Skip navigation

The small-seminar experience

First-year students get up close with their prof and explore issues from all angles in a small-group environment.


The first class I attended at university back in 2011 had 1,300 students – more than my entire high school. My second class had 25.

The small class was part of the Margaret MacMillan Trinity One program at the University of Toronto’s Trinity College. The program has five separate streams, each providing first-year students the opportunity to explore issues in-depth in a small-group environment. My acceptance into Trinity One meant that two of my five classes were small and were taught by award-winning professors and guest lecturers like philosopher Mark Kingwell and journalist Graeme Smith. The contrast between those two classes and my class of 1,300 was, to put it mildly, significant.

The University of Toronto is one of a growing number of universities that offer small, interdisciplinary programs – also called foundational programs – for first-year students. U of T now has 10 such programs, branded as “One” programs, at its various colleges and campuses, up from two in 2010. The basic idea, says Paul Gooch, president of Victoria University, federated with U of T, is to match “excellent students with senior scholars in small seminars, with a curriculum more related to issues than disciplines.”

Dr. Gooch founded Vic One at U of T’s Victoria College in 2003 and over the past decade he’s built an entire learning experience around the program. Out of U of T’s first-year cohort of about 16,000 students, a maximum of 200 are accepted into Vic One, in one of eight streams limited to 25 students each. The students may live in a special residence and each is matched with a third- or fourth-year student who acts as a mentor.

The set-up is similar at the many other small, first-year programs available across the country. They seek to offer students rigorous training in scholarly research and improve their critical abilities through extensive writing and in-class discussion. Often the goal is to give students the experience of a small liberal-arts college with the advantages of a large, urban, research-oriented university.

“Vic One made my first year so much more interesting … and I actually got to know my professors really well,” says Emma Hansen, now a second- year student at U of T. She participated last year in the Arthur Schawlow stream, which combines philosophy with physics and math.

Some foundational programs are even more specialized. St. Thomas University, for example, offers “Great Books” programs for those interested in human rights and journalism, as well as a more general great books stream. On the other side of the country, Vancouver Island University offers a multidisciplinary Arts One-First Nations program for students interested in “the intersection and interaction between First Nations and Western cultures.”

While many of these programs are relatively recent – and new ones keep getting added – the two that started it all in Canada have been around for more than 40 years. In 1972, University of King’s College launched its Foundation Year Programme to give students grounding in Western philosophical, literary and historical works. That program came on the heels of the University of British Columbia’s Arts One foundational program, begun in 1967.

Arts One has slightly larger classes than U of T’s “One” programs, with two streams, each capped at 100 students, says Arts One program chair Robert Crawford. The program makes up for this with twice-a-week seminars for 20 students, and one weekly tutorial of four students, where they take turns critiquing each other’s essays. Arts One students take 18 of 30 first-year credits within the program.

The foundation year at King’s in Halifax is more immersive. Students take four of their five courses in the program, which accepts some 300 students, representing almost the entire first-year class at King’s. The curriculum is highly coordinated, moving through six historical periods, and taught through a combination of lectures and small discussion groups.

“It’s this big, wonderful community of nerds!” says Laura Gallagher- Doucette, a graduate of the program now in her fourth year. This fall, she directed “Classics in the Quad,” an annual performance to welcome new students to the foundation year program. Her idea to produce a play in Sanskrit, instead of the more traditional Latin or Greek, was immediately supported, she says. “As soon as I mentioned it, the university started talking about supplementary lectures. They got really excited about it.”

Daniel Brandes, director of the King’s foundation year, says parents sometimes ask about the practical application of spending a year reading great books – those works said to constitute an essential foundation of Western culture. It’s an understandable concern, he says, but in his view the value is “incalculable. … We are unabashedly trying to open young people’s minds.”

These programs are sometimes criticized for being trapped within the Western oeuvre or, as UBC’s Dr. Crawford puts it, “worshipping at the altar of old dead white guys.” But there have been attempts to keep the content current. One case is UBC, which includes modern criticisms of the classics – for example, students who study the Odyssey will also examine The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood’s contemporary rewriting of the Homeric epic.

At King’s, faculty meet with a student representative from each of the tutorials at year-end to discuss what worked and what could be improved. “They’re really open to listening to students’ concerns,” says Jacob Stanescu, who graduated from the program in 2011. “There’s a reason the curriculum has stayed the same for so many years, though: it works.”

Many professors say they enjoy teaching in foundational programs because of the engaged students and challenging content. Several programs encourage professors to sit in on the lectures given by other teachers in the program, to help keep the lessons integrated with each other.

“Teaching to such engaged students is really rewarding, but it’s also challenging – especially when there are other professors in the room,” says Chris Addison, a chemistry instructor who teaches in Science One, an immersive science program at UBC.
For the students, listening to faculty critique each other is a way to learn how to engage in intellectual debate. It can set a standard for students trying to formulate their own thoughtful questions and it can make professors seem less intimidating, to realize that even their ideas may be challenged.

Faculty asking questions of their colleagues also helps to drive up the quality of the instruction. “I’ll always remember my first lecture when I was quite junior and the other professors were just grilling me. It really kept me on my toes,” says Dr. Crawford, who’s taught in UBC’s Arts One program since 1995.

While the emphasis of foundational programs is on student engagement and learning, the programs also serve as a recruitment tool. For large institutions, they may be a way to woo top students away from the smaller, more intimate, mainly undergraduate universities. When Dr. Gooch joined Victoria University in 2001, he found that “prospective students regarded U of T as an excellent research university but a large, impersonal institution.” He designed Vic One, he says, as a small community within a big institution.

Many foundation programs point to individual student success as evidence of their effectiveness. Several universities boast on their websites that students who complete small first-year programs tend, disproportionately, to assume leadership roles in university clubs, have higher grades, win scholarships and go on to prestigious graduate schools. Several program directors spoke proudly of the number of students they’ve sent to the Ivy League or to Oxford or Cambridge, or who have won major scholarships.

However, since the foundational programs are often open to only the best entering students, it may be hard to credit the program itself with all this success. Admission is generally based on high-school grades, a writing sample and often a special application with a series of probing questions.

Some argue that small classes and intensive engagement with faculty would also be of benefit to entering students with average grades. This argument was likely a factor in establishing small first-year seminars that give students a taste of the intimate class experience without the immersive experience. Two early adopters were Carleton University and University of Guelph, in 1999 and 2003, respectively. Now more than a dozen schools are offering these seminar courses.

For U of Guelph, an advantage of such a program is that it is just one course, so the option can be offered to many more first-year students than can foundational programs.

A popular seminar at U of Guelph is called Sleep. The course studies sleep from a scientific, historical and philosophical viewpoint. Students go to a sleep clinic, wear sleep bands that track their brainwaves and use that data throughout the rest of the course.

“All our seminars are interdisciplinary, intriguing, and have an immediacy about them that is designed to get students excited about learning,” says Jacqueline Murray, director of first-year seminars at U of Guelph. University Affairs reported on a similarly structured course at Nipissing University (“The subject was dirt,” April 2014).

Dr. Murray, who has advised other universities on creating programs similar to those at U of Guelph, says she is often asked how a university can afford to offer small first-year classes. “How can you not afford it?” is her response. “You have to think about the benefits to the students.”

The foundation-year programs also appeal to prospective donors. Nearly all of the more established programs have chairs funded by generous alumni. Many of the newer programs are heavily promoted in university fundraising appeals and are beginning to raise significant amounts of money as well. U of T’s Trinity One program, for example, launched two new science streams this fall, part of a $1.5-million donation and $4-million trust from writer and artist Anne Steacy.

“Part of what makes it so easy to fundraise,” says Anne Urbancic, who teaches in two Vic One streams, “is the amazing things our graduates go on to do.” She herself received a named chair, the Mary Rowell Jackman Professorship in the Humanities, this past July.

Brandon Bailey, one of Dr. Urbancic’s early students in Vic One, is now enrolled at Harvard Law School, and he credits his academic success to his first-year experience: “I wouldn’t be where I am today without Vic One. It taught me how to think.”

Zane Schwartz is a fourth-year arts student at the University of Toronto.

Zane Schwartz
Missing author information
Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *