Toolkit helps faculty assist first-year students

Students in a hallway

York faculty and teaching assistants wishing to respond to the challenges first-year students face in making the transition to university can now turn to a First Year Experience (FYE) Toolkit for a helping hand in the classroom.

Susan Murtha

The toolkit, whose creation was supported by a York University Academic Innovation Fund grant, was the brainchild of two professors who were serving simultaneous terms as associate deans of teaching & learning for their Faculties: Professor Susan Murtha at the Faculty of Health and Professor Diane Woody at the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies.

“I was pulled into a first-year working group and realized that more could be done to improve students’ experience in the classroom during their first year,” said Woody, an associate professor of French Studies.

York, like most universities, has a student transition program (YU START) focused on assisting the newcomers with their first-year experience, but the two associate deans believed that faculty had a critical role to play in supporting the successful  transition of students to university-level studies,

“If we want faculty to be empathetic and effective, they need resources at their fingertips,” Woody said.


To help them to fully comprehend the needs of students and of their instructors, the two professors explored the demographic makeup of York’s student population. It helped them understand the particular challenges that first-year students might face – both those unique to York and those common to all first-year students.

Diane Woody

“It was clear that faculty needed a place to obtain information about student demographics and a chance to reflect on the impact on teaching of factors such as commuting times and being the first in one’s family to attend university,” Woody said.

Next, they reviewed the existing research about transition pedagogy, the existing supports at York, and best practices at other universities. Then, the pair held consultations with faculty members and a pan-university advisory group. The upshot was a decision to create an online FYE toolkit to validate the importance of teaching at the 1000 level and to support faculty members as they support and challenge first-year students.

“For professors, it’s a huge responsibility to teach first-year students,” Murtha said. “Incoming students may not have the life skills to cope with the demands of university, such as focus. The key to transition pedagogy is not just learning the content but also learning how to learn.

“We also have a lot of expectation of students. We don’t necessarily tell them why or how to do things; we assume they know that, so we just tell them to go and do it.”


It took the pair a year of doing the research, creating or amassing the tools and working with the team (educational developers, learning technology services) to bring the FYE toolkit to life. The toolkit is now hosted online and promoted by the Teaching Commons. It is also featured regularly in new faculty orientation sessions.

“For professors, it’s a huge responsibility to teach first-year students. Incoming students may not have the life skills to cope with the demands of university, such as focus. The key to transition pedagogy is not just learning the content but also learning how to learn.” – Susan Murtha

The FYE toolkit employs the five senses of success (purpose, connectedness, capability, resourcefulness, academic culture) pioneered by Australian researcher Alf Lizzo and provides resources that align with the lifecycle of a first-year course:

  • (Re) designing your course
  • First day of class
  • Assessing learning and giving feedback.

There are also resources to support student success both in and out of the classroom, such as emergency contact information for students in crisis and videos that offer study tips. In addition, the demographic profile of York students provides context. In addition to an “essential toolkit,” faculty can pick and choose from additional resources to create their own tailored toolkits.

“You would use different techniques for a large class compared with a seminar-style class,” said Woody.

Faculty members have expressed gratitude for the toolkit, and there is also an online community of practice. As delighted as they are with uptake, both Murtha and Woody would like to see it promoted and the content used more widely.

“If all professors teaching first-year courses, found one item/link that was interesting/engaging/practical on the FYE toolkit website, try it out and/or share it with a colleague who teaches first year courses we would be delighted,” Murtha said. “It takes people to engage with it for it to work.”

By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer to Innovatus