Issues Magazine

Helping Students Belong to a Uni Science Community

By Mary Peat and Charlotte Taylor

The University of Sydney’s science faculty is overturning a culture marked by difficult transitions from secondary school to university.

The transition from primary school to secondary school, although sometimes traumatic, is often accompanied by induction programs in the last term of primary school, and students often make the move with their classmates. Intensive induction and careful monitoring may not accompany the transition from secondary school to university, due mostly to the culture of the university and the large number of students involved. Students can go from being a large fish in a small pond to being a small fish in an ocean. The transition to university is therefore a difficult time for many students. They may have lost the comfort zone afforded by their local school and the friends with whom they grew up, or they may be re-entering an educational institution after a significant period in the workforce or for other reasons. One of the major considerations for them is knowing what is in store in their new learning environment. One way to help ease this transition is to offer induction programs and activities.

The University of Sydney has one of the largest intakes of first year students in the country, and the Faculty of Science is one of the largest faculties in the University. Many of the first year science students come to university straight from secondary school and are thrust into a learning culture that may differ significantly from their expectations. The quality of students’ initial experiences of university has a powerful effect on their later academic and career success, in areas such as medicine, scientific research for organisations such as CSIRO, or careers in education about science. Thus it is vital that we develop a better understanding of the whole first year experience and use this understanding to improve students’ learning environment.

A benchmark survey in 1995 of first year students at universities around Australia looked at the social and academic experiences of students in transition from school to university. This research identified a number of key areas of concern and made recommendations about improvements. The results of the survey stressed the importance of the initial experience of learning at university for first year students.

The first few weeks at university is a time when habits and attitudes are formed, and a bad experience can lead to discontinuation or failure later on. One way to enhance the first year experiences during the initial stages of the transition process is by helping them to establish supportive peer groups. Such groups provide a buffer against the difficulties of the initial period of transition as well as providing a structure for students to assist each other in academic study. This idea is now well-supported in the literature but was in conflict with the “sink or swim” attitude that was still inherent in many university departments in the late 1990s.

Follow-up surveys in 2000 and 2004 corroborate some of the early results and also show how the sector has made cultural changes in the way students are treated and supported in the learning journey. In particular, in 2004 a greater proportion of students reported that their expectations of university had been met.

The Faculty of Science at the University of Sydney was an early adopter of this cultural change and put in place an annual transition workshop (from 1996) for its incoming first year students (most of whom are school-leavers). This workshop has more recently been enlarged into a transition program that includes both a student mentoring follow-on from the initial workshop and a staff development program to attune the discipline teaching groups to the issues of students in transition.

The rationale for the science transition workshop is to offer a collaborative session for students and teaching staff that centres on the knowledge that those students who work and socialise together are more likely to succeed and are more likely to continue with their tertiary studies. For the workshop, students are organised into groups based on their primary area of interest, such as physical sciences, life sciences, mathematics and computer science, and psychology. The students’ timetables are manipulated so that, within peer groups of 10–20 students, they are timetabled to meet in class for up to 6 hours per week for first semester. The main activity of the workshop is to introduce students to the importance and benefits of peer networks and group study activities.

Our early work on the science transition workshop investigated the relationship between transition experiences and student academic and social adjustments. This showed that students attending the workshop, compared with those who elected not to attend, were:

  • less likely to have considered leaving or deferring;
  • more likely to have been involved in collaborative learning activities;
  • more academically motivated;
  • more likely to have a well-developed sense of purpose and identity;
  • more appreciative of their course; and
  • more likely to adopt a deep approach to learning.

In addition we used a qualitative open-ended methodology to allow students to determine the issues they considered to be important, and this provided us with evidence that the formation of social networks helps ease the transition process. Asking, “How did attending the science transition workshop help in adjustment to university life?” provided responses that were categorised into three major themes predominantly associated with the formation of social networks.

… I was able to spot a few familiar faces at lectures, etc., so I didn’t feel so lonely. (similarly reported by 22% of the attendees)

It was brilliant because it (attendance at the workshop) really did create for me a new network of friends who I still see regularly… (similarly reported by 32% of attendees)

The establishment of social networks was reported to be beneficial in terms of social and academic adjustment. Nearly half of those attending the workshop reported that the formation of social networks made the transition to university easier.

It was like a giant jump-start. Because I was settled with friends so quickly it was a lot easier to organise the work side of things… with other people to help and talk to. It’s a fantastic idea.

The reported benefits extended beyond the formation of social networks. The workshop was helpful in facilitating the transition to university in other areas. One-fifth of the attendees credited the workshop with helping them in their geographical orientation...

… I knew where some places were, so I didn’t feel lost on the first day…

… and in thinking about their expectations of life at university:

I think that because of the workshop my transition from high school to university has been a lot easier than other students.

Ongoing discussions with students since 1996 have made us raise the bar in our efforts to provide a supportive introduction to life at university. The workshop is now just the beginning of a program that also offers a semester of mentoring. In addition to this student mentoring program we have also created a “tutor training” program aimed at all the sessional staff and new departmental staff who are going to be involved in teaching at the first year university level.

The mentoring and leadership program developed the idea of support for students to encompass mutual support activities involving senior students, their tutors and lab demonstrators and academic staff who are both teachers and researchers. The support these groups give to each other is focused on the common culture of an interest and curiosity about all things scientific.

We are therefore creating activities for our first year students that give them the chance to see how science research works in a university – not something they will necessarily see in their first year classes – and to also have the time to chat about more immediate issues happening during the vital first semester at university. Having the chance to ask questions while classes, assignments and exams are running can be a key part of the mentoring, but is unlikely to happen during an induction program when new students don’t really know what to expect. So far, 99% of first year students in the mentoring program have found meetings worthwhile.

Meeting people who are doing the same degree as me is very useful to make friends and familiarise myself with the university and buildings…

Knowing that I have the means to contact a senior student to ask what future studies will be like…

First year students came out of the mentoring experience with a better appreciation of how they would work at the university, such as “speaking to my lecturers and asking questions” as well as “ exploring the university, especially the libraries”.

Mentoring programs in various parts of the university have all found a very high rate of “recycling”, such that first year students who are mentored are highly likely to become mentors in subsequent years. We have found that senior students and postgraduate tutors are very enthusiastic about being involved in these programs and also see a value for themselves in developing their leadership skills. Many of them commented that they see the program as a way to be mentored themselves as they work in a team.

A different facet of the first year students’ experience involves their interaction with their teachers. In large universities it can be difficult to have close interactions with lecturers who work with large classes to a busy timetable. The time when new students therefore have most chance to talk about their studies and consult with teachers is during tutorials or practical lab classes. These classes are commonly taught by postgraduate students working as tutors and demonstrators.

To prepare these postgraduate students for their interactions with first year students we run a training program that focuses on issues associated with teaching small groups of first year students. It also emphasises the needs of students in transition and what support we provide for these students in their first semester with us. We use panel discussions and reflective journals to get our teachers to think about their own experiences of good teaching and to model their teaching approach on the positive characteristics they saw in their own teachers.

… took notes down after classes. It got me to reflect on the mistakes I made and to deal with situations better next time as I would think about how I would alter my behaviour or what I would do next time.

We also manage online forums where new teachers can ask questions and respond to possible teaching scenarios or problem situations. New teachers have found these discussions very useful, and incorporated ideas into their planning of classes:

For example, I wrote down for a particular type of experiment that a group discussion would be more efficient and students can learn better as well, but for some other types, one-to-one discussion is necessary because each one might have different situations. I have a reflection not just about what I did, but also about every student in my group. So I can help them according to each one’s strength and weakness.

This program has been running for over 5 years, and alumni are now in full-time teaching jobs where they have built on these early teaching experiences. Many postgraduate teachers have also talked to us about their heightened awareness of what students new to university need, and have become more involved in working with our first year students through mentoring or developing new curricula.

We believe that our transition program currently provides new students with an appropriate range of activities and experiences to help them on their new learning journey. We might ask ourselves: “What’s next?” We do not have an answer. Only ongoing evaluation and discussion with our students will provide new ideas for supporting them. We are strong believers in the students telling us what they need and want, and the expectations of incoming students will change over time. Our current students are writing blogs about their experiences at university, and these provide us with much feedback as well as being a great source of information for prospective students, their teachers and their parents.

In 5 years time we may be providing students with electronic space for them to provide support and help to new students. As the university’s electronic learning management system matures we will be able to set up community sites that are student-focused (not course- or subject-focused, as they are at present), and this will enable our undergraduates to create a rich source of archival information and inspiration for incoming students.