Consider This: As Instructors, We Can Help Students Adapt to University

For new undergraduate students, the transition to university is exciting, surprising, and often unsettling. They have spent years…

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For new undergraduate students, the transition to university is exciting, surprising, and often unsettling. They have spent years developing their academic skills in high school, only to face the unfamiliar demands of university timelines, complexity, and independence. They aren’t starting from scratch, but the process of adapting to university can be daunting. One student described it to me this way: “It’s as if the rug I’m standing on keeps moving. I just start to feel stable, and then things change.”

Most new students eventually navigate the ups and downs of first-year university. Some, however, may encounter more significant challenges that lead to dropping out or stopping out. For instance, in their analysis of Australian first-years who left university, Grebennikov and Shah found that an essential — and increasing — factor in dropping out was that courses were not what students expected (228). Exiting students said they wished they had been clearly informed about course and instructor expectations, as well as about “the things they need[ed] to do” and “what [was] required week by week” (231). In other words, they wanted explicit advice about adapting to university.

While the work of adapting to university is largely the responsibility of individual students, any of the following suggestions will help students along.

Make them feel welcome.

Post welcome messages via eClass; or, take a few minutes in class to welcome them to the university and to your specific learning environment.

Create opportunities to ask questions.

Many students are afraid to talk to their instructors, let alone ask their burning questions about a lecture or upcoming exam. Encourage students to come to office hours or email questions, offer online chats, or make time for questions in class.

Talk about exams and assignments — a lot.

From the perspective of a first-year student, it’s never too early to talk about assignments and exams. For example, outline basic exam topics in the first week, and then discuss content in detail as the term proceeds. Consider sharing sample or practice exam questions weekly so students know what to expect, or explicitly incorporate components of assignments into your lectures.

Don’t assume that they know “the rules” (or deadlines).

After you review important rules and dates in the first week, review them again — and again — as the term progresses. And, take nothing for granted: for an overwhelmed first-year, no detail is too small to confirm. For instance, every year I meet students who thought they withdrew from a course. In fact, they only verbally told the instructor they were no longer taking the course instead of completing withdrawal paperwork, and end up failing.

Be clear and consistent (and repetitive!) in your communication.

If you want students to know something, state it early and often. Or, set up an Frequently Asked Questions page on your eClass site to which you regularly add new information.

Not sure? Refer.

Finally, if you encounter struggling first-year students, refer them to student services for assistance so they can get back on track quickly.

Mebbie Bell — Director, Academic Success Centre

Dr. Mebbie Bell is the Director of the University of Alberta Academic Success Centre in the Office of the Dean of Students, and an instructor in the Faculty of Arts.