How do you make first year count enough to feel worthwhile?

After discussing whether a year at university seems worth paying £9,000 in tuition fees, I got thinking about Freshers. I’ve long said that the first year of university does count, but not in terms of needing the highest grades possible.

A recent Guardian piece quotes Nottingham student, Emily Tripp:

“It doesn’t make sense to have a ‘practice’ year in the year when you’re doing the least outside of your degree. Either make the first semester not count, or get lecturers to set practice essays that don’t count.”

With the prospect of some students ignoring the academic importance of the first year, second year can be a lot of catch-up. What could have been practice becomes time wasted.

halls of residence (photo by Peter J Dean)

Is this student kitchen empty because they’re busy at work in their rooms? (photo by Peter J Dean)

The question is, how do you make the first year count enough to feel worthwhile, yet remain focused on Fresher year and allowing a gradual development?

The ‘first year doesn’t count’ attitude has been around for years and doesn’t show signs of going away. Yet. It used to be a misunderstood concept. Now it’s resented. A mental link between fees and value does little more than annoy those who want to get on with the work. Worse, schoolchildren already fear the financial implications of university, according to a Sutton Trust report. For those who do end up attending, that first year may fuel their fears, rather than put them at ease academically.

Student experience is a changing term. Every experience is different and students’ requirements alter over the years.

The 2012 UNITE Student Experience Report interviewed over 1,200 applicants to university. The survey picks up on changing attitudes:

“University is no longer three years of partying and cruising through for a 2.2 degree. Now it costs so much, you can’t afford to waste the experience… People are now going to university with the view of the future; the ‘student experience’ is changing from socialising to setting yourself up for the future.”

Nothing too surprising there. You don’t want to waste the experience, so you want to work where it counts. There are many activities outside of the degree itself, but resentment may begin because they aren’t seen as part of the tuition fee. A student making their mark across a range of extra-curricular sessions could still feel their first year is a waste of time.

Freshers Fayre (photo by upsuportsmouth)

Taking part in many activities. But do students find value in paying for the first year at university? (photo by upsuportsmouth)

The Sodexo University Lifestyle Survey for 2012 found large numbers of students attending university in order to improve job opportunities and salary prospects. Plenty also wanted to improve knowledge in their area of interest, yet their main focus is apparently on the future.

With such an eye on life after university, the first year may feel like a case of running on the spot: you’re working, but you’re not going anywhere.

If a perceived link between fees and grades can’t be pulled apart, what can be done?

Universities could drop the first year entirely. But that’s an extreme first option and tough for institutions to implement without massive upheaval, not to mention the higher workload on academics who may have to shun research completely to deal with such a change. Two-year degrees are on offer at the University of Buckingham, so there is potential for some universities to make the move, especially those that focus only on teaching.

There’s also the option to make the first year count so that students must rely on getting good marks in order to achieve a better grade upon graduation. You wouldn’t want to aim at a bare minimum 40% pass then, would you?

But that skirts around the issue, rather than addressing it. So what else can be done?

  • Shortening need to merely pass to first term instead? – An entire year may feel excessive to many students. A single semester could be the answer. Give students room to jump off, but don’t drag it out for a third of the degree.
  • More face-to-face tutor time to explain reasons why first year does count? – Second year is a time for many to hurriedly get up to speed and develop a decent academic tone. Can better and longer quality time with tutors help first years to understand where the first year has real value? The better you work toward the first year of work, the greater potential you have when you reach the second year and the grades matter. If you average the first year with a 2:1, the coming years should be more comfortable for you than for those who average with a Third.
  • Combine the many threads of induction so it achieves a greater purpose? – When you arrive on campus, there is a lot to take in. Induction is a big deal, even if it doesn’t stop the sense of overwhelm.
    Institutions could tighten induction programmes even further by placing much importance on introductory academic development and extending that aspect of induction further into the year.
    This would still take less time than a whole year, yet–done well–would potentially help students more in the process.
    Induction is different dependent on institution, and there is already a focus on academic transition alongside everything else new. Nevertheless, continued work on a solid student introduction may be the difference between resenting the first year and taking responsibility regardless of the maximum grades under offer.
    Morosanu, Handley and O’Donovan have a great academic paper worth reading on transition and induction, “Seeking Support: Researching first-year students’ experiences of coping with academic life“.
  • Explore how ‘ready’ students are and assess needs more closely for a changing intake and higher number of students? – Admitting so many students means that universities are faced with people from many different backgrounds with a huge range of experiences. Some will be prepared for academic work from the outset, while others will need a lot of attention before they understand what is expected of them.
    The difficulty with a broad brush approach to first year is that it takes so long. One complete academic year. Not everybody requires such a lengthy run-up. But neither is it possible to shift goalposts for one set of people while leaving others behind.
    Further research should be undertaken to evaluate the current and changing needs of new students. Old methods may no longer be the right way forward, even if they stood the test of time for so long beforehand.

For me, the first year is about mindset. To rely on grades alone to judge whether or not first year is worthwhile is pointless. The fees situation gets in the way, frustratingly. Students need clarification on how to get the most value out of their experience in the early stages of their degree. However, institutions must also ensure that first year stays relevant to incoming years.

If the attitude of ‘first year doesn’t count’ remains in place for too long under this fees system, the disservice already visible for many years will prove more damaging each year it hangs around.

One comment

  1. Very interesting post indeed, and I agree that the “first year doesn’t count” mentality coupled with students’ increased sense of entitlement (“we’re paying your salaries!”) brought about by the fees hike is indeed problematic..

    That said, my experience as a GTA tells me that it is definitely needed in a majority of cases. Unsurprisingly, very few students in their first year have any idea of what is expected of them at university level. For instance, the essays they produce are of school quality and the jump in quality between first and second year can’t just be attributed to the fact that their marks start to count so they try harder. The first year is very much about giving them feedback so that they enter their final years with a significantly heftier academic toolbox, and I don’t think that could be satisfactorily achieved in one term.

    Making first year count to any extent also means that students would be far more sensitive to disappointing marks and extensive, constructive feedback. This is problematic, as it either means that marking would have to be more lenient (still coupled with feedback that may seem overly “harsh” based on the mark achieved, thus ignored because they did well anyway) OR that students would face an even harder time adjusting. Either way, I don’t think it would be beneficial for the students.

    That said, the Scottish system of having TWO years that don’t count definitely needs to be looked over; the second year serves little purpose but to make students complacent, and the shock of entering third year is even greater.

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