An examination of the impact of the Freshmen Seminar course on students' academic outcomes

Lanette Raymond and Anthony R. Napoli

Suffolk County Community College

Tinto (1975) proposed a model of student retention that
focusses on the impact of social and academic integration on goal and institutional
commitment, and the subsequent decision to persist or withdraw from post-secondary
institutions. Within this model, the extent to which an individual is motivated to earn a
degree and to graduate from a specific institution are determined principally by students'
characteristics and interactions with the social and academic environment. A meta-analysis
(Napoli & Wortman, 1996) based on Tinto's model confirms that both academic and social
integration have significant and beneficial effects on term-to-term and year-to-year
persistence among community college students. Encouragement from others (Nora, 1987),
specifically encouragement to continue attending (Metzner, 1984) and discouragement from
leaving (Anderson, 1981) college have been shown to influence students toward persistence.
Hays and Oxley (1986) observed that the development of social network, most importantly
the density and frequency of network interaction, has a positive impact on adapting to
college.

Commensurate with the mission at the community college to enhance both
the social and the teaching/learning environment, a course which facilitates the social
and academic integration of students is part of the curriculum. The Freshmen Seminar
course is designed to present methods and techniques which students can adopt to promote
their __perseverance__ and __success__ at college (SCCC, 1996). Insufficient
academic preparedness is not the most frequent reason college students drop out. About
three-fourths of those who quit are in good academic standing. Research, some of which is
discussed above, has identified specific keys to college success, but ironically students
are often unaware of these factors and of how much they matter.

The Freshmen Seminar is based on making the keys to success in college
apparent and available to students at the beginning of their college careers. The Freshmen
Seminar course curriculum (Gardner and Jewler, 1995) covers issues such as the value of
interpersonal support and networking, optimal use of resources and time management, basic
survival information and personal goal, skill and career development. Specific topics
include college procedures and resources, academic advisement, goal setting, test and note
taking, and health issues.

The adaptive skills fostered in the course have been identified by
Gardner and Jewler (1995) as important prerequisite behaviors which have direct and
indirect influences on academic success (i.e., persistence and graduation). The
acquisition of these skills earlier, rather than later, in the student's course of study
is assumed to have a more positive influence on academic achievement and persistence.
Currently, however, no evidence exists to support or challenge this assumption for the
community college population. To this end, the present set of retrospective studies was
designed to assess the graduation rates and academic progress or persistence for students
who enrolled in Freshmen Seminar classes. The goal of the first study was to assess the
association between Freshmen Seminar experience (grade outcome) and relevant academic
outcome measures (graduation rate, persistence rate, persistence in terms of the number of
college credits completed, and overall grade point average). The second study sought to
tease out specifically those differences that may logically exist between students who
enrolled in Freshmen Seminar classes during their first semester and students who chose to
enroll in the course in a subsequent semester.

Study 1

Method

__Sample__

The sample for the first study consisted of 6,648 students enrolled in
Freshmen Seminar classes during the Fall 1992 (n=3,364) and Fall 1993 (n=3,284) semesters
at a multi-campus suburban community college with an enrollment of approximately 20,000
students.

__Procedure__

Based on the final course grade in the Freshmen Seminar, students were
dichotomized into a C or better group (n = 5,777) or a below C group (n = 1,808). Students
in the C or better group obtained Freshmen Seminar course grades of C, C+, B, B+ or A,
indicating successful completion of the course. Students in the below C group received
final course grades of W, F, D, or D+, indicating failure to successfully complete the
freshman seminar in the designated Fall semester^{(1)}.

__Measures__

Three outcome measures were selected
to assess the influence of the Freshmen Seminar class. These measures consisted of
graduation rates, overall grade point average, persistence rates based on continued
enrollment, and persistence in terms of the total number of college credits completed as
of the Fall 1995 semester. High school grade point average and placement test scores were
employed to serve as a covariate for those analyses which controlled for previous academic
achievement.

Results

Statistical analyses
reveal that students who successfully completed the Freshman Seminar course with a C, or
better grade, had significantly higher rates of persistence and graduation and lower rates of withdrawal ( __p__
< .0001) than students who earned less than a C grade. Specifically, an
examination of Table 1 shows that, for both the Fall 1992 and Fall 1993 cohorts, Freshmen
Seminar "C or better" students were more than 4 times more likely to have
graduated as of the Fall 1995 semester, than "below C" students (*X* ²_{1992}(1)
= 37.1, __p__ < .01; *X* ²_{1993}(1) =
18.5, __p__ < .01). Freshmen Seminar "below
C" students were more likely to have withdrawn as of the Fall 1995 semester,
than "C or better" students, 47% for the Fall 1992 cohort (*X* ²* *(1) = 49.97, __p__ < .01), and 59% for the Fall 1993
cohort (*X* ²(1) = 63.15, __p__ < .01). Freshmen Seminar "C or better" students in the
Fall 1993 cohort were 60% more likely to have persisted to the Fall 1995 semester (*X* ²(1) = 13.13, __p__
< .01) than "below C" students, however persistence rates ceased to be
significantly different between "C or better" students and "below
C" students in the Fall 1992 cohort. This last finding is not surprising as a
majority of those students intending to graduate or transfer do so within three years.

Additional analyses indicate that students receiving C or better
Freshmen Seminar grades earned significantly higher (__p__ < .0001) GPAs and
completed significantly more (__p__ < .0001) credits than students receiving less
than C grades in the Freshmen Seminar. Moreover, significant group differences continued
to be observed after controlling for high school average, and placement test scores (see
Table 2). This latter finding greatly reduces the possibility that Freshmen Seminar
students, with C or better course grades, earned higher GPAs and completed more credits
simply because they have greater academic aptitude. Rather, the results suggest that
positive (C, or better, grade) Freshmen Seminar outcomes are related to greater
persistence (more credits completed), and higher GPA, above and beyond that which might be
predicted by previously demonstrated academic aptitude.

Summary

The goal of study one concerned the assessment of
the association between positive Freshmen Seminar experiences (grade outcomes of C or
better) and several relevant academic outcome measures (graduation rates, persistence, and
overall grade point average). Results indicate that successful completion of the Freshmen
Seminar course is associated with higher overall grade point average, persistence, and an
increased likelihood to graduate. Importantly, the results for GPA and persistence
(credits complete) were maintained after statistically controlling for previous academic
achievement (i.e., high school average and placement test scores), which allowed for a
more direct and less biased examination of relationship between Freshmen Seminar pass/fail
outcomes and achievement. Thus, these findings also suggest that persistence and
graduation positively correlate with Freshmen Seminar skill proficiencies. That is, as
course related knowledge increases, so too would the likelihood to persist and graduate.
Overall, the study demonstrates that a C or better grade in the Freshmen Seminar is
associated with better academic outcomes.

Having established a general positive link between Freshmen Seminar
course skills and academic outcomes, it is important to examine the impact of earlier
acquisition of these skills on academic achievement and persistence, and to determine
whether or not students benefit from earlier enrollment in the Freshmen Seminar. A second
study was designed to assess the graduation rates and academic progress or persistence for
students who enrolled in Freshmen Seminar classes during their first semester as opposed
to students who chose to enroll in the course in a subsequent semester. To examine the
graded influence of Freshmen Seminar skills, the second study also assessed the
relationship between Freshmen Seminar grades and subsequent academic success.

Study 2

Study two addresses the following assumptions
concerning the Freshmen Seminar courses, which were derived from the foregoing arguments.

__Assumption I__. Completion of the Freshmen Seminar
course during the entering semester is more beneficial to academic achievement than
enrolling in the course in a subsequent semester. Therefore, operationally, First-semester
Freshmen Seminar students will have significantly greater persistence and graduation rates
than Post-first semester Freshmen Seminar students.

__Assumption II__. Academic achievement is dependent on
Freshmen Seminar skill-proficiencies. Thus, operationally, Freshmen Seminar final course
grades will be significantly and positively correlated to persistence and graduation
rates.

__Assumption III__. Freshmen Seminar skill-proficiencies of First-semester students are
more strongly related to persistence and graduation rates than the skill proficiencies of
Post-first semester students. Specifically, the correlation between Freshmen Seminar final
course grades and persistence, and graduation outcomes, will be significantly greater
among First-semester Freshmen Seminar students.

Method

__Sample__

The sample for the present study consisted of 3,293 Full-time students
who entered a multi-campus suburban community college in the Fall 1993 semester.
Approximately 70% of the students enrolled in the Freshmen Seminar during their first
semester at the college. Approximately 30% of the students enrolled in the course during a
subsequent semester.

__Procedures__

Students were dichotomized into two groups based on course enrollment
patterns. One group (First-semester Freshmen Seminar students; __n__ = 2,283) consisted
of students who enrolled in the Freshmen Seminar during their first semester. The second
Group (Post-first semester Freshmen Seminar students; __n__=1,005) consisted of those
students who enrolled in the Freshmen Seminar during a subsequent semester. Student
grouping (first semester *v*. later Freshmen Seminar enrollment) serves as the
primary independent variable in the present study. Students from either group who
transferred to other institutions prior to graduation are not followed in terms of
graduation from or persistence at subsequent institutions.

__Measures__

To assess the impact of first semester versus later Freshmen Seminar
enrollment on academic achievement, two important and relevant outcome measures were
examined. These measures were graduation outcome (graduate or non-graduate), and
persistence (total credits completed at the community college as of the Fall 1996
semester). Freshmen Seminar final course grades were used as an index of Freshmen Seminar
skill proficiencies. High school grade point average was employed to serve as a covariate
for those analyses which controlled for previous academic achievement.

Results

__Graduation rates__

Chi-square analysis reveals that the three-year graduation rate among
the First-semester Freshmen Seminar students (28.8%) is significantly higher (*X*
²(1) = 54.6, __p__ < .0001) than the rate for the Post-first semester Freshmen
Seminar students (14.2%). Interestingly, a comparison of high school averages reveals that
the First-semester Freshmen Seminar students (__M__ = 76.3) had a slightly, however,
significantly higher (__t__(2844) = 3.65, __p__< .0003) high school average than
the Post-first semester Freshmen Seminar students (__M__ = 75.1). To rule out the
possibility that the higher graduation rate among the First-semester Freshmen Seminar
students was attributable to greater pre-college academic aptitude (and not related to the
earlier enrollment in the course) the graduation rates for the two Freshmen Seminar groups
were reassessed controlling for high school average (HSAVG). The analysis was conducted
using multivariate regression in which graduation outcome ("dummy" coded 0 =
non-graduate, 1 = graduate) was regressed on HSAVG and Freshmen Seminar enrollment
occurrence (dummy coded 0 = Post First-semester and 1 = First-semester). Results indicate
that, after controlling for high school average, the graduation rate of the First-semester
Freshmen Seminar students (30.4%) remained twice as high, and significantly above (__F__(2,2115)
= 82.05, __p__ < .0001), the rate of the Post-first semester Freshmen Seminar
students (15.8%). Thus, these findings supported Assumption I (see above), and ruled out
the alternative explanation that graduation outcomes are not related to early versus late
Freshmen Seminar enrollment.

__Persistence__

A comparison between First-semester
Freshmen Seminar students and those students who
enrolled in the Freshmen Seminar course in a subsequent semester, of the mean
number of credits completed, indicates that the First-semester Freshmen Seminar students (__M__
= 44.3) earned significantly more (__t__(2394) = 8.52, __p__ < .0001) college
credits than students who enrolled in the Freshmen Seminar course in a subsequent semester
(__M__ = 35.4). To eliminate a "third variable" explanation for the
relationship between Freshmen Seminar enrollment and persistence, the analysis was
re-executed controlling for high school average (the third variable). As in the case of
graduation rates, even after removing the influence of high school average, the
First-semester Freshmen Seminar students (__M__ = 46.6) completed significantly more
credits (__F__(2,2115) = 65.27, __p__ < .0001) than the Post-first semester
Freshmen Seminar students (__M__ = 36.7). These data, taken with the results reported
above for graduation rates, are consistent with Assumption I, (see above).

__Freshmen Seminar Grade Point Average__

To test the assertion that academic achievement in the Freshmen Seminar
has a beneficial influence on subsequent academic achievement, Freshmen Seminar grade
point averages were correlated with graduation outcome (graduate or non-graduate), and
credits completed. Results indicate that Freshmen Seminar performances are significantly,
and positively, related to both graduation outcome (__r__ = .278, __p__ < .0001)
and credits completed (__r__ = .452, __p__ < .0001). These relationships are
illustrated in Figure 1. The left side of the graph shows graduation rates for
"F" to "A" grade outcomes in the Freshmen Seminar. The graph clearly
demonstrates that graduation outcome is reliably linked to Freshmen Seminar final grades.
Similarly, the right side of the graph depicts a strong positive relationship between
Freshmen Seminar final grades and credits completed.

It is noteworthy that an examination of the partial correlation
coefficients^{(2)} indicates that the relationships between Freshmen Seminar
final grades and graduation outcome (__r___{partial} =
.230, __p__ < .0001), and Freshmen Seminar final grades and credits completed (__r___{partial} = .130, __p__ < .0001) remain significant after
controlling for high school average. These results provide support for the Assumption II
(above), that academic achievement in college is associated with college adaptation skills
introduced in the Freshmen Seminar course.

To assess the adequacy of Assumption
III (above), that Freshmen Seminar skill proficiencies of First-semester Freshmen Seminar
students are more strongly related to persistence and graduation than the skill
proficiencies of Post-first semester Freshmen Seminar students, correlations between
Freshmen Seminar final grades and graduation outcomes, and Freshmen Seminar final grades
and credits completed were computed separately for First-semester Freshmen Seminar
students, and Post-first semester Freshmen Seminar students. The results of these analyses
are presented in Table 3. As seen in the table, Freshmen Seminar final grades are
positively and significantly related to both graduation outcome and credits completed for
both Freshmen Seminar enrollment groups. A statistical comparison, for both outcome
measures reveals, however, that the correlations are significantly stronger for the
First-time Freshmen Seminar students than for the Post-first semester Freshmen Seminar
students. These findings are consistent with the Assumption III, that the influence of
Freshmen Seminar gained skills is greater when the course is introduced early in the
students college career.

Summary

The goal of the present study was to assess three assumptions concerning the benefits of the Freshmen Seminar course. Specifically, that 1) completion of the Freshmen Seminar course during the entering semester is significantly more beneficial to academic achievement than completing the course in a subsequent semester; 2) that academic achievement is associated with Freshmen Seminar skill proficiencies; and 3) that Freshmen Seminar skill proficiencies of First-semester Freshmen Seminar students are more strongly related to persistence and graduation than the skill proficiencies of Post-first semester Freshmen Seminar students. Results from the analyses support each of these arguments.

Discussion

Tinto (1993) defined social integration
in terms of the social ties resulting from day to day interaction. He indicates that
academic or intellectual integration results from sharing information, perspectives and
values common to the college community. In this context, it makes sense that more
satisfying and reinforcing interactions with the formal and informal academic and social
systems of an institution should lead to greater integration and persistence. Conversely,
it can be understood how unpleasant or limited interactions with these systems could
inhibit integration and decrease the likelihood of persistence. The Freshman Seminar
course focusses attention on both directly and indirectly enhancing student integration.
The greater persistence and better performance of students who take this course, take it
early, and do well in the course, over those students who do not, provide evidence to
support both Tinto's (1975) theoretical model and the practical value of the Freshman
Seminar course.

Although this pair of studies furnishes support for the positive
influence of the Freshmen Seminar course, certain issues somewhat limit conclusions drawn
from their results. Specifically, the studies used correlational research designs, and
although correlation forms a prerequisite for causal inference, it does not provide direct
evidence of causation. Though the present findings are compelling and consistent with the
assumptions concerning the benefits of early enrollment in the Freshmen Seminar, other
factors may also be operating and producing the observed group differences (e.g., initial
educational goals of students, motivation to persist and graduate, etc...). In objective
evaluation efforts causal inferences can be drawn only from controlled experiments with
cases randomly assigned to treatment and control conditions, and with all relevant
"third variable" factors identified or eliminated. Unfortunately, the random
assignment of students is rarely an option in "real world" settings, and
investigators instead frequently need to draw inferences from correlational studies.

While this set of studies establishes a relationship between the
Freshmen Seminar course and later academic success and perseverance, they do not
distinguish which elements of the course contribute most to this achievement. Previous
research also has shown that a variety of other factors influence academic and social
integration (Munro, 1981; Pascarella et al., 1983a, 1983b, 1983, 1985, 1986; Napoli &
Wortman, 1998) including background characteristics (age, socioeconomic status,
personality needs), pre-college educational experience, previous academic achievement, and
initial experiences in college. Tinto's (1975, 1987, 1993) model looks to demographic,
cognitive, psychosocial, and institutional factors for a comprehensive explanation of
persistence. Further research should be conducted to address and tease out the role of
these influences.

References

Anderson, K. L. (1981). Post-high school experiences and
college attrition. __Sociology of Education, (54),__ 1-15.

Course offerings in reading. (1996). __Suffolk County Community
College Catalog__, 36, 135.

Gardner, J. N., and Jewler, A. J. (1995). __Your college experience:
Strategies for success, 2nd ed.__ Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Hays, R. B., and Oxley, D. (1986). Social network development and
functioning during a life transition. __Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50,__
305-313.

Metzner, B.S. (1984). An application and evaluation of a model of
student attrition using freshmen at a public urban commuter university. __Dissertation
Abstracts International, (44),__ 2387A. (University Microfilms No 83-28,8080).

Napoli, A., and Wortman, P.M. (1996). A meta-analytic examination of
the relative importance of academic and social integration among community college
students. __Journal of Applied Research in the Community College, 4(1),__ 5-21.

Nora, A. (1987). Determinants of retention among Chicano college
students: A structural model. __Research in Higher Education,__ 26 (1), 31-59.

Tinto, V. (1975). Dropout from higher education: A theoretical
synthesis of recent research. __Review of Educational Research, 45,__ 89-125.

Tinto, V. (1993). __Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures
of student attrition (2nd ed.).__ Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

__Table 1. Graduation, Persistence, and Withdrawal Rates for Fall 1992 and 1993
Cohorts as of Fall 1995.__

Cohort | Student Freshmen Seminar Grades | Student Persistence Rate | Student Graduation Rate |
Student Withdrawal Rate |

Fall 1992 (after 3 yrs) | Below C | 14.92 | 7.12 | 77.96 |

C or above | 16.61 | 30.37 | 53.02 | |

Fall 1993 (after 2 yrs) | Below C | 27.64 | 2.56 | 69.80 |

C or above | 44.10 | 12.10 | 43.80 |

*X* ²_{ fall 1992} (2) = 211.84, __p__
< .001.

*X* ² _{fall 1993} (2) = 199.36, __p__ <
.001.

__Table 2. GPA and Credits Completed by cohort for students with a grade of C or
better or below C in Freshmen Seminar, controlling for previously demonstrated academic
aptitude.__

Cohort | GPA | Credits Completed | ||

C or Better | Below C | C or Better | Below C | |

Fall 1992 | 2.55 | 1.62 | 45.61 | 23.14 |

Fall 1993 | 2.49 | 1.37 | 37.74 | 19.94 |

__Table 3. Correlations between academic outcome measures and Freshmen Seminar final
grades for First-semester students and Post-first semester students.__

Academic Outcome Measure |
Correlation with Freshmen Seminar grades for First-semester students. (p) |
Correlation with Freshmen Seminar grades for Post-first semester students. (p) |
t for difference in r (p that r_{1} = r_{2}) |

Graduation Outcome | .301 (.0001) |
.200 (.0001) |
2.82 ( |

Credits Completed | .473 (.0001) |
.393 (.0001) |
2.58 ( |

The authors would like to acknowledge Elvira Elek-Fisk for her insightful comments on this manuscript.

1. Successful completion of the Freshmen Seminar is required of all full-time day students in all programs for graduation at the institutional site of this study.

2. Partial correlation remove the influence of high school average from all other measures (i.e.,Freshmen Seminar final grades, graduation outcome, and credits completed).