Wednesday, May 21, 2014

First Year Student Expectations and Experiences

Greetings from the Australian National University in Canberra, where researchers are reporting on "First Year Student Expectations and Experiences". This was to address a problem where students have difficulty adjusting from school to university. Surveys were conducted of students at universities in South Australia. There is a detailed 77 page final report and other reports.

One of the questions the researchers asked students was if school prepared them for university. The responses were mixed on this, but there were students concerned that school did not prepare them for independent study. In my view it is not a very useful question to ask if schools prepare students for university. The question is do universities adequately cater for the students they get, whatever those student's background.

If school leavers are not ready for university, then one alternative is vocational Higher Education, at TAFEs and commercial Registered Training Organisations. These provide a more structured form of Higher Education, more like school, and  so can provide a transition to university. Interesting 4% of the survey respondents entered university from TAFE, but the researchers have not yet carried out analysis to see if these students coped better with university.

Currently I am a student of education research methods and it was interesting to hear the researchers say they were the qualitative ones and different members of the team did the quantitative analysis. Also it is good to hear terms such as "social constructivist approach to learning" used. ;-)

At the presentation we were handed a "Factsheet for New University Students" and "Factsheet for First Year University Teaching Staff", apparently produced as part of the project. I could not find these documents online and on paper they are of limited value. The Office of Learning and Teaching might like to put the documents online in an accessible format, so that they are widely available ans also so as to conform with Australian law.

The student fact sheet says students have an unrealistic expectation of the amount of work they have to do. However, perhaps this indicates an unrealistic expectation of the university teachers of the amount of work students will do. The fact sheet does not really seem to be much help, for example by saying students can expect to study 40 hours a week (they are already told this by the universities).

One comment at the workshop (I am not sure who said it) was that students could cope with 15 hours of working at a job in addition to their studies. This suggests a workload of 55 hours per week. This sounds excessive to me, being about a nine hour day, six days a week. International students are permitted to work up to 40 hours per fortnight, making a work week of 60 hours.

Under Australia law the maximum weekly hours for work are 38 and in the UK the maximum is 48. This suggest the study hours expected of a student, especially one also working, are unreasonable (and if this was a job they would be unlawful). I suggest it is time universities accept that there are very few real "full time" students, that is students who have no other commitments. Programs should be redesigned around a smaller, realistic number of hours per week. A reasonable number might be 30 hours study per week.

The teacher sheet is not a lot more useful, telling teachers that talking to university staff is important for students and that providing support to students who are struggling is important. This will already be known to any competent teacher (and is something they are told in teacher training). But these recommendations do not appear to be supported by the OLT research. Just by surveying first year students on their views will not show what effect teacher interaction has on retention.

The workshop participants were asked what a student needs to be successful at university. In my view students need study skills and literacy. We should require all students to enrol in a course to ensure they can read, write and plan work. In this we should require students to do group work, so they learn some skills and have a peer group to help them later.

One problem found was that many students had not made even on friend at university in their first year. A routine part of online courses is for students to introduce themselves. This is done due to the isolation online students can feel.  Perhaps the same needs to be done for face-to-face students.

While this research does not tell us much unexpected, it is useful to have the issue of how we can help first year students discussed more by university staff.

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