What is a FIG?

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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 courses, 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 courses. 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 many are open to any interested student. When a student decides to take a FIG, they enroll in all of the linked courses as a set. Most FIGs are limited to only 20 students, and all of the students in each FIG enroll in all of the courses in the set—this forms the basis of their “cohort” or “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.

To illustrate how they work, below we will use the example of a FIG called “Rainforests and Coral Reefs”

The main FIG seminar

At the heart of a FIG is a top-notch instructor who develops and leads a course 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 main course 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.

The main course 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 Ecuador or Belize.

Two linking courses

The FIG instructor helps select two other UW courses to complement the theme. Material from these linking courses is integrated by the instructor into the main course, 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 course (CHEM 103, 4 credits) and “Environmental Studies: The Humanistic Perspective” (ENVIR ST 113, 3  credits). Dr. Woodward pulls in elements of the Chemistry and Environmental Studies courses, showing how essential this knowledge is in understanding tropical conservation.

Class size

The main course is only available for the (up to 20) students enrolled in the FIG. The linking courses may be larger courses, taken by many more students that just those in the FIG.

If the linking courses are large lectures, your FIG might have its own discussion or lab section, a typical break-out class meeting that is separate from the lecture. In this way, the FIG cohort stays together in those smaller class sections even within a large course.


All courses in a FIG are real UW courses that count toward the credits and requirements needed for graduation. As with any UW course, each of the courses within the FIG cluster is assigned a certain number of credits which apply toward your degree requirements. The three courses in the “Rainforests and Coral Reefs” FIG are 3, 4, and 3 credits respectively, totaling 10 credits.

Being a full-time student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison means taking at least 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.