I recently facilitated a two-hour workshop to mostly faculty and some staff and students at Nevada State College, a four-year public institution right outside of Las Vegas.  NSC’s population primarily are low to moderate income first-generation college students, many of whom are also returning adults with full-time jobs.  In consideration of the students, I was asked to present practical and tangible things that professors can do in the classroom given the unique experiences of first-gen students.

Prior to my visit, I consulted with my BRILLIANT friends and colleagues across the country and here’s what they had to say on the matter:

random prof who looks happy teaching
just a random prof who looks happy teaching

I share my experience as a first-generation student and use that to discuss the importance of campus involvement and mentorship–this is where I plug the student org that I advise!

As for assignments, I give them at least one paper where they can center themselves in the analysis, which helps them perceive themselves as authoritative knowers.

Also, I make an offer to write letters of recommendation *if they participate and do well in the class.* Once I make this announcement, I see a remarkable shift in some of the students who have aspirations for internships, scholarships, etc., but don’t know how to ask for letters.

I also don’t assume that they know what kinds of support services we have on campus, and integrate information about those services into the discussions as they apply to the course content.

~Larissa Mercado-Lopez, Fresno State University, women’s studies

I’ve learned students really like work that has them moving and more than just lecture. I try to give them group work in the classroom and activities so they can become part of a discussion.

I’ve also learned to read their body language and give them a “breather” break when possible. Videos or short clips really help, too. We have a generation of young people that have grown up with different technology than the one I grew up with (like internet) so they are very hands-on and react good with multiple ways of learning.

~Elizabeth Gonzalez-Cardenas, California State University, Long Beach and California State University, Northridge, Ethnic Studies

I do a lot with unwritten rules… A kind of “why do they [profs] do that?”

~Amy Baldwin, Director of University College, Literacy & Writing Faculty, University of Central Arkansas


I think approaching every course– and every skill set– as if it is not self-evident is crucial. So not assuming that there is one way to take notes, to close read, to use tech or blackboard or whatever you are using, to structure a paper, to make an argument, etc.

I think if you make the nuts and bolts of what you are asking not just transparent but something you come up with as a group in class, there’s more awareness that first gen-ers already have the skills they need (so less self-doubt) and more clarity on what can seem like invisible norms and rules they haven’t been let in on at home or in high school, necessarily. So the class is less like a club you are joining late and more like a game we are all learning to play, and helping to shape/name the rules.

This and always varying the way students can contribute and participate in class, so that everyone gets days to be a leader/facilitator built-in, as well as pairs, small groups, peer workshopping, etc. that way those with outsize confidence who feel overly prepped for college aren’t the only ones talking/shaping the conversation.

In other words, solid student-centered learning–it’s not just about the teacher/student dynamic! It’s about the students, period– ESP first gens and other vulnerable students.

And take every class to the library! It’s not just the practical skills of research they can learn there– it’s how to formulate a research question at all, and how to change it once you’ve started reading.

~Samantha Pinto, Georgetown University, Department of English

 Putting forward the notion of growth mindset at the begin in of class, explicitly discussing a variety of learning strategies, making an effort to connect with all students from the start and getting them to see me as a resource from the start.

~Curtis Bennett, Loyola Marymount University, Department of Mathematics and Associate Dean, Seaver College of Science and Engineering

I would consider also getting their back story, personal stuff, maybe a survey to discuss during one on one’s with you. In particular, I recall how my mother didn’t believe that the library was open until midnight, so I would have to continuously explain myself and why I hadn’t called sooner. Negotiating familial expectations and cultural norms might still be real, even for gifted first geners.

~Helen Alatorre, Assistant Dean of Students for Leadership, University of Wyoming

Encourage students to discuss their academic assignments, projects, goals etc with their family – not to discount your family’s intellect just because they didn’t go to college.

I also make sure to explain acronyms and offer virtual or phone office hours if they’re too nervous/unsure of doing face-to-face office hours.

~Dimpal Jain, California State University at Northridge, Department of Education

Make their friends allies in their success. Form study groups. Check in on one another.

Remember that campus services such as tutoring, writing centers, counseling, etc. are for their use. I’ve seen students feel either ashamed of seeking help or misperceiving how much help their classmates get.

Make time to keep in touch with family and friends.

Multitasking while reading does not work.

Maybe ask them what kind of life they imagine for themselves. I found that some students would talk about being a doctor or lawyer because they didn’t know what other kinds of jobs could help them earn a living and still be happy. If they could meet people who were first gen and are now doing something else, that might be good.

Be very attentive in class and work to look attentive.

I wish I had known how membership in student organizations could be beneficial after college.

~Tracy Curtis, University of Wisconsin at Madison, Department of Afro-American Studies

I talk up the importance of struggle, mistakes, uncertainty and even failure and persistence. I talk about how writing is always hard. Even for me and all professors. I talk about my learning new sub fields and the joy and terror there. I let them see that they should value all of that.

Eliza Gibson y Rodriguez, Loyola Marymount University, Department of Chicana/o Studies, chair


Because I discuss the role of social context in determining experiences as part of my course content, I address the hidden curriculum and socialization to educational practices. This allows me to directly address first gen student issues, as just one element of difference in educational institutions. I have to be careful to frame as a strength, as well as challenge, but I have to do so for all of the backgrounds I discuss.

I also try to create some degree of transparency and also place myself in the first gen camp and how it shaped my experience as an undergrad.

Also, ‪Rachel Washburn did a great series at the CTE a couple of years ago that addressed our assumptions about what students come into the classroom knowing. One of the workshops was about unpacking this knowledge so that as instructors, we are more explicit about teaching our students practices and processes that we might think of as “general knowledge,” but are actually disciplinary-specific ways of thinking and knowing.

~Anna Muraco, Loyola Marymount University, Sociology Department, chair

I do my best to constantly switch back and forth between facilitating and teaching and mentoring. I take time in each class to talk about my own process of writing and studying to make my thinking an object of analysis. Lots of – “here’s how I would do this/answer this/approach this/strategize to do this.”

~Denise Pacheco, Executive Officer, Office of the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, University of California at Los Angeles

Finally, Emily Daniell Magruder, Director, Institute for Teaching and Learning for the California State University system, pointed to a fantastic resource in the Transparency in Teaching and Learning project at UNLV.

Robin Cresiski, Vice Provost (l), me, and Shantal Marshall. Assistant Professor, psychology and my homie for all-time (r)
Robin Cresiski, Vice Provost (l), me, and Shantal Marshall. Assistant Professor, psychology and my homie for all-time (r)

So takeaways?  Some faculty may already employ these strategies into their classrooms; others may use them but may not be aware what the strategy is called; and then the vast majority may not be aware that they may need to adjust their teaching for different audiences.  It is very possible to both hold high standards for your students while also providing a road map for how to get there!

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