Success in the First Year: Patterns of Engagement

The freshman year at BYU can be very challenging. Most students thrive but others struggle and flounder. Research and experience suggest four general patterns of motivation, involvement and commitment (referred to here as “engagement”) that impact overall student success in the first year. This article will briefly describe these patterns, explain how they describe BYU freshmen, and identify help that students in each group need. Not every student fits neatly into one of these groups, but knowing which pattern best describes your student could help you provide the specific guidance he or she needs to get the most from their first year. 

What do these patterns look like?

  1. Academically driven  These students are highly motivated academically. In high school they took more AP classes and studied far more than their peers. However, they did not socialize or enjoy high school as much as their classmates.
  2. Academically unfocused  This group was less motivated academically, and generally a little less engaged in high school. They are less sure about who they are and what they want from life than many of their peers.
  3. Disengaged  These students received good grades in high school but were the least happy with high school. They are bright but less interested in higher education generally and in BYU specifically.
  4. Balanced & enthusiastic  These students are highly motivated in every area—for academic learning as well as for social, spiritual and service opportunities. They achieve impressive balance, but they may engage in so many things that their grades suffer.

How do these patterns show up in BYU freshmen? 

  1. Academically driven  This group studies the most and earns the best grades. They are highly focused and successful academically, but are very hard on themselves. They are less interested in socializing and have a less balanced experience. Overall they are not as happy with their BYU experience as many of their peers.  
  2. Academically unfocused  These students are also less eager to socialize or participate in extracurricular activities, but are a little less focused academically as well. They earn decent first-year grades, accomplish some of their goals, and are reasonably satisfied. They are less likely to fail or thrive, but most get by. 
  3. Less engaged  These students tend to be less interested in being at BYU. They want to find a career but are less interested in learning, socializing, or developing spiritually. They are less sure that BYU is right for them and are the least comfortable with BYU’s spiritual focus. Some choose BYU under parental pressure or merely because of low tuition. At year’s end they are less happy, less settled, and less satisfied with their experience than other students. 
  4. Balanced & enthusiastic  These students work hard, but are more balanced than their academically driven peers. They earn somewhat lower grades, but report more growth in learning, socializing, and spirituality than others. They express the greatest sense of belonging at BYU and thrive by enthusiastically balancing academics, spirituality and social life. 

How can you help your student succeed this year?

If your student fits well into one of the above groups, consider these suggestions:

  1. Academically driven  Find ways to help them develop greater life balance (like participating in comfortable social and service activities, or joining a club). Encourage them to give themselves more credit for what they achieve.
  2. Academically unfocused  Help them clarify their goals and reasons for choosing BYU. Early advising through a campus advisement center could help them find direction and motivation. Advisors can also help with study skills and time management strategies and connect them with appropriate campus resources.
  3. Less engaged  These students could benefit from re-examining their decision to attend college right out of high school, and to attend BYU in particular. Have conversations aimed at helping them clarify their motivation and recognize discrepancies between their choices and the person they genuinely want to become.
  4. Balanced & enthusiastic  These students don’t need as much help or guidance. Their greatest need may be encouragement to stay focused and maintain the balance and optimism they start the year with.  

If it is not clear which group your student is most like, consider the following:

  • What relationships does your student talk about? Is his conversation focused mostly on academics or is he also interested in other things?
  • Has your student met with a high school academic advisor? Does she have a mentoring relationship with a teacher or a coach who might be helpful in understanding her motivation?
  • What is your student doing to engage with other people and the broader world? Are those interactions primarily personal or mediated by electronic devices?
  • Do your conversations with your student indicate that she is engaged academically, socially, and spiritually? Is she involved in serving others and interested in growing personally?

We all want our students to succeed in their first college year—to grow intellectually and develop socially, spiritually, and personally. We hope that these ideas help you in your efforts to guide your student along that path.

Steve Wygant earned his PhD in Psychology from BYU in 1993.  He taught Psychology at Fort Hays State University, Eastern Oregon University and BYU before joining the office of Institutional Assessment and Analysis at BYU in 1998.  He enjoys time with his family, photography and a good jazz trio.