Helping First-Year Students Transition to College
by Christine McDermott, Danielle Archambault, & Chelsey Vest
Wesley College, DE

Academic Strategies for Excellence (AS198) is a three-credit course designed to assist first-year students make a successful transition to college. The course, rooted in research and best practices for guiding first-year students, helps students develop academic, personal, and professional skills.

Wesley College is a minority serving institution (MSI) with approximately 53% of its student population Pell-Grant eligible. Typically, 65% of the incoming cohort consists of developmental students, most of whom are first-generation college students. To better serve this population, Wesley utilizes the On Course textbook in conjunction with the Appreciative Advising Model (Bloom, Hutson & He, 2008) for AS198. The goal of this course is to provide our at-risk students with tools for successfully transitioning into college academics and culture.

A unique feature of Wesley’s approach is that AS198 faculty function as both the students’ instructor and advisor. Three common advising models are:

  • Prescriptive – Advisors give advice based on policies, authority, and requirements, and advising takes on a “clerical function” (Fowler & Boylan, 2010). However, researchers argue this form of advising does not develop problem-solving skills and can be less appropriate for underprepared students.
  • Intrusive – Advisors are actively concerned and involved in their advisees’ academic lives. Structured protocols are employed to motivate students to seek assistance. Typically, professional advisors are used for this approach (Fowler & Boylan, 2010).
  • Appreciative – Advisors intentionally redirect students to a positive mindset that moves away from deficit-based thinking and advising (Bloom, Hutson & He, 2008).

After considering the population that Wesley serves, the Student Success & Retention (SSR) Team intentionally integrated the On Course principles, the Appreciative Advising Model (AAM), and selected AS198 faculty to form a supportive framework for student success and empowerment.

AAM’s six phases guide the advisor/advisee relationship and student development: Disarm, Discover, Dream, Design, Deliver, and Don’t Settle (Bloom, Huston, & He, 2008). AAM seeks to revise self-defeating behavior patterns, build rapport between students and their instructor/advisor, set academic and personal goals, co-create a plan to achieve those goals, and then support students as they independently work to achieve success. Each of the six phases—with its specific goals—is intentionally connected to AS198 activities or assignments.

1. Disarm phase emphasizes the development of trust between the advisee and the advisor. AS198 students respond to the journal entries in the On Course textbook. The instructor/advisor reads the journal entries and writes specific and encouraging feedback for the students.

2. Discover phase focuses on exploring who the students are, including significant life events. AS198 students participate in a Cornell Notes Activity in which they reflect on their note-taking capabilities and how these capabilities affect their academic success. Instructors then relate this exercise in self-awareness to promote lifelong learning.

3. Dream phase utilizes the trust built during the Disarm and Discovery phases to make an important shift toward rapport building as the students reflect on how they define success. AS198 students write about, create, and present a Vision Board. The assignment draws from the reflective On Course journals by using powerful visual images and a dreaming framework.

4. Design phase charges the advisor and the advisee to co-create a plan for success, while focusing on teaching students how to make effective decisions. For AS198, this means incorporating the On Course concepts of Victim/Creator Language and the Wise Choice Process.

5. Delivery phase focuses on the student’s performance and goal achievement. AS198 students have learned about goal setting, decision making, and time management. To see if these goals are being achieved, AS198 instructors/advisors meet with their students for a mid-term grade review.

6. Don’t Settle challenges advisees to follow through with the plans they have created with their advisors, while raising the bar higher for success. In AS198, professors challenge the students to raise the bar by accepting personal responsibility for both achieving success and overcoming challenges. This segment includes group work and class presentations about On Course strategies for student success. Students are tasked with mastering the material and then presenting it to their peers.

Three years after our making AS198 mandatory for students who are taking two developmental classes, the retention rates for AS198 cohorts increased by nearly 14 percentage points. Rates continue to trend upward with the most recent AS198 cohort (Academic Year 2015-2016) at only two percentage points behind the overall freshman rate. Since AS198 serves the students who are most academically at-risk, these data suggest that pairing AS198 with the Appreciative Advising Model increases the likelihood for success for this population.


Bloom, J. L., Hutson, B. L., & He, Y. (2008). The Appreciative Advising Revolution. Champaign, IL: Stripes Publishing L.L.C.

Fowler, P.R., and Boylan, H.R. (2010). Increasing student success and retention: A multidimensional approach. Journal of Developmental Education. 34(2), 2-10.