Executive Summary
First Year Matters

A Strategic Action Plan for Improving the First Year at Stony Brook University

Draft (9/23/2008)

During the 2007-2008 academic year, Stony Brook University conducted a self-study of our program for first-year undergraduates, First Year Matters (FYM), under the guidance of the Policy Center on the First Year of College. Close to one hundred faculty, students, and staff members from all over campus participated fully in the self-study as members of a task force comprising nine subcommittees, each of which addressed one foundational dimension of the first-year experience. Additionally, the task force administered three surveys, one of faculty, with many of them teaching first-year students, and two of students, one in each of the Fall and Spring semesters.

The full results of FYM will beavailable here. These results comprise a large inventory of current practices, results of the surveys, and the reports and recommendations of each of the nine subcommittees. But the main purpose of engaging in the FYM process was not to produce a report; rather it was to produce a unified strategic action plan that would lead to and guide continuous improvement in the experience of future first-year students at Stony Brook University. This document contains such a plan.

The plan that we present was arrived at in a very deliberate process. The Foundations of Excellence process is rooted in an intellectual framework that incorporates nine aspirational principles of excellence.  This framework grew out of a quarter century of work on the first year of college by John Gardiner and his colleagues.  The dimensional principles are as follows:

Philosophy Dimension  Foundations Institutions approach the first year in ways that are intentional and based on a philosophy/rationale of the first year that informs relevant institutional policies and practices.

Organization Dimension  Foundations Institutions create organizational structures and policies that provide a comprehensive, integrated, and coordinated approach to the first year.

Learning Dimension  Foundations Institutions deliver intentional curricular and co-curricular learning experiences that engage students in order to develop knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors consistent with the desired outcomes of higher education and the institution’s philosophy and mission.

Faculty Dimension  Foundations Institutions make the first college year a high priority for the faculty.

Transitions Dimension  Foundations Institutions facilitate appropriate student transitions through policies and practices that are intentional and aligned with institutional mission.

All Students Dimension  Foundations Institutions serve all first-year students according to their varied needs.

Diversity Dimension  Foundations Institutions ensure that all first-year students experience diverse ideas, worldviews, and cultures as a means of enhancing their learning and preparing them to become members of pluralistic communities.

Roles and Purposes Dimension  Foundations Institutions promote student understanding of the various roles and purposes of higher education, both for the individual and society.

Improvement Dimension  Foundations Institutions conduct assessment and maintain associations with other institutions and relevant professional organizations in order to achieve ongoing first-year improvement.
 Each dimensional subcommittee of the FYM task force prepared a report and a set of recommendations based on a comprehensive review and formal assessment of current practices, student experiences and faculty/staff feedback, all of which were discussed among the entire task force and presented for feedback to our liaison to the Policy Center, John Gardner, its Executive Director and the leading figure in the study of the first year of college over the last quarter century and more. These reports and recommendations are available in full on the FYM website.

The FYM Executive Committee distilled the recommendations into the action plan that we present here.  If we found that, based on others feedback, we need more space to fit additional items in the intro, this portion might be able to be listed somewhere else on the report, not necessarily in paragraph form (i.e., under the title, a sidebar, etc...)
Our recommendations are grouped into five categories. These categories were not fixed in advance, but rather arose naturally out of the deliberation process. Nor are the categories meant to be monolithic and discrete, but integrated with one another. We recognize that the first-year experience does not take place in a vacuum, and so we have not confined the scope of our recommendations to the first year. Additionally, because our goal was not a report on the state of the first year but rather a plan for moving forward, we have omitted from this report many of the good things that are already being done to improve the first-year and the entire undergraduate experience. If we are permitted to indulge in a bit of jargon, we may say that we have not engaged in performance evaluation, but in assessment, and not assessment of the individual student, staff member, or faculty member, but rather formative assessment of the entire institution for continuous improvement.  The purpose of our recommendations is thus to set a course for first-year undergraduate education at Stony Brook, within an integrated vision of the entire undergraduate experience.


I. Intentionality and Planning   SBU has a strong first-year program but that program is not clearly documented.  We should codify our current practice and plan for the future, taking advantage of our diversity and integrating the student experience both inside and outside the classroom. 

  1. Document the current first-year program in detail, including undergraduate colleges, orientation, registration, high-enrollment courses, and funding.
  2. Establish a standing university-wide committee on the first-year experience.
  3. Develop a statement and goal document that formally articulates SBU’s first-year philosophy.
  4. Improve internal marketing & communication about the first year.

II. The Student Experience

  1. Better integrate information and materials for first-year students before and after admission and across departments.
  2. Emphasize the Roles & Purposes of higher education for first-year students.
  3. Strengthen support and intervention for first-year students in academic jeopardy.
  4. Better connect first-year students to each other and to upper classes through college fellows and other means.

III. Faculty & Staff  The successes of our first-year program are not well enough known throughout the campus community. Faculty and staff must be informed, prepared, and fully engaged in our first-year efforts.

  1. Enhance the reward system for faculty and staff involved in the first year.
  2. Create a system for identifying and preparing instructors for first-year college courses and improve Training & Development for them.
  3. Strengthen connections between faculty and advising professionals.
  4. Engage Chairs and UGPD's in first year efforts.
  5. Connect all faculty and professional staff to first year and colleges.

IV. Institutionalization & Sustainability  Some aspects of the SBU first-year experience are well developed, but we need to address the needs of first-year students broadly across all areas of campus responsibility.

  1. Establish a FY curriculum committee with a holistic, integrated view of learning inside and outside the classroom and taking account of the relation to subsequent years.
  2. Examine placement into gateway courses (writing, math and information skills, and literacy) from an institutional perspective.
  3. Pay special attention to courses with high enrollments and those in which first-year students do not succeed.
  4. Examine course availability and make better use of innovative scheduling mechanisms in the first year.
  5. Connect existing campus diversity programs and traditions with first-year academic experiences.
  6. Use the undergraduate colleges to optimize academic success and better integrate student groups not advised by UGCs while still maintaining identity of these groups.

V. Assessment and Continuous Improvement  SBU collects a great deal of data on the first year.  That information must be more widely distributed and used for continuous improvement.

  1. Provide greater analysis of available data and close the feedback loop.
  2. Create a readily available living Resource Library.
  3. Share data proactively with departments that have a large stake in the first year.
  4. Provide the financial resources to identify and address first-year needs annually.

To view the full dimension committee reports, please visit the Dimension Committee Report page.