An Ideal First Year?

I think a lot about what students need to know to be successful.  And more and more I feel that the old elective model does a huge disservice to first year students. I was reading this article about the differences in perspective between educators and employers. I think that we need to think less of education as being discipline specific and think of it more as being general leading to specific. So the first year would be a more general education, the second being general within the chosen discipline, and the third and fourth years being the same as they are now.

I’d like to propose a standardized first year regardless of program. This curriculum assumes that the student is attending an English speaking university.

The guidance behind this is taking a liberal arts concept and applying it to the key soft skills of oral communication, written communication, reading, basic math, working in teams, thinking skills, and computer use.

Semester 1:

  • Engl: Structure of the English Language
  • Phil: Introduction to Logic
  • Math: Statistics
  • Hist: History of (nation of university or first peoples)
  • Research methods (Sci or Art)

Semester 2:

  • Engl: Academic Writing
  • Phil: Critical thinking
  • Bus: Business Ethics
  • Lab Science
  • Discipline specific course


  • Basic Computers (see below)


My reasoning for those classes is as follows:

Structure of the English Language

Students graduate high school with a variety of abilities. In high school English class you’ll have the students who struggle with grammar and sentence structure and may know just enough to graduate alongside those who write fluently without knowing why what they’re doing is right. At the university level both students will be very challenged. It’s important to understand why you do what you do regardless of how good you are at it. So for that reason Structure of the English Language needs to be one of the first courses taken, even before Academic Writing or English Prose.

Introduction to Logic

“Why don’t they teach logic at these schools?”

-Professor, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe

I think it’s fairly self explanatory but if you’re hoping to have someone learn to think critically (one of the key soft skills) you need to have at least a basic understanding of logic first. Logic will help you in any subject area or career you go into.


I don’t want someone with a degree’s eyes to glaze over when I mention stanines, percentile ranks, or medians. Statistics should be a requirement for all degrees regardless of if they ever need math again. If you’re going into a math or science based program it never hurts to have a broad background and statistics classes discuss topics in a very different way from “pure” math classes.

History of (nation of university or first peoples)

History has always been a key part of a broad education. It should be a requirement if only to give a broader exposure to the world than may come from a tightly focused course of studies. I feel that the history of your nation or the history of the first peoples of your continent gives a better appreciation for what has come before.

Research methods (Sci or Art)

Here’s the first class where I would divide students into their planned majors because the topics can be very different. But I’d still try to keep them aligned to either Arts or Sciences. Having a basic understanding of research methods will be very useful for early classes rather than having them learned after the student has begun their subject courses. A great article outlining why students need more than a one hour intro to the library is here.

Academic Writing

I know a lot of schools like this to be taken as early as possible, but I feel that having students take it before they understand how to research, reason, or write makes little sense. So this happens in the second semester.

Critical thinking

Yes, a second class that’s tied closely to the logic class.  These skills are ones which will be honed through the rest of a post secondary education, but making sure we’re intentional in teaching them before assuming that students have them will benefit everyone.

Business Ethics

Ethics grounded in the promotion of a civil society rather than grounded in a faith tradition  is a discussion for another day, but regardless of your belief system a basic grounding in ethics is important for tomorrow’s leaders. Business education does a great job of teaching ethics in a secular context (regardless of the common jokes about ethics in business).

Lab Science

Similar to requiring all students to take a history class, all students should take a lab science. It will give a breadth of knowledge not otherwise available. Learning the process by which scientists assess information is a key skill in a world which is so dependent on that information.

Discipline Specific Course

This would be a broad survey type course the likes of which exist in every major. Students who aren’t in a discipline specific major or are undeclared would be able to take any of the discipline specific courses which meet their interest.

Basic Computers

Rather than having this as an actual class I would recommend that it be done on a challenge basis. Students would take a computer skills test and that would determine how many modules of computers would be needed. Students could then take the required modules in set lab times (one hour block each day), or through a MOOC or some other training, and would be required to complete them by the end of their second semester. Required modules being Basic Computer Skills, Email, Web & Search Engines, Word-Processing (2-3 modules), Spreadsheets, Online Courses, and Online Journals/Research (2 modules). An advanced student would likely only need one of the modules which would probably take only an hour or two of their time while a novice user would hopefully be able to go through them in 12-15 hours spread out over the course of the two semesters.


What about a Second Language?

I’m not 100% on this one. I feel that a second language can be useful, but at the same time I’m not sure it’s as useful as the other nine classes here.  But if it is part of the curriculum I’d recommend that the second language be one of the five most important international languages (English, Chinese (Mandarin), Arabic, Russian and Spanish). This would be in place of the discipline specific course.


So that’s my ideal first year. After that a student would go into their individual program having a solid base to support their future learning. Does this decrease the amount of time for them to learn other things? Yes. But is that a problem with this model or a problem with fragmenting the disciplines too much? If nothing else I feel that it will more closely align the students we produce with what society will expect of them.

*Note* a lot of universities, such as UFV which I attended, have breadth or core or liberal arts requirements that are similar to this, and I think it’s a great idea, but I also think it should be expanded more.

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