Transfer Seminar Courses: A Conversation with Dr. Tom Grites
NISTS recently had the chance to interview Dr. Tom Grites about his extensive experience working with transfer students at Stockton University in Galloway, New Jersey. During his tenure, Dr. Grites created a unique Transfer Seminar Course that earned him rave reviews among students and faculty alike. He describes the seminar as “the best thing I have done in my entire career,” so we asked him about his inspiration for the course and invited his guidance for those who wish to create one like it.
National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students (NISTS): Tell us about the history of your transfer seminar course. Where did you get the idea, and how does it differ from other transfer success seminars?
Dr. Grites: In the fall term of 2003, I served as co-editor of a forthcoming National Academic Advising Association (NACADA) monograph on transfer students. I found an article that described a seminar for new transfer students and had an “aha” moment: “Why didn’t I think of this sooner?”
The year before, I had developed a course that I taught as a freshman seminar. Titled “Contemporary American Education,” it examined the organization, administration, financing, curriculum, assessment, and accreditation of K-12 and higher education. I decided to test my idea for transfer students using the framework from this course. The course was already approved in our General Studies curriculum, so I simply had the registrar “hide” it from the class schedule until new transfer students registered for their first term at Stockton. I was the Interim Dean of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the time.
The success I experienced within the first few weeks showed me that transfer students need this kind of transitional experience every bit as much as traditional first-year students. Simply stated, the students were much more engaged than both the previous transfer students I had in an earlier education certification course and the more traditional first-year students in the freshman seminar. They interacted more with each other; they asked more questions; they even laughed at my jokes (sometimes). They were clearly more comfortable, and this was reinforced for me when I met a student in a hallway after the class ended and she said, “I was intimidated in all my other classes.” The word “intimidation” immediately resonated with me, and it still does. Several semesters later, I received another comment that reaffirmed my efforts: “Yours was the only class where I knew the instructor’s name.” This was another indicator of how impersonal a new institutional environment can be.
It seemed to me that more courses could easily be offered directly to transfers, so I began recruiting both faculty and some staff to teach at least one section of their full faculty course load as a transfer seminar. Since that time, Stockton has offered 10-12 transfer seminar courses each fall and 5-8 each spring (including my seminar, which I taught every semester until I retired).
Our transfer seminars are distinct from other models because they are not specialized courses that cost additional tuition or risk a delayed graduation. Instead, we integrate the transitional components into existing courses that transfer students might be taking anyway.
Specifically, I built our transfer seminar model to resemble Stockton University’s approach to general education and the freshman seminar courses we require. Unlike schools whose core curriculum is composed of various traditional, introductory courses (e.g., Intro to Psychology, Intro to Biology, etc.), Stockton’s General Studies courses are purposefully interdisciplinary. This design allows instructors to explore topics that appeal to multiple majors, which levels interest in the course and reduces competition for grades. Stockton requires all freshmen to complete a first-year seminar, so all the seminars are courses from the General Studies curriculum.
Although transfer students are not required to take a seminar course, they, like freshmen, must complete 25% of their Stockton credits in General Studies courses. For associate degree transfers, that equates to at least four General Studies courses. Thus, transfer students who choose to take a transfer seminar can satisfy two needs at once—to fulfill part of the General Studies requirement for graduation and to become better acquainted with other transfer students who are also learning about Stockton’s curriculum, traditions, expectations, and resources. Admittedly, the latter is likely unknown/unexpected at the time they register, but course evaluations clearly indicate this outcome. One comment expresses exactly what I had always hoped to achieve in this effort: “I really liked the seminar because I learned about Stockton from inside a classroom.”
Theoretically, any course in the catalog could be a transfer seminar, but most are offered as General Studies courses. The seminars are limited to 25 students, and only new transfers are allowed to enroll. So a course that would normally be capped at 35 now goes down to 25. This reduction is also an enticement for faculty to participate, since all “seminar” courses (General Studies or departmental) are capped at 25 by contract. The smaller class size enables opportunities for more class discussions, group work, and open relationships between students and faculty.
Personally, I usually add an additional 5-10 students, but my course is also a writing-designated course, so each additional student adds about 10-12 more papers to read/grade. The writing component in my course also enables the students to meet one of the four writing-designated courses required to graduate, two of which must be taken at Stockton. Not all seminars are writing designated, however; this remains a faculty decision.
NISTS: What are the transfer-specific elements or topics each seminar must address? How do most transfer students feel about these elements?
Dr. Grites: No specific elements are required, as I have concluded from my experience that the classroom dynamics will enable queries that facilitate a smooth transition without specific planning. In addition, my standard pitch to potential instructors is that they don’t have to change anything about their existing courses to convert them to transfer seminars. I always offer to assist them with ways to enhance the “transitional” aspects, but the degree to which they do that is up to them.
Nevertheless, most instructors want ideas because they are sincerely interested in assisting transfer students. Some of the assignments I use include the following:
Writing their educational autobiography. I use this assignment as an “ice breaker” on the first day of class. It is due on the second day, and students use it to introduce themselves. They feel more comfortable when they are talking about the same topic. They also learn more about other transfer students in the class, such as which schools they attended, whether they have mutual friends or mutual majors, etc.
Taking library tours. Whether physical or virtual (or both), the tours in this session are partly about the library resources available at Stockton (led by a reference librarian) and partly on plagiarism and the University Academic Honesty Policy (led by me). Students receive a worksheet to complete out of class, and the librarian who teaches the session grades it. I do permit “plagiarism” for this assignment in hopes that students will begin working together as partners/teams. It works reasonably well, as students start to engage with those who sit near them, those who might also be in another class or the same major with them, those who went to the same previous school, etc.
Writing a response to the prompt “How I Learn Best.” This is my version of a “learning styles inventory” that we discuss in the next class period. My content for this session is essentially Bloom’s Taxonomy.
Visiting an on-campus office. Students are encouraged to work in pairs or teams and visit an office on campus, learn what the office does, and discover whether they do anything unique for transfer students. This activity is an attempt to get students more familiar with the campus and its resources. They tend to visit offices with which they have already had contact—academic advising, the bursar, the Athletics Department, etc.—but that’s okay. I invite the Vice President of Student Affairs (VPSA) to attend class when the students report their findings. The VPSA then responds to their questions about Student Affairs offices and experiences, and I respond to the Academic Affairs areas.
Attending three different types of campus events. This requirement always gets some groans, but I give students many hints and suggestions and discuss how they might overcome time constraints. For example, they might visit the Art Gallery between classes, attend a guest lecture that is required for another class, and participate in the three-day event where 150+ student clubs and organizations have tables throughout the campus corridors. Some skirt the requirement a bit and attend an athletic event or something in the Performing Arts Center. Only one student insisted she had no time to attend anything but classes; she understood that she would earn zero credit toward her final grade for that assignment (actually a minimal percentage, but I didn’t tell her that). Last semester, a student emailed me that she dropped the course when she learned of this assignment. I was disappointed that she had not discussed it with me since I’m confident she could have fulfilled it, but it was too late.
Attending an advisor meeting. Stockton has a robust academic advising system with both faculty and primary-role (full-time) advisors. We offer various professional development programs and provide a research grant competition for faculty who propose a study related to advising. We want transfer students to realize how much we value this process; thus, my assignment to compare their previous advising experiences with ours gives them insight into the importance of having an advisor and sometimes enables me to learn of our system’s issues. While many community college transfers claim not to have had a pleasant advising experience in the past, they tend to find our system quite welcoming, competent, and helpful.
Participating in assessments. Stockton uses the IDEA instrument for course and instructor evaluation in every course, which has always provided helpful feedback. However, after teaching my transfer student course the first time, I knew I wanted to see if I had made an impact in one semester. I planned to develop a custom survey instrument but learned of the Transfer Student Survey in researching the NACADA monograph I mentioned earlier. I found an article co-authored by one of my former professors and colleagues at the University of Maryland and one of his former students. They permitted me to use it, so I felt that the validation and reliability efforts would strengthen the legitimacy of any research I might want to pursue and would save me those tasks. Would I recommend this survey? If someone simply wants to get some feedback, a localized, targeted (and shorter) set of questions might be just as valuable.
Writing a final paper. One other significant assessment for me is a final paper, which reflects the students’ initial Stockton experience. Students must respond to seven prompts that address both course content and how they view their transitional experience.
NISTS: Why does the transfer seminar work so well at Stockton specifically?
Dr. Grites: This seminar works at Stockton because of its many advocates from both Academic and Student Affairs personnel, the university’s commitment to transfer students, and the campus leadership’s support. Nearly ten years of data indicate that students who enrolled in a transfer seminar were retained at higher rates (for two consecutive terms) than those who did not. This finding is true for all but one semester of matriculation.
However, I must admit that I am concerned that the advocacy and passion with which I have fostered this program until my retirement is beginning to wane. Several assistant deans do the faculty scheduling and advocate for the transfer seminars with their faculty as best they can, but their efforts are a little sporadic.
Student Affairs personnel tend to be more interested in converting their General Studies courses into transfer seminars. They are also more likely to teach the seminars during multiple semesters. Their consistent participation is a bit of a double-edged sword, though, in that faculty get the impression that these courses are ONLY taught by staff members. Some faculty do repeat their transfer seminars, but not with the same frequency as staff.
NISTS: Why is it important to advertise the transfer seminars to your community college partners?
Dr. Grites: Stockton University offers a variety of (paid) faculty development workshops and institutes each summer. About five years ago, the associate provost who manages these efforts asked me to propose an institute. Most one-day institutes were designed for the improvement of teaching and led by faculty. I gladly accepted the invitation and have continued the effort each summer until now (due to the COVID-19 pandemic and other issues, none were offered in summers 2020 or 2021).
Actually, it was an afterthought that I requested the option to invite community college people whom I had known as colleagues for quite a while. I billed it as a day of free faculty/staff development, and it was well received (both in numbers and in evaluations). That was probably the most successful aspect of each institute. The individuals included transfer counselors/coordinators, faculty, department chairs, deans, EOF staff (like a TRIO program), etc., plus our own admissions staff, our Director of Parent and Family Partnerships, and students from my course and other seminars (as validators).
This addition of community college personnel enabled me to explain our (confusing) General Studies curriculum, the purpose and value of our seminar approach, and certainly the outcomes achieved. Concerning the value of these one-day institutes, I’ve received positive feedback from many who attended. Paul Michaud, Director of Transfer and Career Services, Raritan Valley Community College, wrote this gracious review:
“I’ve heard you speak at national and regional conferences, attended one of the summer institutes, and read many of your journal articles. …You have indeed positively influenced not only administrators but also faculty and staff keeping in mind the big picture of providing students with a deep and meaningful educational experience and not simply the accumulation of credentials. I am also thankful for the many leadership roles you played in developing our statewide transfer initiatives.”
NISTS: What roadblocks or barriers are other institutions likely to hit in creating transfer student seminars, and what advice would you offer for navigating these challenges?
Dr. Grites: It is important to realize that the concept of transfer student seminars does not create barriers. It creates opportunities. My advice would be to identify courses that are likely to attract adequate enrollments and to use faculty who are committed to transfer student success in the classroom.
The concept is politically and economically free. No curriculum approval is required since the courses already exist and would be taught anyway, whether they are General Studies courses or courses in majors. Also, the concept is fairly simple to administer: simply keep the transfer-specific seminar sections “hidden” until new transfers register, and then open and close them per the transfer registration schedule. This helps to preserve relatively equal access to all new transfers irrespective of the day/time they register for classes.
I would also caution that this concept should initially be piloted with a small number (5-10 sections) across a variety of disciplines, and it should not be required. Some credibility still needs to be established to demonstrate the value before expanding too quickly. I am convinced, however, that this approach will meet all “return on investment” (ROI) criteria—that is, tuition and fees generated as well retention, persistence, and graduation data.
Such an effort might be the best thing you or your institution ever does for your transfer students.
Tom Grites (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired as Assistant Provost for Academic Support after serving 43+ years at Stockton University. He oversaw academic Orientation and other transfer student initiatives. He was a founding member of the National Academic Advising Association (NACADA), its second President, and is Senior Editor of its Journal. Tom has contributed numerous professional publications, conference presentations, webinars, academic advising workshops, and program reviews.
Tom earned his B.S. and M.S. degrees from Illinois State University and Ph.D. from University of Maryland. He received their Alumni Awards, including the ISU College of Education Hall of Fame, a NISTS Transfer Champion award, the NACADA Region 2 award for Outstanding Contribution to Scholarship, and Region 2 now awards the Thomas J. Grites Service to Region 2 honor.
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