How UK's Largest College is Rethinking, Restructuring the Freshman Experience

By Lindsey Piercy

Although students are excited to start their journey in higher education, there is often a feeling of apprehension. One of the most anxiety-producing tasks? Registering for classes.

Choosing from a variety of professors, scheduling your courses and getting enough credit hours can be extremely stressful. That's why the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Kentucky has spent the last three years rethinking and restructuring the process.

Dean Mark Kornbluh takes great pride in offering innovative core classes — courses that were originally designed with freshmen in mind. “We want to make sure our incoming students start their college career on the right foot, with all of the tools and support needed to be successful,” he said.

There was only one problem.

Incoming freshmen were the last group of students to register. As the summer went on, the inventory of classes became shorter and shorter due to seats being claimed by juniors and seniors.

In an effort to be more strategic, faculty members within each department began discussing which core classes incoming students would benefit from taking. Then, they went a step further — turning conversations into actions.  

Starting in fall 2015, the college — which teaches almost 70% of all the classes that students take during their first year — began identifying specific core courses that would best serve first-year students. They now save seats in those sections, making them available to first-year students — even those who have majors outside of the College of Arts and Sciences.

For its own majors, UK Arts and Sciences — which includes 19 departments, seven interdisciplinary programs, 27 majors and 36 minors — embarked on cohort scheduling.

"We wanted to make a large impact quickly, so we decided to start this initiative with the university’s largest major, biology," Kornbluh said.

Essentially, cohort scheduling involves developing schedules that place students with similar academic interests into the same sections of courses before they arrive for their summer advising conferences.

Kornbluh quickly realized this method is not only extremely efficient, but it is also remarkably effective. So, he began the process of employing the technique on a broader scale. Keep in mind — as the largest college on campus — Arts and Sciences is responsible for nearly 7,000 students. As one could imagine, this was no easy feat.

"This would have been virtually impossible 10 years ago. Scheduling was more like a guessing game done with paper and pencil," Kornbluh explained. "Now, the combination of an experienced enrollment management team and a sophisticated analytics program ensures all new A&S students have classes with students from their own major that they will likely be spending the next four years studying alongside."

While geared toward freshmen, cohort scheduling has lasting benefits for all students.

Improving the Overall Educational Experience

In an effort to ease the transition into college, cohort scheduling involves professors who are most eager to teach incoming students.

Kathi Kern, an associate professor in the Department of History and associate provost for teaching, learning and academic innovation, understands the importance of this initiative for both students and faculty.

“The cohort scheduling helped to reduce the anonymity in my large first-year class. The fact that students were in multiple classes together deepened the sense of community," she said. "So, even though I only had those students in one class, they were tied to each other beyond my class. They formed lasting friendships and intellectual connections.”

 Creating a Community of Lasting Relationships

Students stand to gain from befriending their classmates. Emerging studies suggest those who form healthy relationships in college are more likely to be academically successful. These students — grouped together by cohort scheduling — can form study groups, discuss projects, sympathize over mistakes and celebrate victories.

For Alyssa Rosenzweig, a political science junior, seeing familiar faces allowed her to create friendships with those who had similar interests.

"Most of these friendships I still have today. Seeing the same people every day made my school adjustment period much more comfortable," she continued. "The students who I met in these classes created group chats, where we could all help each other with homework, edit each other's papers or simply just hang out. I am extremely fortunate to have been given the opportunity to partake in cohort scheduling, because had I not, some of my close friendships today would not exist."

Providing a Stepping Stone for the Future

Each program is different, but they share a common purpose — providing an accessible path to a four-year degree. Determining a course schedule for the first year can be challenging for freshmen. The problem is often more acute for STEM majors, as STEM programs often have more complex and ordered requirements. Of course, students always reserve the right to drop or add courses, but cohort scheduling helps guide them toward academic success.   

Evan Conder, a biology junior, says cohort scheduling helped her develop a true support system, which she hopes to carry through college and beyond.

"Cohort scheduling my first semester was a really great way to start off my college experience,” she said. "It helped establish a sense of familiarity and stability in what can be an overwhelming process. Being surrounded by students who shared my goals and interests provided ongoing support and two years later, they are still my lab partners and study group peers.”

UK has ambitious goals. Among them — recruiting, retaining and graduating more students than ever before. For the UK College of Arts and Sciences, cohort scheduling is just one way to achieve those goals.

Through initiatives such as this one, faculty and staff are striving to positively impact all students and help each and every one of them pave a path for success.

The University of Kentucky is increasingly the first choice for students, faculty and staff to pursue their passions and their professional goals. In the last two years, Forbes has named UK among the best employers for diversity and INSIGHT into Diversity recognized us as a Diversity Champion two years running. UK is ranked among the top 30 campuses in the nation for LGBTQ* inclusion and safety. The Chronicle of Higher Education judged us a “Great College to Work for,”  and UK is among only 22 universities in the country on Forbes' list of "America's Best Employers."  We are ranked among the top 10 percent of public institutions for research expenditures — a tangible symbol of our breadth and depth as a university focused on discovery that changes lives and communities. And our patients know and appreciate the fact that UK HealthCare has been named the state’s top hospital for three straight years. Accolades and honors are great. But they are more important for what they represent: the idea that creating a community of belonging and commitment to excellence is how we honor our mission to be not simply the University of Kentucky, but the University for Kentucky.