No guarantees when entering university

Are you suited for university?

Last September, 3,842 students accepted offers of admission to attend Wilfrid Laurier University and among those, many will not be returning this year either voluntarily or due to insufficient grades. As another approximately 4,000 students are set to arrive this fall, the question lingers as to whether, however well intentioned, they are truly cut out for university.

Todd Stinebrickner is a professor of economics at the University of Western Ontario who co-authored a study looking at how learning about one’s ability to succeed in university corresponds to the decision to drop out. While the study was conducted at a college in the U.S., he said there is no reason the findings would not apply to the Ontario post-secondary system.

Telling someone that university may not be the best avenue for them or providing information to support why they should not attend may not be very effective at all, he said.

“There’s always this question of how much information would matter,” he began. “How much information can be provided ahead of time or is the way to learn to just try it?”

Dropping out may be the right decision for some students, Stinebrickner said, noting that taking a shorter period of time to determine that university is not for them may be the mark of a good university. If students are able to ‘coast’ through a program they’re not suited for and leave with a degree, there is likely something wrong.

“It may make sense for many people who start university to become plumbers, they didn’t know that when they started but they know that’s the case later,” he explained. “Maybe a good university is one where it doesn’t take people three-and-a-half years to figure that out.”

In general, his work found that students overestimate how well they will do in university coming out of high school. “What we find is that if you look at people that did poorly, about half of that is that their ability was just lower than they thought,” he said.

Half of the remaining students that did poorly can attribute their results to just not studying enough, while the remainder was due to other factors.

One point Stinebrickner highlighted was a difference in students’ performance based on gender. According to his research, men are more likely to study less than they think they will.

“Men tend to be over-optimistic relative to women, they have higher dropout rates than women, in large part because they overestimate their ability and how well they’re going to do,” he said, adding that there were indications that men were simply more interested in doing other things than spending time focusing on coursework. “Some of the evidence is it’s things like video games,” he explained.

Laurier’s dean of arts Michael Carroll told a similar tale, explaining the administrative work done after a high proportion – 43 per cent – of first year arts students last year did not attain the 5.0 GPA after first semester required to declare a major. In previous years the percentage has been in the low 30 per cent range.

“The investigations and interviews conducted by people in the dean’s office make it clear that the most common reasons for failure are simply not going to class, not doing assignments and it turns out, literally, Facebook,” he said.
“The proportion of students coming out of high school and entering arts at Laurier unprepared for university life or less prepared than they should be is high, that’s true.”

“There have always been students unprepared for university, the sense is that students are just less prepared than they used to be.” – Michael Carroll, dean of arts

Are you prepared?

The level of true preparedness for university among students varies though, according to the manager of Laurier’s Study Skills and Supplemental Instruction Centre, Michael Lisetto-Smith, who was recently appointed president of the Learning Specialists Association of Canada.

“If you talk to most high school students, they’re going to say they’re well prepared,” he explained.

Once actually attending university classes though, students change their stories. “Very few would say they were well prepared,” he continued.

He listed off the examples of students copying overheads verbatim and reading in such a way to complete their assigned readings, but not retain the information.

Lisetto-Smith added that a semester passes so quickly that it is often too late before problems with study skills or strategies are addressed.

“By the time you get tested, maybe four or six weeks [into the semester], it’s already too late in many ways,” he said. “After the first exam, they’ll realize they’re in trouble but they’ll say they need to try harder, which amounts to absolutely nothing.”

“They haven’t actually put forward a plan to change their habits, they just end up doing more of the same.”

In high school, many students are able to do well simply by being good at memorization. Lisetto-Smith said this often applies when ‘A’ students are entering university. “A lot of high school tends to focus on memorization and regurgitation of data, so a lot of ‘A’ students are the ones that can memorize very well and then dump the data with no analysis.”

He added that the ‘B’ students have often worked harder to maintain those grades and accordingly bring better coping and studying mechanisms to their post-secondary education.

Unless those that got by on memorization are able to adapt, they risk rapidly falling behind. “Some of them end up leaving because of it,” he said.
There were nearly 11,000 visits by 3,000 individual students to the Study Skills and Supplemental Instruction Centre last year, Lisetto-Smith said. “In the end, the responsibility to do the work, to learn and make sure you’re meeting your progression requirements does lie on the students.”

“The support services are all there, they have to just be aware of it and come out.”

Carroll said that there seems to be more unprepared students entering the faculty of arts than in the past. “There is a sense that there has been a sea change, there have always been problems, but something is different,” he said of the trend. “There have always been students unprepared for university, the sense is that students are just less prepared than they used to be.”

What can you expect when you get there?

While perhaps undergraduate university students are less able than high school students to maintain good grades on memorization skills, Griffin Carpenter, who graduated from Laurier’s politics, philosophy and economics program in 2010, had some thoughts on that subject.

“At Laurier I got by decently well on exams and tests by relying on some habits like mnemonics and acronyms, rote memorization,” he said.

Now attending the London School of Economics (LSE) for his master’s degree, he added, “That hasn’t bode me too well because the questions asked of me now are at such a deeper level that memorization means next to nothing.”

He also explained that in high school, he was made to believe that university would be far more challenging. “Graduating high school I was under the impression that university would be a lot harder than it was,” he said.

“I guess I found that, at least for me, it was really easy to get B’s at Laurier but it’s really hard to get A’s.”

“If you want to get by and do decently well, you don’t have to study that hard and I think that’s the approach a lot of people take. In order to excel though, it’s really difficult.”

Kyle Gerow, who graduated from Laurier this spring with a degree in history and political science, said that in his time completing his undergrad, there seemed to be a real emphasis on the time spent studying with students spending, for example, an entire Sunday preparing for one particular assessment. “At least from my experience that seems like the wrong way to go about doing it,” he said, “it should be more focused on the quality of the studying you’re doing.”
Gerow said the thing that helped him most with his coursework were clear impressions of expectations from professors. “Beyond all else, it’s important that students understand precisely what the professor is looking for,” he said.

“[It’s] just about opening channels of communication with the professor and asking questions until you’re absolutely sure on what you’ll be tested.”

“In my four years at Laurier I found that professors aren’t shy about telling you how to do well in their course and what they look for when they’re grading.”
Carpenter, when asked about the culture surrounding academics at Laurier, said there seemed to be something lacking.

“I was disappointed in my experience at Laurier in that there really isn’t a culture of learning,” he said, noting that he notices a marked difference now, working on his postgraduate degree.

“That’s what I expected university to be like out of high school: people saying that they want to keep learning more, that they want to develop greater skills,” he continued. “Learning seemed secondary in a lot of ways.”

Though this is not to say that he didn’t benefit from his undergrad days, he explained, “I was enjoying all the other things that Laurier has to offer.”

“My undergrad at Laurier was different than I expected, it was less of a culture of learning than I expected, but I’m not trying to frame that in too negative a light because it comes with maturity and I don’t think that’s always present.”

Along with maturity levels being a consideration among the first year class at Laurier over the last several years, with the demise of Ontario’s Grade 13 in 2003, the sheer numbers of students entering some programs in the arts was something Carroll pointed to.

“Clearly one of the drivers of what has been happening here in this faculty has simply been the dramatic increase in the size of our entering class,” he explained, noting that while he had only been at Laurier as dean of arts for a year, extensive background research has been conducted examining the roots of the situation in the faculty.

“As we’ve increased the size of the entering class, the average entering grade from high school has gone down.”

Ten years ago, Laurier’s entrance average for the faculty of arts was over 80 per cent, but for the past two years the minimum high school average applicants can have to be accepted has been 72 per cent. Though Laurier’s faculty of arts is not alone in this and similar to many Ontario universities, there may be reputational consequences.

“Clearly, past a certain point we’re not able to attract the proportion of top students that we used to attract.”

Since the faculty only receives more provincial funds if it grows, Carroll said, there are financial consequences to raising admissions averages initially due to decreased enrolment. “One of the things we’re beginning to discuss is whether we should just bite the economic bullet and maintain a certain minimum average,” he said. “That’s going to be a major issue of discussion over this next year.”

Carroll added that strategies including first year seminars and other initiatives are being put in place to confront the situation. “Hopefully over time as we add in programs that will attract better and better students and we hold our minimum average, that will start to change and we’ll begin to attract students.”
Ray Darling, Laurier’s registrar, noted that those students that struggle to maintain passable GPAs in first year and beyond are often those who enter university with low admission averages.

“In the faculty of arts, the students that were having the trouble were the students who came in below 75 [per cent],” he said.

“There is no surprise there, we have these students we’ve admitted between 70 and 75 and we know they’re at risk, so I think they really need to take advantage of the services here or else they may not make it.”

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