From School to University: A smooth transition or crossing a chasm

03 Jan

From School to University: A smooth transition or crossing a chasm

Nigel Sanitt

The first few weeks at the beginning of university life is for most students a major adjustment. For some, it is a shock, which only becomes worse with time. However well-prepared students think they may be for university life, often, the expected smooth transition turns into an unbridgeable chasm.

In this blog I explore the problems and some of the remedies, which may positively confront this situation.

1.1  Introduction

Starting university is an exciting time for students as they make the transition to the next stage of their life. It is a precursor to their entry into the workforce in pursuit of whatever career path they have chosen. It is also an important step in living a life independent of their family, as many students live away from their home environment for the first time.

Part of the anticipation and its associated trepidation is seen as a challenge and an opportunity for students, who are pleased to leave what is seen as the stifling, though comforting environment of school.

However, for some students it is more than just a straightforward adjustment in lifestyle and environment. One way of looking at this is to recognize that there is a spectrum of reactions to this transition, ranging from a brief period of “finding one’s way” to a period of serious trauma

The “traumatic” end of the spectrum may have devastating consequences. Even though the suicide rate of 18-25-year olds at university is less than that for the same age group who are not at university, it is not zero.

In addition, students at university are usually away from the usual medical services which they have become accustomed to. Some students, who have underlying mental issues, are therefore not able to take advantage of these services and some may never have sought help before.

Many universities have confronted these issues and supply medical services, including mental and counselling services, targeted specifically for students.

In this article I want to concentrate on the more mundane effects of starting university, which may nevertheless cause problems. For those students who are adversely affected, this impinges on their lives and wellbeing and for universities the effects may be realised in terms of increasing drop-out rates of students from courses.

Apart from being devastating to students, high drop-out rates cause severe problems for universities. It is thus in the interests of both schools and universities to help students cope with the transition. There is no point in increasing the percentage of pupils from schools going to university by addressing issues of social inclusion if the result is a huge increase in drop-out rates at university with the concomitant effect on students.

1.2  Problems

The first problem felt by students who start university is the increase in workload. It is not just the time spent on lectures, tutorials, supervisions and, in the case of science degrees, laboratory time. The depth and difficulty of the work is also a factor. Most university courses, in workload terms, are probably equivalent to an A-level. Two other considerations, which should be taken into account, are the intensity of work: most university terms are shorter than school terms, and the fact that each year students are one year older.

In terms of the increase in workload and how students cope with this, there will be a wide discrepancy in the effect on students. Some will cope well but a percentage will flounder, be greatly stressed and fail.

To be fair, most universities try hard in the first weeks of the academic year to introduce students to their courses in a controlled gradual process. Freshers weeks usually involve no teaching and this acclimatisation is designed to make the student feel more comfortable.

The second problem for students who start university comes under the heading of “spoon-feeding”. This mildly derogatory term refers to a fundamental difference in the way students learn at university, compared to their previous life as school pupils.

This is a contentious issue and not all the blame can be laid at the door of schools. Spoon-feeding is when the teacher takes too much control of the learning process and as a result pupils do not think for themselves, but simply “laps-up” what is being fed to them. Clearly well-planned lessons and organisation of the material to be taught is vital, especially for younger pupils who cannot be expected to teach themselves. On the other hand, self-motivation is to be encouraged and, particularly for older pupils, they should be able to explore and find out things for themselves.

For schools, because of the way they are assessed by exam and attainment tests, which their pupils have to take at various ages, the temptation to spoon-feed exam material is overwhelming. When these same pupils then attend university, they find a “culture shock” where they may be simply given a topic and told to write an essay on it in one week.

In order to highlight this problem, I am generalising it too much. There are many schools, which have identified and confronted this tendency. Particularly for their 16-18-year-old pupils, they try to encourage self-learning. For these pupils starting university is much less angst-ridden.

This state of affairs is, however, the exception rather than the rule. The dividing age when students should be spoon-fed less is ignored and many schools turn themselves into exam factories, which do their pupils no good.

This brings us to the next problem, which is class size. In schools the standard class size is around 30 pupils. There is a variation amongst schools and for A-level classes there are often fewer than 30 pupils in a class. In universities, where there is a wide choice of non-core courses (usually in the latter years of a degree course), there may be small class sizes, but the norm, particularly in the first year, is for huge class sizes. It is quite normal for a lecture theatre to hold a few hundred students.

The effects of such large class sizes are that 1) there is a vast rhetorical distance between the lecturer and audience and 2) teaching becomes a one-way process.

Rhetorical distance is a measure of the engagement or participation of students with a lecturer. In a large lecture theatre, it is related to the physical distance between the parties. A lecturer may stand behind a desk or table (sometimes even a lectern), which amplifies the separation and remoteness. Compare this to a school class of 30 pupils, where the teacher may walk around a class engaging directly with individual pupils.

The communication in a lecture theatre is by its nature one-way. The lecturer is usually the only one talking or presenting material on a screen. Such non-reflexive communication is quite different from the school classroom, where pupils interact and engage with a teacher. The double effect of this chasm between students and lecturers exacerbates the students’ feeling of alienation.

For the universities this situation is unavoidable. The scale size of a university is orders of magnitude greater than a school. Some students find the process so daunting that they are not able to deal with it and give up their course.

Related to class size and the other problems mentioned is the next problem of self-motivation and working alone. When a student arrives at university, unless they strike up friendships quickly, they are going to be working completely on their own. Even if they become part of a small group going to classes, they will still be expected to do a lot of individual work studying: the library can be a very lonely place.

Self-motivation is something which hopefully students have acquired from their time at school, but this is not always the case. Coupled with a school indulging in too much spoon-feeding, the overall result can lead to a student being totally unprepared for university.

Part of the preparedness of pupils is in essay writing. Particularly among science students, it is surprising the number who have never written a 3000-word essay. There is this false world where just because one is, for example, a scientist, you never have to write reports or essays of this length.

It is not necessarily all bad. One area that students are often surprised at is the scale of resources that a university has at its disposal, compared to when they were at school. This applies not only to library and IT facilities but, especially in the case of the sciences, it applies to laboratory and other technical facilities.

1.3  Solutions

Working together there are a number of things students, schools and universities can do to mitigate many of the problems I have alluded to. For individual students, some of these solutions work better than others and many schools and universities have already put into effect these and other strategies in order to reduce the drop-out rate and enhance the students’ experience of university.

The first activity I want to mention is that of the “gap year”. This tends to follow fashion. Years ago, this was extremely popular for school leavers who wanted to delay going to university for a year in order to have some independent experience through foreign travel. In recent years, “gap years” have been less popular, with students wanting to start their courses straight after school.

There is no right or wrong but certainly for some students, who were perhaps a little immature, the gap year was a positive experience, which enabled them to start university in a much more prepared state.

One of the problems felt by all students at university is the “parachute effect”. Each course, in whatever subject in the sciences, is sub-divided into individual topics. These are all “part” of the subject course matter, but exactly what part they are and how they fit in is often a mystery. The total effect of this for students is they feel they are “parachuted” into each topic, without any explanation of why they are doing it, or how it relates to other things they have either done, or are about to do. This is uncomfortable for all students and for some it is unnerving.

One way to mitigate this effect is for lecturers to spend time in contextualising material by giving introductory asides, which help in explaining where everything fits in to everything else. Because of the amount of material a lecturer has to cover in a course and the consequential time constraints, these explanations are often lacking. This is an area where universities can encourage lecturers to better integrate their courses and some textbooks include such additional material which gives context to each topic.[1]

The benefit of good links between universities and schools cannot be overemphasised. These involve personal links between teachers and individual university teachers, as well as more formal links under the heading of “outreach”. A single visit by a pupil, who is thinking of going to a university, to their chosen institution is insufficient. There has to be a coordinated liaison between schools and universities, which survey all the problems (and benefits) a student will encounter.

At the same time schools should encourage pupils to examine introspectively what they really want to do. Universities are not the only way forward for pupils coming to the end of their school life. There are technical colleges vocational qualifications, apprenticeships and all manner of alternatives available. Universities per se are not the only way forward and many students drop-out of courses because they unthinkingly drift into university from school.

A related problem is the choice of course. In order to cater for the complexity of possibilities, universities offer a wide range of courses, often breathtakingly diverse. Pupils at school need good advice on what courses to choose, to fit their individual needs. Sometimes teachers concentrate on their own particular subject rather than address the wider needs of their pupils.

This leads into the amount of flexibility universities can demonstrate in allowing students to change courses, and even change universities. The former is handled a lot easier in that universities often have protocols for students to change courses within a university. This is also backed up by counselling and course supervision, which identifies, as early as possible, students who would do better on other courses.

Changing universities is more problematic. This is often down to the individual student who is so stressed on their course that they consider dropping-out. With good advice this need not be so traumatic. Many universities have effective relationships with other universities, so that students who are struggling, can find a more comfortable home at another institution.

There are, of course, many reasons why students drop-out beyond the problems I have highlighted: these usually involve personal family reasons. These reasons may not be readily apparent, though schools are more likely to be aware of these than universities.

For universities, the key to managing and lowering the drop-out rate are effective counselling services. Apart from effective medical services, including mental services, there has to be a range of tutorial and supervision possibilities, overseen by the university teaching staff, doctoral students and other professionals. Early detection of problems is vital.

[1] The Pantaneto Introductory Physics Series of textbooks includes asides, which avoid the parachute effect.