Transitioning from secondary school to university is tremendously difficult – a major life change that can catch many young people by surprise. New students are likely to experience a roller coaster of emotions, from excitement and freedom to uncertainty, anxiety and fear that they don’t belong. It can be an extremely daunting process, as students are confronted with moving to a different town, city or even country, as well as the need to create new social circles (often with students from vastly different backgrounds), manage their own finances and develop independent learning skills.
If students struggle with these challenges, the result can be a negative impact on their academic performance, peer involvement and even continuation on their course. Therefore, we as lecturers must be sympathetic to their situation and help them from the very start of their academic journey. Here’s some practical advice on how we can do that:
1. Give students a sense a of purpose
Determine the reasons your students are at university and what they want from their course. If they seem unsure then encourage them to reflect. Students who know why they’re studying are more inclined to do better academically and enjoy the student experience. Being able to identify this aids student motivation and helps them commit to their courses. It also increases their perseverance if and when their courses get challenging. Be sure to ask your students how they’re feeling during the transition period and throughout their first year of study. Highlight that it’s perfectly normal to have ups and downs and both positive and negative feelings. Share your own experiences of starting university, as this will make them feel more seen and included.
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2. Remind students to believe in themselves
With many new starters feeling uncertain and anxious during their first year, it’s essential that students believe in themselves. Remind them that they were offered a place because it was clear they are capable of being successful at this university and thus belong there. You could try asking them to list what they achieved to get to university and to think about how the university experience is going to shape their future. Get them to consider the skills they are going to learn and how these skills will help them with their future careers. Getting students to believe in themselves strengthens their confidence, which increases their chances of success.
3. Ask students to establish the key differences between school and university
Encourage students to find out what is involved in being a university student and how it is different from their previous education experiences. Remind them that they can ask you or other colleagues if they are unsure. Acknowledge that there is a gap between secondary and tertiary education and that while it will take time to bridge that gap, an academic support network is available to them if and when they need help. Make clear that they can access their personal tutor, lecturers and class colleagues, who are, after all, going through the same process. Students who are aware of the skills they need to be successful are likely to achieve greater early academic success.
4. Highlight the importance of planning ahead
Students should be aware of the challenges ahead and how to overcome them. Encourage them to add to a calendar all future coursework deadlines, exams and work, plus family and social commitments. This will help them plot out what’s coming up and see if there are any potential stress points where commitments might need to be altered. Advise students to talk to their academic support network if they feel anxious or don’t know how to cope. Students who have a clear understanding of their commitments often feel less stressed and more resilient because they are able to develop realistic expectations of themselves.
5. Encourage your students to make connections
Having a network of supportive peers and staff behind you makes university easier. Encourage your students to make connections with their peers, lecturers and members of staff. Urge them to actively participate and collaborate with others in class and advise them to join an external club or society offered by the students’ union or student network. Students who develop these connections are likely to feel a greater sense of belonging and are able to support each other during this difficult first year. Developing working and social relationships with others will help students alleviate any feelings of isolation they may have and make the university experience more enjoyable.
By showing compassion and employing these five pointers, lecturers can help their students get off to a positive start and be on the right path to academic success.
Katherine Mansfield is a lecturer in academic English and works in the Centre for Education and Teaching Innovation at the University of Westminster.
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