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How First-Generation Students Benefit From Personalized Learning in Higher Ed

  • 5 Min Read

Discover how supports like mentorship and funding can benefit students who are the first in their families to attend college.


A first-generation student is somebody who’s the first in their family to attend postsecondary education. It’s an exciting opportunity, but it also highlights the fact that not all students are on a level playing field when entering college.

Family members who’ve attended and graduated from postsecondary education will be able to support the next generations in their family as they transition to a new way of socializing and learning. From what to do in class to taking advantage of office hours and funding opportunities, these students will likely have a built-in support system from the start.

On the other hand, first-gen students are often left to figure out a lot of the subtle nuances of college life on their own. This can create a disadvantage for these students who’ve worked hard to achieve acceptance into postsecondary education. In fact, the statistics show that graduation rates among first-gen students are typically lower than those of other students.

This contrast between first-gen students and their peers is often referred to as the hidden curriculum in higher education.

What is the Hidden Curriculum?

The hidden curriculum “refers to the unwritten, unofficial and often unintended lessons, values and perspectives that students learn in school…[and] consists of the unspoken or implicit academic, social and cultural messages that are communicated to students while they are in school.”

From how students engage themselves during class to how they interact with instructors and other classmates, the hidden curriculum can take many forms.

Since first-gen students have never been exposed to many of these situations and don’t have family with experience in this realm to help guide them, they’re often at a disadvantage in relation to their peers.

However, there are ways to help improve the success rate for first-gen students. Taking advantage of personalized learning in higher education is one such way.

Mentorship, Community and Funding

There are already several areas of support in existence across the higher education landscape that promote first-generation student success. Mentorship, leaning on the community of current first-gen students and alumni, and targeted funding are three ways to help personalize a first-gen student’s learning experience and foster success.

Mentorship and Community

Matching a first-gen mentor with an incoming first-gen student is a great way to not only build a personal, supportive relationship, but also help develop a model of personalized learning.

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The Dell Scholars program offers financial and peer support for lower-income students. Quite often, first-generation students also come from lower incomes, as their families feel the impact of finding work without postsecondary education. One of the pillars of support this program offers is peer-to-peer mentorship from the community of current scholars or recent grads who help build individualized plans for their mentees.

Mentors are an excellent resource for first-gen students. They can do everything from providing guidance on funding opportunities and application tips, to helping students seek mental health support if they start to feel overwhelmed.

Some colleges and organizations have created first-generation mentorship programs in recognition of the benefits they offer students:

By leaning on the community of first-gen students and alumni, mentorship opportunities create not only a personal bond but also a learning plan that’s personalized to the students’ needs.

Funding for First-Generation Students

Another personal approach to supporting first-generation students is through funding distributed specifically to them.

While there are some grants geared toward low-income students in general—like the Federal Pell Grant or Smith Scholarship—another great resource is college-specific funding:

Build a Unique Learning Path Through Technology

In addition to community and funding, technology is another great way to help build a personalized learning path for the unique needs of first-generation students.

A powerful learning management system (LMS) provides colleges with the opportunity to build personalized and flexible learning paths for students. For first-generation students, this can help scaffold different needs when entering postsecondary education.

An LMS can also help indicate when these students may be struggling, letting instructors and administrators know they may need some intervention to help get them back on track.

Three ways an LMS like D2L Brightspace can support personalized learning include:

  • Gated learning: This tactic helps structure course delivery so students don’t move on to the next concept until they have a firm grasp on the current topic. Release conditions automatically release enrichment or remediation content, creating custom learning paths.
  • Learner choice and responsibility: Checklists—assessment tools that can help instructors and learners gauge progress—highlight important areas of a course and hold students accountable. They can also inspire organization, release content and allow students to choose a preferred assignment type.
  • Improved outcomes: If students don’t log in to the LMS or if they show signs of struggle, automated workflows can trigger actions to alert instructors or send reminders to students to help keep them on track.

Ready to learn more? Discover more about how Brightspace can provide personalized learning and flexible learning paths.

Finding the Right Support for First-Generation Students

It’s important to make sure first-generation students—the first in the family to hit the milestone of attending postsecondary education—are set up for success.

Providing options and awareness to these students will make a personalized learning experience for them that can help lead to the success they deserve.

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Table of Contents
  1. What is the Hidden Curriculum?
  2. Mentorship, Community and Funding
  3. Build a Unique Learning Path Through Technology
  4. Finding the Right Support for First-Generation Students