Surviving the first-year learning curve

First year at university provides such an exciting, sometimes overwhelming, wealth of new experiences. And with the full agenda of meeting new people, spending time in residence, getting involved in extra-curricular activities and going to parties, the importance of academic commitments can sometimes get lost in the fray.

It is easy to lose sight of the fact that academics are what brought us here in the first place, and good performance in this area will keep us here for the next few years.

Academics are part of the first-year learning curve and can set the tone for the next three to four years of study.

For some students, the transition from high school to post-secondary education is a smooth one. For others, getting into the swing of the undergraduate program is a longer process.

Starting to hit the books

In an attempt to ease the secondary to postsecondary transition, psychology professor emeritus Don Morgenson provides his first-year classes with “The Secrets of an A Student,” a guide which includes advice regarding course learning and exam taking.

One item on this list is actively reading the textbook. Morgenson recommends study tips such as reciting and recalling the chapter material to oneself.

Confirming age-old words of wisdom, third-year business student Matt Caruso emphasized the importance of keeping up with course work and readings throughout the semester.

“The university exam period is much more stressful than high school,” said Caruso, pointing to post-secondary’s breadth and depth of content, combined with the heavier weighting of final exam marks.

This combination of factors makes achieving high grades by cramming a lot more challenging.

Vice president of student affairs David McMurray noted that it is important for students to recognize that university is very different from high school. While it may have been easy enough to “coast” through grades nine to 12, university has different demands and expectations.

“If you don’t have good study habits [and] study skills, you’re going to struggle,” cautioned McMurray.

Professor of communications studies Natalie Coulter, who has taught first-year communications course “Mass Communications in Canada,” also emphasized the importance of doing course reading, commenting that “a big mistake is not realizing how important the text is in relation to learning.”

“We teach from the perspective that the two are connected,” said Coulter. “What they learn in the lecture comes from a position of having done the reading.”

Business professor Laura Allan, who teaches a first-year business course, added that too many students fail to recognize that the first month of class in university is a critical period.

Whereas high school classes may have taken a few weeks to “ramp up,” students should be starting to engage with course content from the beginning.

That being said, starting strong isn’t enough on its own. Students should continue to remain academically committed throughout both terms.

“Keep improving and keep fine tuning and keep working at it,” advised Allan, quoting the adage that students will only get out of their first year what they are willing to put into it.

Going to class

It’s no surprise that professors also advocate for lecture attendance. We’ve all heard the monetary consequences – the dollar value lost with each missed class – which are sometimes used to encourage students to go to their classes. But according to our professors and fellow students, it really does pay off academically.

“I’m in my fiftieth year of teaching,” said Morgenson, “and I know that my students who attend do significantly better.”

Agreeing with Morgenson, fourth-year Global Studies and Sociology student Meropi Deligiannis advised, “Even when you’re falling behind, that extra time you think you need is better spent in class learning.”

Fourth-year English student Stephanie Land also acknowledged the benefits of attending lectures.

“Students think they can get away with not attending classes,” she said, “but I think that’s probably one of the most important things in order to reach your full potential in the course.”

Lecture notes, for Land, are a valuable resource for assignments and quizzes, providing content that is easier to understand than the textbook.

Land has also found that another plus to attending class is the relationship it creates with one’s professors.

“If you ever need help with editing a paper or studying for tests, [professors] are more willing to help a student who they know cares and pays attention rather than someone who doesn’t put in the effort,” explained Land. “It’s a two-way street.”

While Coulter tries to include student interaction during her lectures to make them more engaging, she said it is a challenging balance to achieve, given the size of lectures and the prominence of laptop computers.

Coulter said that the prominence of technology in the classroom is particularly distracting for other students in the lecture who may be sitting behind someone playing games or surfing on their laptop.

While laptops can be a helpful tool for note-taking purposes, she stresses that their allowance in the classroom should not compromise the learning experience for oneself or other students.
Those little details

Global studies professor Ali Zaidi and Coulter both noted that their level of interaction with students outside the lecture hall is minimal due to the fact that TAs are students’ primary resource for dealing with course material in large first-year courses.

According to Morgenson, whose first year classes do not have TAs, most students who visit during his office hours come with specific questions.

“A couple of students want to talk about educational issues, theories, philosophy,” he explained, “but for the most part they are interested in what specifically [they] can do to get a better mark.”

Zaidi has found that students often get hung up on specifics such as assignment length, which results in a lot of questions pertaining to format. In response, Zaidi said, “From a faculty members’ point of view, we want them to focus on the quality of the content.”

As a geography and economics major, Wilfrid Laurier University Students’ Union President Kyle Walker has discovered that the details of formatting often come second to content, noting that it is easy to dwell on the former.

“The typical essay format we learned in grade 12 is not applicable to essay writing or paper writing at university,” explains Walker, “and I think a lot of students struggle with that.”

However, if students are struggling with a problem or specifics of an assignment, Deligiannis recommends that students take advantage of opportunities to talk to professors and seek help as soon as possible.

“It’s much easier to say that you’re having trouble before the due date and actually get help, [rather than] asking for it afterward.”

Writing and reading

In regards to writing, Coulter, Zaidi, and Allan had similar opinions, highlighting this as a crucial area for improvement for university students.

“Faculty members across the board are complaining about the writing ability and level of first-year students … and every year we’ve been hearing anecdotally that the writing is getting worse,” explained Zaidi. “Somewhere along the line, people are not picking up how to express themselves articulately.”

Coulter, too, expressed concern about student writing. She noted the importance of employing resources beyond the classroom since lectures are reserved for course material, leaving little time to teach writing skills in class.

“There is no question that there are deficiencies in writing,” added Allan, commenting that it’s not just grammatical issues that pose a problem but the overall approach to structuring a logical argument.

As a business student, Caruso has experienced the organizational challenges Allan identified. He noted that there are discrepancies between high school and university because the structure of assignments becomes a much more important factor at the university level.

“I found essays in university much more difficult to get good marks on than in high school,” continued Caruso.

In exams, Zaidi identified a similar problem, finding that his first-year students often lack planning in their work. He emphasized the importance of organizing thoughts and ideas through preliminary notes before starting to write.

Both Zaidi and Coulter also linked strong writing with reading, stressing that students would benefit from acknowledging that the two really go hand in hand.

Coulter noted that students often don’t read thoroughly enough to provide support for their written work.

“I think with internet culture, students want to read in pieces, and they don’t read the whole,” she explained, “so things get taken out of context.”

As Zaidi said, “The very process of writing is helping you to think and to think clearly. When you can think clearly you can write clearly and when you write clearly you can think even more clearly.”

Referencing her own dissertation as an example, Coulter stressed just how much work it takes to produce quality writing.

“I think what I really wish my first-year students knew is that writing is a really hard, hard skill,” said Coulter.

Land emphasized how greatly she has benefited from giving herself time before a deadline to read over and refine her writing.

“It’s most beneficial when you write your good copy and leave a few days in between to edit so you’re not overwhelmed with last minute details and stressing about time constraints,” explained Land. “It leaves you less worked up and with a better, well-rounded paper.”

Achieving balance

Although Morgenson’s “A Student” guide only includes course-related tips, he also stressed the value of balance, acknowledging how challenging it can be to achieve.

“In first year every student is overwhelmed with the university experience, which is totally understandable,” said Land. Keeping priorities straight, including weighing one’s social life and academics appropriately, is in Land’s opinion, a key factor to success both in and out of the classroom.

In terms of fulfilling academic commitments, Kyle Walker explained that his experience has taught him the importance of understanding how to push yourself without going too far.

“You don’t get a lot of work done when you’re stressed, or pulling all-nighters, or you’re exhausted or sick,” said Walker. “Work hard, but know your limits,” he advised.

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle was also a concern for VP:Academic Deb MacLatchy.

“That link between physical and mental is really important,” explained MacLatchy, commenting that a healthy lifestyle requires budgeting time appropriately.

Deligiannis also noted the importance of prioritizing health and its impact on achieving academic success.

“It doesn’t matter how much time you have in the world to complete an assignment,” said Deligiannis. “If you feel terrible you will not be productive.”

Reluctant to use the cliché of time management, Morgenson called attention to the fact that even the early Greeks argued for balance in life. He encouraged “finding a balance between social obligations and academic obligations and family.”

Walker noted that beyond juggling academic, social, and extracurricular responsibilities, achieving a balance also means allowing for down time.

“Whether you’re really involved outside of the classroom or whether you’re not,” said Walker, “there’s nothing wrong with … taking an hour for yourself.”

Despite the convergence of much of the advice, there is no formula for achieving the perfect balance. As McMurray and MacLatchy both emphasized, this idea of balance is unique to each student.

“Different students have different balances,” said MacLatchy. She pointed to the fact that the ability to effectively manage multiple activities while also achieving a desired level of academic success depends on the individual, and students should assess for themselves how much they can handle.

However, students shouldn’t be discouraged by the apparent stress of this balancing act. According to McMurray, “A lot of students here are involved and they actually do better in school because they’re managing their time and they’re making commitments.”

Working in groups

Working in groups can also present a fresh experience to university newcomers, posing the challenge of achieving group dynamics that allow students to produce successful results.

According to Allen, whose first year business students are required to complete numerous group projects, group work is a valuable learning experience, as it mimics the structure of a real job.

However, students can encounter problems if they fail to take group work seriously or continue high school practices of “riding on” other team members’ efforts. Just like in a job setting, there are definite repercussions to not meeting group expectations on team projects.

“Students do not understand how critical it is that you act in your group, in your team, the way you act in the business world,” explained Allen.

Allen also acknowledged that understanding how to work effectively as a team is a big hurdle and something that students learn over time through experience. She advised that group members should establish objectives, develop a timeline, and delegate appropriately.

Aside from doing group assignments, working with peers can also be a valuable study tactic. However, Deligianis’ experience warns that this can also ineffective if not approached correctly.

“Before you get together for a ‘group study’ make sure you have a study session on your own first,” advised Deligiannis. “Groups can be really helpful for recap and figuring out things you don’t understand, but they can be detrimental when you go in knowing nothing.”

Beyond the basics

In addition to the concrete skills and techniques that can be recommended, however, more intangible and immeasurable characteristics are seen as assets by professors.

Morgenson spoke of a love for learning and pursuit of knowledge, noting that many students “lack that genuine curiosity, that desire to engage intellectually.”

“They’re here, going through the motions, and they’ll leave having gone through the motions,” he added.

Zaidi agreed, stating “The one thing we want students to have is curiosity. Aside from all the skills … a real genuine curiosity to learn [and] wanting to engage. That would be the quality that would hold [students] in good stead.”

– With files from Linda Givetash