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Conference on first-year experience

Gathering shares research showing even high achievers face problems in first year


Chris Fillmore entered York University’s film studies program right out of high school. But he found the whole first-year experience so overwhelming, he soon dropped out.

Older and wiser now at 23, Mr. Fillmore is taking another stab at university. Four years after leaving York, he is back in first year, this time as a geography student at Carleton University. And things are going much better.

Finding out why students like Mr. Fillmore drop out – and what it takes to keep them in school – was the focus of a three-day meeting held at Carleton University during reading week in February. Textbook publisher McGraw-Hill Ryerson billed its 32nd Teaching, Learning and Technology Conference as Canada’s first-ever national conference on first-year student success.

The conference drew nearly 300 participants – most of them university and college staff who work with first-year students – from 64 institutions across Canada. They gathered to discuss experiences and best practices for supporting students as they make the transition from high school.

Universities and colleges are paying increasing attention to student retention. Part of the reason is self-serving: as enrolment is expected to drop from current levels in some parts of the country, it makes sense to explore ways of retaining students, said Michael O’Brien-Moran, acting coordinator for the University of Manitoba’s Introduction to University.

But, in a panel discussion, he said that retention is also about quality education: “We’re not retaining students simply for the purpose of maintaining enrolments,” but also to help students “achieve the education they want to achieve.”

Mr. O’Brien-Moran said first-year students don’t feel any more lost today than they did, say, 20 years ago. But he said universities are doing a much better job now of addressing their problems.

The first challenge is to understand the problems. Chris Fillmore’s own explanation for his decision to drop out of York was simple: he wasn’t mature enough at the time to handle what was expected of him.

“You only have 15 hours of class a week and loads of free time you have to manage yourself,” said Mr. Fillmore, a volunteer at the conference. “The challenge is being able to have the discipline to do things on your own. It was a lot more freedom than I was prepared for.” He said he also had trouble making friends, and wasn’t really interested in the course material.

His experience was echoed by a panel of first-year students, most of whom said time management is a big challenge for students when they leave the structure of high school. “Time management is huge!” said Ryan Lovie, a first-year marketing student at Algonquin College. “If you learn time management, it just seems a lot easier.”

Other issues include fitting in, developing a social life, learning to study and simply making sure the course material is a good fit for the student’s interests and capacities.

And even strong students may need help: “I’m gifted, but it doesn’t mean I’m motivated,” said Maureen Pytlik, a first-year music student at Carleton.

Indeed, new research from the University of Manitoba reported in the Ottawa Citizen shows that university can be an equalizer – first-year students see their grades plummet by as much as 15 percentage points from high-school levels for both high achievers and those with low entry grades, based on research by U of M’s Christine Blais (who unexpectedly couldn’t appear at the conference).

At the conference, the U of M panel noted that by the end of first year, one-third of students in their University 1 introductory program were in academic difficulty. This includes 4.4 percent of students who entered with averages of 90 percent or higher, 22.5 per cent who were admitted with averages of 80 to 89 percent, and 47 percent of students admitted with averages between 70 and 79 percent.

U of M’s University 1 program was one of the successful initiatives showcased at the conference. With research showing that most drop-outs leave during their first year, University 1 was created a decade ago to improve retention by allowing first-year students to take courses in different disciplines without having to choose a major right away. The first-year courses become part of their major or else electives for their major, depending on which program they choose.

In addition, the program focuses on the difficulties students face on arrival at university. “Transition issues lead to retention issues,” said Mr. O’Brien-Moran. Other features, such as a help centre and transitional programming, are designed to keep students on track.

The program seems to be helping. Mr. O’Brien-Moran said the retention rate has risen, with 86 percent of first-year students moving into second year, compared with 82 percent in 1998 when University 1 was introduced.

“Universities have responded to the needs the students have,” said Mr. O’Brien-Moran. “This conference is evidence of that.”

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