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First Year Seminar Companion: Introduction

This guide provides an online version of much of the material contained in Dr. Todd Gernes's "A First-Year Seminar Companion," created in September 2015. Faculty will find information on First-Year Seminar (FYS) guidelines, sample syllabi, learning style


This manual is intended to help support and inspire instructors to design and deliver writing-intensive First-Year Seminars, foundational courses that strengthen students’ written communication skills, to ignite their intellectual curiosity, and to introduce them to academic discourse and inquiry. The mission of the First-Year Seminar Program is rooted in the idea that writing is central to academic inquiry and to the liberal arts ideal of a well-rounded, transformative education.  From this perspective, writing and critical thinking should be broadly and intentionally incorporated into the curriculum, preparing students for advanced study, the workplace, citizenship, and life-long learning. This brief guide, an initial offering, will likely expand over time as needs arise.  We welcome your feedback and suggestions.

First-Year Seminars at Stonehill College provide students with an opportunity to explore an engaging topic or question in a small-class format emphasizing writing, discussion, critical thinking, and academic inquiry. First-Year Seminars are an opportunity for faculty to create a “passion seminar,” a writing-intensive course in an open format based on their own research or teaching interests. Because effective writing is integral to critical thinking, the seminars all emphasize frequent writing, close examination of texts, rigorous analysis and reasoning, and information literacy. First-Year Seminars may be rooted in individual disciplines or may be interdisciplinary in nature, constructed around a guiding question or theme. 

All First-Year Seminars bear four credits, have no prerequisites, and are open to all first-year students on a space-available basis, regardless of major. First-Year Seminars typically require 20-30 pages of writing, require students to write frequently with feedback from the instructor and peers, incorporate formal as well an informal assignments, and emphasize the writing process (invention, drafting, and revision) and the rhetorical context (audience, voice, occasion, genre, levels of formality and informality, etc.).  Whatever the focus, theme, discipline, or guiding question, First-Year Seminars provide students with instruction and practice in the following areas:

  • reading actively and critically
  • examining implicit assumptions
  • explaining issues with balance, clarity, and concision
  • understanding the context and purpose of writing
  • developing meaningful and substantive content
  • expressing a point of view while acknowledging differing points of view
  • accessing and organizing information
  • supporting a thesis-driven argument with appropriate and credible evidence
  • drawing insightful conclusions
  • editing and proofreading for grammar and mechanics

Guided Self-Placement for First-Year Seminars
All first-year students participate in a writing-intensive First-Year Seminar at Stonehill, choosing Basic, Centric, or Standard levels, depending on their skills and academic training.  During the summer, all students take an online writing assessment that helps inform their preference.  During summer orientation, students may consult with a Writing Program Advisor who can help them make a final decision. First-year instructors may have access to their students’ GSP essays and surveys.  Contact Patty Mead (see below) and she will provide you with a packet.

First-Year Seminar Levels
We categorize first-year seminars into focus and level of challenge.  Students select a level based on their previous experience and training and overall comfort level with critical reading, writing, and analysis. Our Guided Self-Placement Assessment, which asks students to answer some survey questions and compose an essay based on a library of sources, is an advising tool that helps them make an appropriate choice.  We offer recommendations—sometimes strong recommendations--about an appropriate level based on a careful reading of students’ essays, surveys, and admissions data, but the choice is ultimately up to them.

  • Writing Basic: All sections of this course (WRI 141: Introduction to Academic Writing) are offered within the Writing Program and provide a basic introduction to academic writing, including instruction in grammar, writing mechanics, drafting, revising, and editing. Although there will be brief reading assignments, writing is the central focus.
  • Writing Centric: These courses, also offered within the Writing Program and labeled with the prefix "WRI," incorporate a significant amount of informational content, but writing remains "in the foreground." They also offer additional writing support through frequent instructor feedback, ample opportunities to revise assignments, and one-to-one or small-group tutorials.
  • Writing Standard: First-Year Seminars outside of the Writing Program all provide extensive opportunities for students to write and revise their work in a variety of formats and with feedback from instructors and peers. The focus of the Writing Standard First-Year Seminars is primarily on the thematic or disciplinary content of the course.  Students are therefore required to work more independently, and it is assumed that they will be able to manage and coordinate reading, writing, and research tasks from the first day of class.
  • English Language Learner (ELL or ESL): These are small classes designed for students whose first language is other than English and who would benefit from additional support and guidance in grammar and mechanics, idiomatic language use, and cultural contexts.  These classes cover the same ground as other first-year seminars but in a context that emphasizes community, mutual support, and conversation.

Additional Writing Support Through WRI 041: Writing Practicum
Sometimes students struggle with academic writing at any level and require additional support and instruction for ultimate success.   To this end, we created WRI 041: Writing Practicum, a one-credit writing workshop and structured tutorial that begins week four of each semester.  Students who need a more gradual ramp-up to “academic discourse” may add this course, which is designed to build writing fluency and confidence. Features of Writing Practicum include:

  • A small group tutorial setting led by a writing specialist
  • A basic introduction to the writing process—drafting, revision, and editing
  • A basic introduction to the rhetorical structure of academic essays
  • The opportunity to workshop papers from other courses
  • A focus on grammar and mechanics, as needed

Because this course starts four weeks into the semester, students can opt into it during the add-drop period, either as a supplement to their studies or as a substitute for an unsuccessful First-Year-Seminar attempt.  An announcement to students and faculty is typically sent out week two of the Fall and Spring semesters. If you identify a student in your class who is struggling with writing and may be at risk of falling behind or failing, this may be a suitable option, especially if their academic literacy needs exceed the capacity of a typical peer tutor or undergraduate writing fellow.

Elizabeth Chase, PhD, MLS
Assistant Dean of General Education
Ph. 508-565-1450


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