Teaching Strategies to Support ​First-Generation College Students​

Align Assumptions to Achieve Goals

Students of varying backgrounds sitting together smiling.The U.S. federal government defines a first-generation college student as “an individual both of whose parents did not complete a baccalaureate degree” or “in the case of any individual who regularly resided with and received support from only one parent, an individual whose only such parent did not complete a baccalaureate degree” (Higher Education Act, 1998). 

In addition to the lack of a parent or guardian’s guidance through the complexities of higher education, first-generation students face many systemic inequities that require more than the effort of an individual educator to redress. However, even an individual educator can improve the experience and outcomes of first-generation students through the evidence-based teaching strategies described below. 


Explain Expectations
While an educator may assume that learners understand the importance of all course elements and therefore will not spend class time talking about them, some first-generation students may assume that anything important will be explained and emphasized. 

  • Educators should take the time to explain expectations for the course or context, along with their rationale, since first-generation students may not realize the importance of the syllabus, textbook, or attendance. Creating activities that teach students how to engage with the syllabus, textbook, and their classmates will help ensure that they see each of these elements as valuable. 

Foster Reflection
Educators may think that learners understand that reflection is a way to evaluate and apply concepts and skills needed for academic and professional success. However, some first-generation students may think that anything other than a transfer of knowledge from the educator (typically in the form of a lecture) is a waste of time and money. Rather than welcome the opportunity to share their perspectives, some first-generation students may resist this and even consider it disrespectful of the educator as an “authority figure.” Given the potential mismatch in assumptions, it is important that any activity other than lecturing be introduced with explicit rationale about how it is designed to bridge the gap between understanding the abstract information communicated in lectures and assigned materials and students’ “owning” and applying ideas and skills. 

  • Offer specific instruction on how to reflect, as it may not be an approach that was encouraged in prior educational experiences, formal or informal. 
  • Explain what features should be included in an assignment, and provide guidelines, rubrics, and/or exemplars to ensure that students understand each assignment’s purpose. Explaining how evaluation and grading works for assignments that do not have a right or wrong answer can be especially valuable.  


Our goal as educators should not be to expect first-generation students to behave more like continuing-generation students (nor to ignore significant differences between first-generation students), but rather to transform our courses and contexts so that educators can “attend to the expanded range of educational histories, adult responsibilities, and cultural sensibilities” represented in a diverse student body (Nunn, 2019). Doing so will not only benefit first-generation students, but also continuing-generation students who may not have had as much support.

Darrah, M., Stewart, G., & Humbert, R. (2022). Understanding levels of first-generationness. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2022/03/02/first-gen-category-encompasses-varied-group-opinion

Higher Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1070a–11 (1998). https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ope/trio/triohea.pdf

NASPA. (2020). Center for First-generation Student Success. https://firstgen.naspa.org/

Nichols, L. (2020). The journey before us: First-generation pathways from middle school to college. Rutgers University Presshttps://www.rutgersuniversitypress.org/the-journey-before-us/9781978805620

Nunn, L.M. (2019). 33 simple strategies for teaching first-year and first-generation students. Rutgers University Press. https://www.rutgersuniversitypress.org/33-simple-strategies-for-faculty/9780813599472 

Rondini, A. C., Richards, B. N., & Simon, N. P. (2018). Clearing the path for first generation college students: Qualitative and intersectional studies of educational mobility. Lexington Books. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/326252326_Clearing_the_Path_for_First_Generation_College_Students_Qualitative_and_Intersectional_Studies_of_Educational_Mobility_Edited_Volume

Ross, K. A. (2016). Breakthrough strategies: Classroom-based practices to support new majority college students. Harvard Education Press. https://www.hepg.org/hep-home/books/breakthrough-strategies