professor discusses film with class

Rebecca Moody and students taking Introduction to Philosophy and Religion discuss a film.

First-Year Students Thrive in Designated Courses

Pilot effort centers student well-being at the heart of Humanities & Arts courses
October 25, 2023

Sometimes it pays to sweat the small stuff. That’s the big-picture takeaway from an initiative started last year by faculty in the Department of Humanities & Arts (HUA) in response to the Mental Health and Well-Being Task Force report.

In this case, the small stuff in question relates to who takes HUA courses—and when. Historically, many 1000-level humanities courses have filled up with upper-level students before first-year students were even eligible to enroll. This left new students either delaying their introduction to certain foundational courses or taking classes in subjects they weren’t passionate about just to fulfill a credit requirement. Both scenarios contributed to students feeling disengaged from parts of their academic journey. 

At the same time, as the task force report shows, students struggled to master non-academic skills such as practicing self-care, balancing schoolwork with downtime, and developing meaningful connections with peers. There’s no specific course for these skills and historically students developed them bit by bit as they progressed through their college experience. But opportunities for teens to learn these lessons organically stopped suddenly during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I come back to WPI day after day because of my students, and it concerned me to know that so many weren’t developing confidence in their abilities,” says Joseph Cullon, professor of teaching and associate department head in HUA as well as co-chair of the Mental Health Implementation Team’s academic subgroup. “I recognized that students needed something additional, but developing a new course or requirement takes a long time. So in conversations with colleagues we decided to change the actual delivery of our courses.”

Cullon recruited 15 HUA faculty members to participate in a pilot program that reserved several introductory-level HUA courses during A- and B-terms in 2022 for first-year students only. None of the actual course content was altered and most of the courses were also offered in other terms, when they were open to all students.

The only thing different about the 21 courses in the pilot program was who could enroll—a behind-the-scenes detail that Cullon coordinated with the Registrar’s Office to ensure that first-year students got into the designated HUA courses. He also worked closely with Academic Advising and the First-Year Welcome Experience to promote these first-year–only courses, which were in disciplines as varied as music, art history, writing, and gender, sexuality, and women’s studies. 

Creating the Structure

With funding from the Morgan Center for Teaching and Learning and from the Office of Undergraduate Studies, the participating faculty members developed new ways to articulate in their syllabi their desired learning outcomes for these courses, echoing language used in the task force report. In the classroom, they talked with students about how each assignment related to the learning outcomes and course goals while weaving in discussions about self-care and well-being. University funds also paid for an independent assessor to gather data to measure the program’s effectiveness. 

Joseph Cullon
They’re not only learning things, they’re becoming reflective learners who are able to understand their learning process and the tools they need to dig deeper.
  • Joseph Cullon
  • Professor of Teaching and Associate Department Head

In total, about 450 first-year students enrolled in the designated courses last year. And they thrived. 

“Having only first-year students means that everybody’s new and everybody has more or less the same concerns,” says Professor of Teaching Esther Boucher-Yip, who taught Composition for Non-Native Speakers of English during A-Term. On multiple occasions during that course, “one student would ask a question and everybody else would say, ‘Yeah, I have that question, too.’”


whiteboard with student brainstorm

Students brainstormed about benefits they got from participating in a designated HUA course.

In previous years, Assistant Professor of Teaching Rebecca Moody saw her A-Term Introduction to Philosophy and Religion course fill up with juniors and seniors who still needed some HUA credits, so she rarely had first-year students enrolled. In 2022, both the discussions and the dynamic were very different from what she’d seen before in the class. 

“I found myself talking a lot more about what it means to not understand the text and explaining that in the humanities and arts there’s not the same kind of certainty that many students expect to find in other courses,” she says.

Since becoming comfortable with uncertainty is central to the very goal of the course, Moody thought it connected nicely with the underlying wellness goals of Cullon’s initiative. 

“My point in this course is not for students to ‘know Marx.’ Nobody can do that in seven weeks. Instead, my point is to help WPI students be a little more comfortable not understanding what they’re learning,” says Moody. “It makes students very uncomfortable to say out loud, ‘I don’t get this.’ But if they can learn to say that about something they’re reading, they’re one step closer to being able to also say, ‘I don’t know if I’m okay right now.’”

Celebrating the Gains

In D-Term 2023 the outside assessor established two focus groups of students who had participated in these HUA courses. She gathered both quantitative and qualitative data showing that through this experience students learned specific skills and grew academically and personally. She then created ripple effect maps to illustrate the main themes that students brought up during the focus groups. 


ripple effect map showing student learning

The assessor created this ripple effect map from the students' brainstorm shown above.

Those maps were a happy surprise for Cullon. Even though he’d heard anecdotes from both students and faculty about how well the pilot had gone, it was exciting to actually see the results. 

“Confidence. Deeper relationships. Practical skills. These speak directly to the task force report,” he notes, pointing to the benefits that students identified during the focus groups. Given that the assessor asked open-ended questions using different language from what was in the syllabus learning outcomes, the results are all the more convincing. 

“We can see in the way students are writing about their experience that they’re not only learning things, they’re becoming reflective learners who are able to understand their learning process and the tools they need to dig deeper,” says Cullon. “That’s important because when you see your learning happen you develop confidence to tackle the next and more difficult problems and not become paralyzed by uncertainty or self-doubt.” 

Esther Boucher-Yip
Having only first-year students means that everybody’s new and everybody has more or less the same concerns.
  • Esther Boucher-Yip
  • Professor of Teaching

That directly connects to one of the goals that the Mental Health and Well-Being Task Force identified: “Help students rethink their grades and instead focus on their ability to learn and consume new knowledge.”

Understanding the Differences

While participating first-year students certainly benefit from the initiative, faculty members note that they miss some things about having a wider range of students in these courses. 

“When first-year students are with older students, there’s a lot of peer-to-peer modeling,” says Boucher-Yip, especially when it comes to participating in class discussions. “Many new students lack confidence speaking up in class, so in a mixed class often the more senior students take the lead in discussions.” 

In the absence of that last year, she found she needed to be more intentional about teaching indirect strategies and skills that are expected at the college level. 

An overall increased emphasis on intentionality is a good thing, Cullon notes, while also acknowledging that this initiative has prompted some shifts in the classroom experience. 

“I think a student is served by these classes, but I don’t think a student is dis-served by being in a mixed class,” he says. “It’s less about one being better than the other and more about that in this one we’re able to be more intentional about how we’re equipping students to think.”

Expanding the Model

The pilot is running during A- and B-terms again this year, with a total of 14 participating faculty members teaching 20 classes. After examining the second year of course evaluations and faculty reflections, Cullon will explore ways to expand and formalize the program. 

It’s not a coincidence, he adds, that this initiative is rooted in the Department of Humanities & Arts. 

“When we talk about mental health and well-being, we’re talking about questions that humanists have always concerned themselves with: What is a good life? What is success? How do I know I am behaving well in the world? Am I meeting my obligations and creating a path behind me that opens up opportunities?” Cullon says. “I think we in the humanities and arts have a particular ability to address these concerns.”