Turns out getting into university is only the first step

Mar 16, 2016 by

And they’re at the starting line: first-year university students begin with excitement and enthusiasm but many struggle with the lack of structure and beginning at the bottom again.

Gary Newman –

Students arrive at orientation week bright-eyed and enthusiastic but not all adapt well to university life.

Bonnie Smith couldn’t understand why she wasn’t getting top marks for her first-year literature essays.

“I did really well at literature in high school and I was writing my first-year essays the same way,” the University of Melbourne student says.

Having been a high achiever in high school, Smith’s confidence took a hit.

“I had to remind myself that it’s a new learning process. It’s like being in kindergarten again. You’re starting at the bottom.”

The key, Smith says, is to define yourself not by your marks, but how you bounce back from adversity.

Dealing with setbacks is a common issue among students who seek the help of Bethany Angus, a psychologist at the RMIT Counselling Service.

“Part of the problem is that the education system is focused on results rather than effort … it’s all about getting it right,” Angus says.

“Sometimes we make mistakes and that’s part of the human experience and an important part of the learning process.”

Some struggle with university’s lack of structure, particularly those who hail from independent schools with highly regimented learning environments, Andrew Fuller, a Melbourne-based clinical psychologist and family therapist.

The transition is smoothed for students living in residential colleges that provide in-house tutors, study groups and mentoring, says.

But not living in a residential college doesn’t necessarily mean you’re at a disadvantage, Zoe Willett, a final-year medicine student at Monash, Clayton, says.

“I think you do have to be a little bit creative sometimes,” she says.

Willett forged her own structures by forming study groups with like-minded people, but also recommends seeing what your faculty has on offer.

“Ask around. You won’t know until you look,” she says.

“One of the things I picked up a bit later than I wish I had was how helpful older students can be. People who have just gone through what you’ve just been through are an incredibly useful resource in terms of what you need to know, what’s important and what’s coming next.”

Willett met many an older student through theatre productions and other activities facilitated by the campus medical students’ society.

But the truth is everyone has a different learning style, be it visual, auditory or kinaesthetic (learning by doing).

At least that’s what the experts used to say.

This once fashionable way of pigeonholing learners is now out of style, Fuller says.

“There’s not a lot of research that backs up learning styles,” he says.

“What we do know is that the vast majority of people are visual learners. The more you can convert the things you’re trying to learn into a visual – whether it would be a flow chart, a diagram or a poster – the better you’re going to remember it.”

Finding your way is all about trial and error, Willett says.

“I’d be cautious to tell someone exactly what they should do. If you keep doing the same thing and it’s not working, just try something else,” she says.

“That could mean handwritten notes or trying typed notes, changing how much reading you do beforehand or finding a study group that’s the right fit for you.”

Fuller recalls a quirky technique used by a physics student: “He loved music, so he converted his physics notes into the lyrics of Bohemian Rhapsody.”

The best technique, it seems, is the one that works but students need to grasp the limitations of the system

“It wasn’t until in our very last lecture that our tutor actually told us how to structure an essay for that subject,” Smith says. “That was a bit frustrating.”

First-year university teachers should set clear expectations at the start, but this doesn’t always happen, Daniel Edwards, Principal Research Fellow at the Australian Council of Higher Education, says.

“Usually they’re really good people, but they often don’t have any teaching background or experience.”

Many are time-poor postgraduate students who take casual teaching jobs to make ends meet, Tito Ambyo, an associate lecturer in journalism at RMIT, says.

“They’re dealing with the huge challenge of doing their research degree while having to teach as well,” he says.

Most are dedicated to the job, but students need to be aware that teachers also have other commitments, Ambyo says.

The majority of teachers aren’t paid to consult at length with students outside class, a teacher at a large Victorian university says.

“You want to do a really good job, but you always feel like you’re not doing enough for the student because there are never enough hours,” the teacher says.

Most teaching staff are paid by the hour and have limited time for marking work, sometimes as little as 10 minutes an assignment.

While some teachers are prepared to work unpaid overtime to provide meaningful feedback, others treat their time more preciously.

“I know some tutors who use a stopwatch just to make sure,” the teacher says.

It’s the sort of thing that might strike fear into the hearts of first-year students.

But in an ideal world, universities would be transparent about such things, Edwards says.

“I think the problem with having that level of honesty is that universities are scared that it will count against them in claiming quality and prestige. If the elephant in the room is pointed out there will be a backlash,” he says.

“But if students understand what the expectations are and the context in which they’re learning, they’re going to learn more and they’re going to shape the way they interact more appropriately.”

On the upside, universities provide plenty of assistance to students wanting to learn the ropes.

Information and tuition on study techniques, taking notes, academic research and writing are free and readily available at most campuses.

And parents must resist the urge to micromanage first-year students, Fuller says.

“It’s really a time to trust your young person – they’re finding their way,” he says.

Wanting the best for one’s children is natural, but it can also be very counterproductive, Angus says.

“Young people are under pressure in lots of ways. Feeling pressure from parents is another one to add to the list,” she says.

Parents need to tread a fine line between showing an interest and providing support, while avoiding pushing strong opinions, she says.

Many of Fuller’s patients come to counselling because they’ve followed poor guidance from parents and teachers.

“They’ve got a good mark and therefore they think they should do one of those really prestigious courses. Then they get there and realise really that their heart’s not in it.”

It’s why Angus advises parents to support their kids taking a year off.

“Pressure is piled onto school-leavers to make career decisions and decide what qualifications they need before they are ready,” she says.

“Some young people need more time to get to know themselves, experience the world and discover where their passions lie.”

One of the challenges is that some will need more time than others to become independent and self-directed, Fuller says.

“Some, by about 16½ seem to click into gear and their adult brain really is operating,” he says.

“There’s another group of young people who really don’t get their act together until they’re in their mid or even late 20s.”

Fuller recounts his own experience as a late bloomer, bumbling his way through the first three years of uni before hitting his stride.

“I don’t think it’s a bad thing. You’re exploring life in a different way to more independently directed and motivated kids.”

Photo: John Shakespeare

Source: Turns out getting into university is only the first step

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