First year focus – Understanding student choices

A conversation in a second-hand clothing shop provoked me to write this post, which is about the ways in which undergraduates experience the university environment when they’ve arrived right from high school. I was reminded of how easy it is to take things for granted when we’ve been working in an institution for a long time. Here is a link to the original post from September 13, 2011: First year focus – understanding student choices.

September is upon us and with the beginning of another academic year comes a fresh crop of undergraduate students jostling their way into universities’ hallways and classrooms. As a researcher in postsecondary education who also teaches undergrads, I take a direct interest in the first-year experience. Whenever I have a teaching assignment with first-year students, I try to have a conversation with them about the decision they made to come to university, the factors that influenced their choice, and how their experiences in university compare to those in high school.

I thought of this recently when I had a chance conversation with a young woman working at a second-hand store where I was buying some summer clothes. We started chatting about the job and how she’d come to be living and working in town. I assumed she was a student at the local university, but as it turned out she had quit her BA at the University of Toronto and wasn’t sure if or when she wanted to go back. She spoke about coming from a family of artists, and how in hindsight her degree (in Art History) seemed more like the logical and familiar thing to do rather than an informed choice. I was reminded of my own experience, heading to university at age 17 to study studio art, but subsequently taking a break from higher education for several years.

As we talked, she described how overwhelming the experience of university had been, comparing it to the structured and planned environment of high school where “someone was always there” to tell you what you needed to do next, where to go, and why. Even students’ schedules were essentially planned out for them. University was overwhelming because “you could do anything;” there were so many courses and programs, to choose from, but “you don’t know anything about any of it.” Her impressions spoke to me of a lack of guidance and mentorship at that early and crucial stage.

For this student, high school had provided a structure and a coherence that made it navigable. The university was apparently limitless and chaotic, a freedom that came with an unexpected and intimidating level of responsibility as well. The safety of high school, an illusion of knowledge about knowledge itself, was like a rug pulled from under her feet.

Based on other experiences with young undergraduate students, I think this may be one illusion that (some) primary and secondary schooling perpetuates through its very structure: that knowledge is somehow unified and can be mastered by internalizing and reproducing information from the right categories at the right times, that it can be divided into navigable units and that its relevance will always be evident somehow.

Experience with teaching university students has led me to question the dialogue between secondary and post-secondary, which should involve high school teachers and administrators, students, and professors. There seems to be a continuing deficit on both sides of the educational fence. How many university professors are familiar with the high-school curriculum, and vice-versa?

Universities can do their part, using research to inform well-designed first-year programs. Many examples exist in Canada, such as McMaster University’s Honours Integrated Science program (iSci). The program is small, enrolling about 30 students in a cohort. They share a “home base” (a study room), as well as a specially-equipped teaching room, both located in the Engineering library. Students have close learning relationships with others in their cohort and with faculty and staff. They also complete an initial standard curriculum designed to provide a common foundation for the rest of the first year.

The downside of many such programs is that they’re still elite, catering to limited cohorts of students who are more likely to arrive well-prepared for university learning. One of the great policy problems for higher education is the extension of successful elements of elite programs to benefit all students in a massified system.

While we may not have the means (yet) to provide these kinds of elite program experiences to larger numbers of students, there are things that teaching assistants and faculty members can do to lessen the disorientation suffered by many undergraduates. We can try to connect course material to work they’re doing in other classes, and help them to identify their academic strengths and weaknesses. Most importantly we can show an interest in what’s going on for them and how they’re experiencing it, since this kind of help and attention can affect their eventual success at university.

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