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FIGs program to receive regents’ teaching excellence award

August 21, 2012 By Greg Bump

The University of Wisconsin–Madison’s successful First-Year Interest Groups program, or FIGs, will be honored this week with a UW System Board of Regents Teaching Excellence Award.

The program is designed to help freshmen make the transition to college both academically and socially.

Photo: FIGs food class

Working with hands-on tutelage by New York-based chef Scott Barton, pictured at center, undergraduates in a First-Year Interest Group, “Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom,” prepared an authentic Brazilian meal in the Food Applications lab in Babcock Hall last year. The weekly dinner lab was part of a class taught by Jack Kloppenburg, professor of community and environmental sociology.

Photo: Jeff Miller

A FIG is a cluster of about 20 students who sign up for three classes linked by a common theme, with a faculty member leading a seminar course that helps students discover interdisciplinary connections in the subject matter.

“The outcomes related to FIGs are truly astounding,” says Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning Aaron Brower, who nominated the program for the award. “It starts you out exactly the way you need to start out from a social and academic standpoint.”

When the program was piloted in the fall of 2001, it began with four FIGs with 75 students enrolled. The combined enrollment of FIGs in the fall 2011 and spring 2012 semesters was more than 1,200 students enrolled in 66 FIGs, and the program has become a model nationally and internationally.

This fall, FIGs director Greg Smith says there will be 55 FIGs enrolling about 1,100 students. The numbers are expected to grow by about 10 FIGs this spring, with a couple hundred more students expected to participate. This fall, a FIG for transfer students majoring in psychology will be introduced.

Smith says the students are “connecting with faculty and learning how to be students from each other. They learn how to network, how to form study groups, and they learn from each other the best strategies for success in the classroom.”

The cumulative grade-point averages for FIGs-enrolled students at the end of the first semester have been higher each year since the program began, despite the fact that FIGs enrollees having academic profiles that indicate they are less prepared for UW–Madison than their non-FIGs peers.

Participation in the program also has been shown to have a long-term positive impact on student performance — after seven semesters on campus, 83 percent of FIGs students have cumulative GPAs of 3.0 or higher, compared with 75 percent of non-FIGs students.

Regents will present the teaching excellence awards on Friday. Recipients receive a $5,000 stipend for professional development.