First-year students struggling to make the grade

In early January, the dean of arts office, with a thorough inspection of the fall term grades, discovered that 43 per cent of first-year students – or approximately 632 students – had grade point averages less than 5.0. The number of students marks a 10 per cent increase over last year.

With this new evidence, the faculty of arts moved to invite those students to attend one of several information sessions that occurred over three evenings. Of the over 600 students affected, approximately 200 attended.

Dean of arts Michael Carroll sensed the risks involved with this situation and the possible consequences. “That in itself doesn’t put them on [academic] probation,” he said of the students’ grades. “But it puts them on the risk of probation.”

In order for a student to progress in an honours arts program they must maintain at least a 5.0 GPA; grade averages below a 4.0 will result in academic probation.

The first semester results of BBA students were stronger than their arts peers, although first-years’ average GPAs have dropped from an 8.28 to 7.86 from last year.

Business students are required to maintain a 7.0 to remain in the program. “[I’m] a little disappointed, but still in my mind it’s not bad,” said academic advisor Anne Ellis. “I hate to see it go down and hopefully it’s a blip.”

As for first-year science students, 33.9 per cent were below a 5.0 GPA and 21.3 per cent were below a 4.0. “We’re certainly concerned; this is new to be tracking them at this point,” commented dean of science Paul Jessop.

“We think and we hope that come May when we’re looking at these numbers that they will be much better, but we don’t have a good feel statistically for how much better is reasonable to expect.”

The minimum admissions average from high school is 72 per cent for arts and 86 per cent for business. While the science minimum admission varies on which program the student pursues, there is no program in the faculty that has lower than a 74 per cent cut-off.

Compared to last year, however, the arts minimum admission for the 2010-11 year was two per cent lower.

“One of the things we didn’t used to do in the past was look at the end of first term and how students were being successful,” explained Deborah MacLatchy, VP: academic.

“What we are enabled to do now is begin a dialogue with the students who are in academic jeopardy.”

At the arts information sessions that were offered, students were encouraged to join the already established arts BOOST program which pairs them up with senior level peer mentors.

From the 115 students that participated in BOOST last year, 68 completed the program. However, with a larger number of students at risk, the faculty called for more volunteers and implemented another program called CONNECT that encourages students to pair with senior students for informal weekly meetings.

“It gives them the chance to bounce some ideas off some senior students in regards to study skills or any questions they may have and if they are not sure who to turn to,” faculty of arts academic advisor Julie Pong explained.

Ellis noted that any BBA student who received below a C average was contacted via email but very few attended counselling sessions.

Pong identified issues with many struggling first-year students such as lack of motivation, time management skills and the adjustment from high school to university.

Associate dean of science Richard Elliott also voiced his concern about first-year students, “Students may not mature or realize that there’s a big difference from what they did in high school until Christmas.”

“With more emphasis on retention in the various faculties, the big thing is finding out how students are doing as quickly as possible so we can help them with remedial action,” added Elliott.

“It is important to get timely and accurate information.”

Pong urges students to reach out to academic advising and to their professor’s office hours.

“A lot of them know what they need to do, it is just they have to go do it,” she said.

As well, faculty members have come up with ideas on how to improve the experience for first-year students such as a committee examining how 100-level courses are structured and initiatives to help students avoid difficult course scheduling.

Carroll is hoping to continue to expand the learning experience of first year by offering the possibility of seminars with smaller class sizes to first-year arts students in the future.

“At the moment we don’t have the resources to do that, but we’re applying for some SIF funding to do it,” Carroll continued. “And if we get a few of these going and they prove to be successful and popular, then we’re hoping to get a few more resources.”