since then, the program has blossomed to more than 580 students and 31 FIGs.

Director Greg Smith believes FIGs often propel undecided freshmen into a particular area of study.

“We often discover that students’ FIGs led them into their current major and that they thoroughly enjoyed courses they otherwise wouldn’t have thought about,” says Smith.

Senior Eli Judge can attest to discovering his field of study through a FIG. Majoring in political science and history, Judge, along with Sevett, shares his experience with future UW-Madison students at summer orientation.

“I usually tell students about my experience, which was phenomenal, and how it actually shaped my major I have today,” says Judge.

Judge describes some of the benefits of enrolling in a FIG.

“It’s an incredible advantage to work with a small group of students at a school that’s so massive. We easily organized study groups and discovered that across the board, we generally did better on exams than non-FIG sections,” says Judge.

“I felt like I got so much more out of the course material than my classmates who weren’t in FIGs.”

A 2008 annual report revealed that since 2001, FIG students’ cumulative grade point average (GPA) has consistently outperformed that of their peers. In the fall of 2007, FIG students finished with a 3.3 average GPA while the average GPA for the freshmen enrolled in the same cohort of classes was 3.09.

In addition, the program has acquired an increase in the enrollment of minority students.

“Our diversity is consistently higher. Twenty-five percent of our FIG students are students of color compared to about 13 percent of the entire freshmen class,” says FIG Coordinator Kari Fernholz.

An unanticipated consequence of FIGs has been participating faculty’s positive feedback.

“The program is designed to create a beneficial experience for students, but faculty members say it’s changed the way they view freshmen and the way they teach,” says Smith.

Professor of Philosophy Steve Nadler instructs Philosophy 104: Good, Beauty, and the Meaning of Life, which is offered in a FIG course bundle. Nadler returns to teaching FIGs for his fourth year.

“It’s the most rewarding teaching experience I’ve had at this university,” says Nadler. “The close, personal working relationship with the students makes it very easy to generate discussion and first-semester freshmen have a natural enthusiasm when beginning college.”

Nadler says it’s an added benefit to be able to reference other courses he knows his FIG students are taking.

“I can count on my students having read certain plays by Shakespeare or tragedies by Sophocles . . . and I can expect them to bring those to our discussion,” says Nadler.

Continual assessment shows that FIGs are exceeding expectations, however, the program’s goals are modified for further expansion. Smith hopes that FIG courses will be offered through more departments at the university in the future.

“It began strictly as a Letters and Science program because that’s where all the funding and faculty were recruited from, but we’d like to reach other schools and departments,” says Smith.