Struggling to overcome first-year obstacles

The problem

After closely monitoring their fall-term data for the first time in recent years, the faculty of arts has discovered an alarming statistic – out of five first-year arts students, approximately two are at a high risk of landing on academic probation or not being able to declare their major in second year.

“I think that it’s important that when we look at this initial data, we understand that it’s not that these students are definitely going to be on academic probation but that there are just large warning signs, sort of flashing neon lights that there are some challenges for these students,” said VP: academic and provost Deb MacLatchy.

The data collected showed that 43 per cent of first-year arts students have an average GPA of less than 5.0. For those within the range of 2.0 to 3.99, they will be put on academic probation in year two. And for those with GPAs of 4.0 to 4.99, they will be forced to remain in an undeclared major.

Julie Pong, academic advisor for the faculty of arts, explained that there are many circumstances under which these statistics may not be as severe as they seem. For instance, some individuals can maintain a 4.0 to 4.99 GPA in an undeclared major and graduate with a general degree that may be perfectly suitable for their chosen career path.

And for others, the low GPA in their first semester at Laurier may signify an adjustment period.

However, she added that for a large portion of the 632 first-year arts students with GPAs below 5.0, this might be a manifestation of a severe problem that needs to be addressed.

“For some it’s not as though fall term was a hiccup, it’s that they were struggling,” said Pong.

Pong runs peer-to-peer mentorship programs meant to address these problems. Specifically, the program BOOST is targeted to first-year students who have had a poor first semester.

Last year, Pong explained that her data has suggested that 13 per cent of arts students with GPAs below 5.0 who took part in the BOOST program have succeeded in raising their marks. 12 per cent with similar academic standing who did not participate in the program also achieved an increase.

“It’s not as though we have 90 per cent of those who have their GPA below five bring those up,” said Pong.

She also explained that this year she has seen a general increase in the amount of students who have withdrawn from study at Laurier.

“Whether it was just first-years or senior students, I don’t know for sure. I just noticed that there was a time that I’d be signing one a day,” said Pong.

She continued, explaining that for those with poor performance, the most difficult situation is when students come forward with concerns in early April.

Pong stated that there are many things that can be done to help students improve their skills, but “I’m not sure what I can do when they come in with only a few weeks left.”

MacLatchy explained that while the number of students with a GPA under 5.0 is higher in arts, it’s certainly not non-existent in other faculties.

“I don’t think the numbers are as high [in other faculties], but they’re certainly not at zero per cent or ten per cent,” MacLatchy explained.

Anne Ellis, program advisor for undergraduate business, explained that the business faculty “does not have the rates that arts have right now.”

Both Ellis and William Salatka, undergraduate business programs director and associate professor of accounting, explained that part of the reason could be that the program is so structured, featuring fewer electives and a more strict focus.

“If they don’t measure up they will have to go into another program…. It’s more tightly woven than some of the other programs,” said Ellis.

While senior administrative assistant to the dean of music Janice Dobbin stated that the music faculty has not seen a significant decrease in academic performance, undergraduate advisor and assistant professor of kinesiology and physical education Jill Tracey noted some trends in science this year.

“Every few years you’re going to have an incoming group where the grades might dip a little bit,” said Tracey. “And we so far are finding that to be the case this year. But again, overall our students do tend to do quite well.”

MacLatchy explained that while dips can be concerning, they are also informative.

“Certainly we couldn’t survive as an institution if almost half of every first-year class didn’t succeed going forward. Are there concerns that the number is 43 per cent? Would I like to see it lower? Yes. But I think that what this does do is to give us an opportunity to try and get at some of the root causes … and to use that as an opportunity to see what needs to be done to hopefully assist and support the students that are in this situation now but also perhaps put in earlier supports into the system prior to this being the situation,” she said.

High school

When looking at why these first-year students face difficulties in adjustment, some trace the problem back to secondary education.

Nick, a first-year student who chose to have his last name remain unknown, is currently at risk of being on academic probation. He explained that he believes high school could have done more to prepare him for university.

“I think it could have done a lot better to prepare me, because just the content is a lot more diverse and a lot harder to comprehend here.

“The content I was going through last year was the kind of thing that I could have written an essay about without reading at all,” said Nick.

Samantha Polzin, a grade 11 student at Sir John A. Macdonald Secondary School – who is currently on campus doing a co-op term with Wilfrid Laurier University Student Publications – explained that she wishes her high school had started preparing her for university earlier.

“I think they kind of spoon-feed you through a lot of it,” she said.
“I think there’s a little bit too much babying that’s going on so people are probably quite surprised when they’re on their own.”

Pong told The Cord that when first-year students were surveyed in a session held by the arts faculty, many students had stated that they wished high school had provided more of a focus on time management.

In science, Tracey explained that often students perform poorly in the mandatory math courses in first year. She also stated that high school students sometimes do not get a realistic picture of how much work they will have to do in a post-secondary setting.

From the perspective of the business faculty, Ellis and Salatka both attested to the fact that they’ve noticed a difference since grade 13 was removed.

“I think we’ve seen a difference in the students who came in that had grade 13 who were 18 and 19 and the new students coming in,” said Ellis, explaining that often maturity and experience can help first-year students adjust.

“It’s our job and everyone in the university who works with them to try and figure out how to compensate for that,” she added.

MacLatchy explained that regardless of whether high schools are or are not providing certain skill development opportunities, the task for universities remains the same.

“We need to meet first-year students where first-year students are.”

Program requirements

Tracey explained that while it is best not to dwell on students’ secondary experiences, the entering grades of students might predict their academic success at university.

“Because they may be coming in with a higher average to begin with, that most likely has something to do with the fact that they tend to fare better maybe than some other programs,” Tracey said of certain programs, such as kinesiology, which have entrance requirements of 80 per cent and higher.

Ellis agreed, noting the business program’s entrance and progression requirements.

Students who wish to be accepted to the program need an 80 per cent or higher, and those looking to continue in the program need a 7.0 GPA in their business credits and a 5.0 in their electives, compared to the 5.0 average that arts students require.

“The program is very rigid. You have to meet a certain requirement to stay in the program and if you don’t, you have to find another program,” Ellis said.

And while the specific grades used to predict success are important, Ellis explained that business has changed its requirements for entering students in the past year to better reflect the skills necessary for the program.

For instance, English and math credits are being weighted differently for students who apply, which has actually made the requirements more rigorous.

“What changed was what they had to include in their marks from high school. And the upshot is it’s more rigorous than it was before,” Salatka attested.

For MacLatchy, changes like these are important because they better predict success in university.

“I certainly agree that we can use success in high school as one of the factors that predicts success but it’s better understanding how those factors are predicted,” she said.

The lifestyle

Another factor of academic performance touted unanimously is how well first-year students are adjusting to the unfamiliar independence of the university student lifestyle.

“We also need to understand where the students are emotionally and maturity … understanding the pushes and pulls they have on them as individuals other than school and we need to put that altogether to understand. Because I don’t think it’s necessarily academic or academic ability that that 43 per cent represents,” said MacLatchy.

She explained that the university is vigorously investigating ways to make the transition from high school to university as smooth as possible.

“Not having your parents looking over your shoulders … I think it really gives you a test of ‘This is you now for the rest of your life’…. In first semester I didn’t do well because I was either partying too much or didn’t feel like doing my readings and I really got overwhelmed,” Nick explained.

Pong attested to the fact that a huge problem for students seems to be time management.

“They get caught up with the activities on campus, all the people that are in residence…. If they’re coming from a very structured environment in high school and then they’re coming here that’s not structured then there’s that dissonance of ‘What do I do?’” she explained.

Ellis and Salatka both noted that they feel as though students today are more than ever facing more stress due to non-academic sources such as debt.

Nick explained that for him, the stress caused by receiving an e-mail warning him that he may go on academic probation next year has prompted him to change his habits.

“It’s hard because you’re just so overwhelmed that you’re on your own now…. It’s hard to stay on track and it’s hard to do work. It scared me half to death when I saw I was risk of being on academic probation last semester. So I thought ‘Okay, I need to get in gear’ so it motivated me to do better.”

Solving the problem

While it is a process of transition for many, the fact that in the past only approximately 12 or 13 per cent of arts students have managed to improve their GPA after first year indicates there is work left to be done.

Along with the various available programs such as BOOST, Pong explained that individuals across the university are investigating ways to improve the situation.

“At this stage it’s still sort of early with regards to what’s going on and what’s happening. But I know it’s not something I’m ignoring,” she explained.

Pong noted that she is looking into implementing a follow-up orientation week next year with academic sessions several weeks into students’ first terms to ensure they are progressing well.

MacLatchy also mentioned other initiatives that are occurring, such as the university looking into the role residence life dons can play as academic mentors for their students.

While there are many factors at play, Ellis explained that the task of helping students improve their performance is attainable.

“I’m sure … that the students who haven’t been successful, it’s because they haven’t yet developed the skills, not because they can’t be successful,” she stated, continuing that the various services available to students can help them develop these skills.

Yet despite the various resources the university offers, Nick explained that in the end it always comes down to the students themselves.

“I think they give you ample opportunity to help yourself but it’s just getting up from whatever you’re doing and helping yourself…. It comes down to choice.”

Pong agreed, explaining that often the problem is that while students face difficulty, they do not take initiative to read their Laurier e-mails and actually seek out the services available.

For instance, only approximately ten per cent of first years facing difficulties in their first term took advantage of the BOOST program.

“One of the struggles we have is that students don’t respond when we reach out to them.”

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