A First-Year Interest Group (FIG) is a kind of academic learning community designed specifically for first-year students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Each FIG is a unique cluster of UW classes, linked together to explore a common theme or topic. All FIGs are based on a small seminar and most FIG seminars are connected to two other classes.
Each fall there are approximately 60 different FIGs available. Some are designed for specific groups of students (those in a certain major or college, for instance), while most are open to any interested student. When a student decides to take a FIG, they enroll in all of the linked classes as a set.
Most FIGs are limited to only 20 students, and all of the students in each FIG enroll in all of the classes in the set—this forms the basis of their cohort (interest group).
The purpose of the FIGs Program is to provide an interesting, intimate, and interdisciplinary experience that helps students make a successful academic and social transition to the university.
The main FIG seminar
At the heart of each FIG is a top-notch instructor who develops and leads a class exclusively for the 20 students in that FIG. This instructor has specifically requested to lead a FIG because they really want to work with first-year students. This seminar may include outside-the-classroom experiences not usually found in other courses, such as field trips, study sessions, themed dinners, travel abroad opportunities, or other group activities.
As an example, we’ll use a recurring FIG called “Rainforests and Coral Reefs.” The main seminar in “Rainforests and Coral Reefs” is a class by the same name, based in the Botany Department. It has a course number of BOTANY 265 and counts for 3 credits.
The instructor, Dr. Catherine Woodward, also coordinates an optional UW Winter Term study-abroad program for her FIG students, learning about tropical conservation in Belize.
The FIG instructor helps select two other UW classes to complement the theme. Material from these linked classes is integrated into the seminar, creating an overlapping, interdisciplinary experience. Together the students discover how such fields relate to one another, creating richer, more satisfying learning.
For the “Rainforests and Coral Reefs” FIG, students take a General Chemistry class (4 credits) and an intermediate or advanced Spanish language class (3 or 4 credits, depending on the level). Dr. Woodward pulls in elements of the chemistry class to show how essential this knowledge is in understanding tropical conservation, and Spanish to better understand the cultural context of these regions.
The main seminar is only available for the students enrolled in the FIG. This is usually limited to 20 students or fewer.
A linked class may be larger, taken by many more students that just those in the FIG. CHEMISTRY 103: “General Chemistry I” is such a class. Large lectures often have discussion or lab sections, a typical break-out class meeting that is separate from the lecture. If so, the FIG students will meet in the same discussion or lab section to continue learning as a cohort.
All classes in a FIG are regular UW classes that count toward the requirements needed to earn a degree. As with any UW class, each of the classes within the FIG cluster is assigned a certain number of credits. The three courses in the “Rainforests and Coral Reefs” FIG total either 10 or 11 credits, depending on the Spanish class.
Being a full-time student at UW–Madison means taking a minimum of 12 credits per semester. In this example, a student enrolled in the “Rainforests and Coral Reefs” FIG would also choose a fourth class with at least 2 credits, to maintain full-time status.
My FIG helped me form a community at UW–Madison. The twenty students in my FIG were all committed to the same goals, and throughout the semester we organized multiple review sessions that helped our overall success.