UniServe€Science News, Vol. 4, July 1996

First year on campus
A report on Australian first year students

Craig McInnis and Richard Jamesare with the Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne

The quality of the first year at university is the subject of interest and action worldwide as universities become aware of the way in which the early undergraduate experiences establish lasting attitudes and approaches to learning. In Australia, there is a spreading realisation of the critical importance of the transition to university.

During 1995 we completed a CAUT commissioned study of Australian first year students, targeted at stimulating discussion of strategies for meeting their needs. We surveyed over 4000 first year students, interviewed a large number of students and staff, and analysed university policies and programs. The result is First Year on Campus: Diversity in the Initial Experiences of Australian Undergraduates, (available at http:// uniserve.edu.au/caut/ commproject/fye/FYEfront.html), and a forthcoming international conference, `First Year in Higher Education: Transition to Active Learning', at The University of Melbourne, 3-5 July 1996.

Our research shows that first year students face many challenges: adjusting to different teaching styles, identifying standards and expectations, and managing workloads. For many students - too many in our view - their first experiences of higher education are not positive. Some anxiety and frustration in the early stages of the year is an inevitable part of an adjustment process to a new environment. But care must be taken to ensure that the level of challenge does not overwhelm and alienate students.

In First Year on Campus we suggest strategies for enhancing the academic and social experiences of first year students. Here are a few examples:

* Academics need to focus on ensuring that first year students have a good idea of what is expected of them, right from the outset. Clarity of purpose is a key factor in an effective learning environment.

* The quality and frequency of feedback on academic progress is probably more important during the period of transition than at any other time. First year students benefit from having early confirmation of their ability to succeed in higher education or a clear indication of their limitations.

* It is important for first year students to believe they belong to a learning community. Students learn better and are more likely to persist with their studies when they are encouraged to study together.

* One of the difficulties faced by students (and staff) is the ever expanding content of first year curricula. An overloaded curriculum can undermine the development of effective approaches to studying - we suggest academics consider reducing the course content.

* Poor study habits are often caused by uncertainty about how to learn in higher education. Plan to introduce first year students in the early stages to the ways in which they are expected to learn in your discipline. If you are an academic teaching first year courses, First Year on Campus is worth a look.

Craig McInnis and Richard James

This study was a commissioned project of the Committee for the Advancement of University Teaching.

The report can be viewed at CAUT's web site http://uniserve.edu.au/caut/commproject/fye/FYEfront.html or obtained from CAUT.

CAUT can be emailed at caut@hed.deet.gov.au or telephoned on (06) 240 9635.