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Supporting First Generation Students

By Elizabeth Varnado and Leah Vance
November 6 2019

This week is recognized as National First-Generation College Student Week! As part of UK’s commitment to inclusive teaching and learning, we didn’t want this week to pass without discussing the importance of engaging first generation students in the classroom, as well as some practical strategies for instructors to support first-generation student success. Here at UK, 20% of the undergraduates are first-generation students: neither of their parents completed a bachelor’s degree at a university. Nationally, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, one third of all college students are first-generation students.

While these students have the work ethic, resourcefulness, and perseverance needed to succeed in college, they often lack support in other areas, which can make their college career more difficult. According to a 2018 study published by the U.S. Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics, 33% of first-generation students will drop out of college in their first three years compared to 14% of their continuing-generation peers.

Instructors hold a valuable position in the support of first-gen students. By asking questions, building rapport, and reminding students where they can seek additional help, instructors can fill in the support gap that many first-gen students experience.


Where is the gap for First Generation students?

Undergraduates who aren’t familiar with higher education (as an experience, as a culture, as an institution) may not feel a strong sense of community and belonging, and they may not be prepared to navigate the complex systems and processes that make up the “college experience”: who to ask for help (academic or otherwise), where to go for help and other resources, how to get involved (and what to get involved in), how to manage time and prioritize tasks, and so on.

Community support and financial support are the two most important elements for any new college student. While in high school, guidance counselors, teachers, parents and family members are the supports that will get the student to college. First generation students may not have the financial and familial support that other students receive. They may receive scholarships to cover the costs of attending college, but might not know how to budget those resources.

Moreover, vocabulary and institutional jargon familiar to professors in the academic setting may be foreign to first-gens. They may not be accustomed to using the latest technologies in or for their classes. As with all students, there can be a gap between instructor expectations and learners’ perceived abilities. For instructors, navigating these considerations often leads to defining or explaining terms, making the implicit explicit, scaffolding complex activities, and teaching with nuance, care, and reflection as we consider the unique situations that all of our students, including first-gen, bring to the classroom.


Practical ways that instructors and TAs can help first generation students

Learn student’s names and anything else about them that may affect their time as a student (extra-curriculars, commuting from out of town, working full-time, caretaking for a family member or child). Many instructors use notecards on the first day of class to gather this info. Having students write this introduction on Canvas is also an option, particularly for online courses. 

  1. If you see a student who seems distracted or you notice changes in their work, reach out. Factors outside of their academic work may be challenging them but they may not feel they can ask for help. Sometimes a caring instructor can make a huge difference.

  2. Keep a list of available resources on hand, review it with your class and individual students regularly. Frequently mentioning resources in class to students will help remind your students to use the resources. In many cases, staff from student support offices are happy to give a brief presentation during your class on how they can help.

  3. Give your students clear feedback on their assignments as they progress through the semester. If you have a very large class, where individual feedback is a challenge, use a concise rubric and assignment examples to show students why you give the grades you give. Making expectations and feedback transparent—as well as prioritizing the most significant take-aways—is critical for student improvement and acclimation to college-level work.

  4. Time management is such an important part of college education. Give your students a scaffold by asking for drafts or check-ins with heavily-weighted assignments and final projects. This can also allow you to provide formative feedback to the students in a low-stakes situation. 

  5. Review classroom policies regularly. Make sure that students understand how to attend office hours, and what kinds of questions can be addressed at office hours. Be sure they understand your attendance policies, how to navigate the Canvas shell, what will be included on a final exam, etc.


Top priority: Building rapport

Building rapport with students, especially first generation students, is one of the most important habits that educators can practice. Brandi Frisby defines rapport as “a mutual, trusting, respectful, enjoyable, and positive connection between instructors and students.” A high-rapport instructor promotes class discussion and is seen as approachable, open-minded, encouraging, creative, and fair (Benson, Cohen, and Buskist 238). Sharing your own experiences, when appropriate, and asking students about their lives will build a respectful and positive learning environment in your classroom. Students will feel more comfortable approaching you, and their fellow classmates, with questions about course material and college life, if they feel part of the classroom community.


Strengths of first generation students

Being the first in your family to complete a degree shows tenacity, determination, and self-reliance. These students worked hard to get to college, and continue to face challenges head-on each semester. As educators, we have the ability to help first generation students apply and develop their abilities and skills. Even when they feel unprepared or unqualified, an instructor can remind them of these strengths.

CELT is always eager to discuss teaching and learning with instructors at UK. If you’d like to talk more about what you can do to support first-generation students in your courses, send us a message.




Additional Resources 


CLICK HERE for a downloadable info graphic, created by Leah Vance, CELT TA.


Benson, Trisha, Andrew Cohen, & William Buskist. “Rapport: Its relation to student attitudes and behaviors toward teachers and classes.” Teaching of Psychology, vol. 32, no. 4, 2005, pp. 237-270.


Frisby, Brandi (2018) "On Rapport: Connecting with Students," Greater Faculties: A Review of Teaching and Learning: Vol. 2 , Article 3. Available at:


Terenzini, P. T., Springer, L., Yaeger, P. M., Pascarella, E. T., & Nora, A (1996). First-generation college students: Characteristics, experiences, and cognitive development. Research in Higher education, 37(1), 1-22.


McCarron, G. P., & Inkelas, K. K. (2006). The gap between educational aspirations and attainment for first-generation college students and the role of parental involvement. Journal of College Student Development, 47(5), 534-549.