Pedagogical Strategies to Support First-Generation Students

Who are first generation students? 

There are many conflicting definitions about who qualifies as a first-generation student (first gen) and who chooses to self-identify as first gen. In general, a first-gen student is someone who is the first of their family to attend higher education studies (this could be at college or, in our case, at university). This means that they often do not have the familial academic capital (Bourdieu) or framework to ask questions or seek the additional resources needed to navigate the university experience. Based on BCSSE and NSSE data for UTM (with thanks to UTM’s Centre for Student Engagement for this information), approximately 1/3 of UTM students (or 5,150 of 15,500 students) identify as first-generation. 

How can this impact my pedagogy? 

Undergraduate courses include a lot of assumptions, frameworks, and nomenclature that could be confusing or alienating to those who don’t have the supports to ask questions or find clarification. This is especially true for first-gen students who are in their first year of university. 

This resource provides research-based tips to support first-generation students pedagogically. Ultimately, all students will benefit from a pedagogy that keeps these ideas in mind for they align with Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles. 

Eight Pedagogical Tips to Support First Gen Students 

Explain Terminology 

Try to make sure that terms are defined and that plain language is used where possible in course content and delivery (Dolmage, 2013). When instructors are part of a community for a longer period of time they tend to use terminology and acronyms they assume to be familiar and well-known to everyone. Using clear terminology and spelling out acronyms, even ones that seem most common (e.g., using Grade Point Average instead of GPA), will support student engagement in the course and promote student success.   

Give Pre-Tests as Early as Week 3 or 4 

Students who have anxiety around test taking or are unsure of what to expect in a particular course at the university level will benefit from having examples of tests and quizzes early in the course. A short pre-test or quiz can help support first-generation students and all learners to know what to expect both in terms of the format and content of tests. These pre-tests are an opportunity to test technology that students may not be familiar with and can expand platform literacy (e.g., knowledge of Quercus). The pre-tests can also work as knowledge checks for the instructor and the learners and can help identify gaps for reinforcement and resources in the class (Berry, 2008).  

Find Opportunities to Authentically Connect with Examples  

One of the Universal Design for Learning Checkpoints (Checkpoint 7.2, CAST, 2020) reinforces the importance of providing opportunities for authentic connection in a course.  Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) research has demonstrated that authentic connection opportunities allow students to bring their lived experience to the class and directly apply course content in a way that reflects their previous and current experiences. Authentic connection can happen in many ways in a course. For example, instead of having students answer a specific question, instructors can give students a number of questions to choose from that are accessible and real to learners. This framing will also help support engagement opportunities for all learners of intersecting identities, (i.e., those learners whose identity is constructed by multiple factors, including but not limited to gender expression, race, disability, ethnicity, class, religious beliefs, and sexual identity) and not just first-generation students.  

Explain Your Pedagogical Choices 

Most first-generation students will not know the purpose of a lecture or group activity within the context of undergraduate education (Dolmage, 2013). Some first-generation students may not have experience with lecturing or group work as a pedagogical delivery choice or have experience with seminar discussions. Adding transparency and clarity to pedagogical choices helps students understand why a course is framed in a certain way and will increase engagement and buy-in for delivery choices, activities, or assessments. Clearly indicating the reason behind a formative activity and demonstrating how it aligns to the larger summative activities can help guide first-generation (and all) students to the knowledge and skills they need to meet course learning outcomes.  

Be Aware of Your Pace  

We often do not realize our speed and pacing when delivering a lecture or leading an activity unless a colleague or a student points it out to us. Faster speech naturally happens when we are excited about a topic or nervous in a particular situation. Being aware of your pace and adjusting it in context will allow first-gen students (and all learners) to understand the important points of the content and activities discussed (Nunn, 2018). First-gen students, especially at the beginning of term, are trying to find the note-taking or information-processing format that works best for them; with pace acknowledgement awareness instructors give first-generation students, and all learners in the class, time to process instructions and information. 

Give Suggestions on how to Prepare and Study for Midterms and Tests 

Instructors can use lessons and modules to chunk course content in a way that helps students, especially those who are first-gen, work through the material. By highlighting keywords in the content either orally, or through a running glossary of terms housed on Quercus, instructors can help students see what is of importance when they are reviewing for tests or other assessments. Another strategy that helps prepare students for midterms and tests is having a review session that not only outlines concepts to review, but also provides students with test-preparation strategies.  Campus resources, like the Robert Gillespie Academic Skills Centre, also have handouts, links, and video resources on study skills that you can share with students. These resources may be particularly valuable for first-generation students who do not have a community with experience taking tests at the university level to which they can turn for advice (Nunn, 2018). 

Clearly communicating the amount of time students should expect to spend on an assignment or take-home exam, as an estimate or range (e.g.,6-10 hours), can help students better manage their time. A course workload estimator can help to ensure your estimates are realistic. 

Reinforce Campus Resources They Can Use 

Navigating a space either on campus or virtually that is unfamiliar can be anxiety-producing and disconcerting if students are not provided with guidance and guide posts along the way (Darby, 2019). First-generation students who do not have people or communities to guide them may miss out on the wealth of campus resources and services available (Hunt, 2012). Instructors can mention these resources in class or through the Learning Management System (Quercus). These can be discipline-specific online resources, or campus academic resources they can access in person (e.g., the  RGASC or library) or other campus resources that can help students build a sense of community such those supported by the Centre for Student Engagement. First-generation students can be supported in their transition to a new institution or way of engaging in their educational spaces by knowing that there are resources and places on campus they can turn to for support. 

Schedule your Office Hours for Immediately Before or After Class  

Office hours also need contextualization for many students, including first-generation students. Students may actually misunderstand “office hours” to refer to those times faculty are in their offices doing their own work and not times where students should come to ask questions and be in community with their instructor or peers. First-generation research often mentions how office hours are something to be emphasized and explained as a great benefit to students (Mehta, Newbold, & O’Rourke, 2011; Horowitz, 2017; Glass, Gesing, Hales, & Cong, 2017). Students may be more likely to understand office hour time as a collective space for questions if it is called by something other than office hours, like “student hours,” “conversation café”, or “connection space” (Fuentes, Zelaya, & Madsen, 2021). These spaces can also become opportunities outside of group work, breakout groups (rooms), and class discussions where students can connect to classmates and start to build a learning community for themselves. 


Berry, T. (2008). Pre-Test Assessment. American Journal of Business Education 1 (1). 

Bourdieu, P. (1986) The forms of capital. In J. Richardson (Ed.) Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. Greenwood. pp.241-258. 

CAST. (2018). Universal design for learning guidelines version 2.2.  

Darby, F., & Lang, J. (2019). Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in  Online Classes. John Wiley & Sons. 

Dolmage, J. (2013). Places to Start. University of Waterloo Centre for Teaching  Excellence. 

Fuentes, M., Zelaya, D., & Madsen, J. (2021). Rethinking the Course Syllabus: Considerations for Promoting Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. Teaching of  Psychology, 48(1), 69–79. 

Galina, B. (2016). Teaching First-Generation College Students. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching.

Glass, C.R., Gesing, P., Hales, A., & Cong, C. (2017). Faculty as bridges to co-curricular engagement and community for first-generation international students, Studies in Higher Education, 42:5, 895-910, DOI:10.1080/03075079.2017.1293877. 

Horowitz, G. (2017). First-Generation College Students: How to Recognize Them and Be Their Ally and Advocate. Journal of College Science Teaching, 46(6), 8–9. 

Hunt, P.F., Boyd, V.S., Gast, L.K., Mitchell, A., & Wilson, W. (2012). Why Some Students Leave College During Their Senior Year. Journal of College Student Development 53(5), 737-742. doi:10.1353/csd.2012.0068. 

Mehta, S., Newbold, J., & O’Rourke, M. (2011). Why do first-generation students fail? College Student Journal, 45(1). 

Nunn, L. (2018). 33 Simple Strategies for Faculty: A Week-By-Week Resource for Teaching First-Year and First-Generation Students. Rutgers University Press.