Managing Student Expectations of First Year

As we approach (or dive into) another new year, I have been thinking about my role as a teaching fellow. This year, I have been given the task (and opportunity) of teaching a large number of the first year modules for the University of Warwick’s School of Comparative American Studies. Recently ranked #1 in the UK, there is a weight of responsibility on my shoulders to live up to the expectations of incoming students.

This week, I will be putting together a new ‘code of conduct’ for my students, and myself, which I hope will help manage expectations and provide a smooth and enjoyable transition for my students. Before I begin, however, I thought it wise took look back at my own 2009 study of first year transition:

First year students were asked a number of questions about their choice of course. First, they were offered the open-endedquestion Why did you choose this course? This was interpreted by students to include both Why are you studying history? and Why are you studying at this University?

Respondents were highly individualistic in their responses to this question, but fourmajor themes developed, which were apparent in both international and home student groups:

  • educational background – the majority of students had chosen their degree programme primarily because they hadgreatly enjoyed studying the subject in the past or had achieved high marks in history in secondary school and thereforefelt confident in this subject.
  • reputation – a fifth of students indicated that they had heard positive things about the university, department or city;reputation was noted more often by home students under 26 than mature or international students.
  • course structure – the majority of those discussing structure appreciated the variety of module themes, teaching stylesand assessment models available within their course. A smaller number of students praised the opposite—that the coursefocused precisely on the period, theme or methodology they wished to undertake. Demographically, home students, femalestudents and those under 26 were slightly more likely to appreciate variety.The affinity of the first and third groups may bethe result of increased specialisation and modular teaching in UK secondary schools.
  • employability – nearly a third of respondents, both home and international, indicated that their choice was influenced byfuture employment prospects. Just under half of these students had already chosen a specific career goal (historical research,military, politics or teaching) that they felt necessitated a history degree. The remainder noted that history offered transferableskills, a variety of employment prospects and a more complex view of the world, which would assist them throughout their life.

Entering university, most students were aware of the structural division between lectures and seminars—though thisknowledge may be the result of orientation and initial classes. Particular emphasis, however, was placed on the expectedprominence of peer discussion groups.This suggests that students believed that the majority of their university experiencewould be seminar based.This was in contrast to a smaller number of students who expected that university would involvesignificantly reduced contact with staff and a majority of their time being spent in independent study.

Nonetheless, in contrast to their UK counterparts, international students made few references to teaching format. Instead,their expectations focused on the importance of independent study and the opportunity to learn about history in a moredetailed and in-depth manner. Although many home students also spoke about independent study, this disparity betweenexpectations of teaching and learning may warrant further enquiry.

Across demographic lines, there appears to be general belief that higher education would be more difficult than secondaryschool. How students perceived this increase, however, varied considerably. Some respondents answered simply that thecourse would be more difficult. Others choose to frame the change more positively, utilizing terms such as challenging,intensive, professional and academic and fulfilling.This suggests that students were aware that expectations would be morestringent, but that this increase was usually welcomed.

It was also believed that this increase in standards would be as much the result of peer expectations as those of the staff.One international student felt that “everyone will care about the subject” and will therefore demand more of each other.Likewise, a home student noted that there will be “a genuine enjoyment of the subject” and you would not “be draggingyour heels on the way to your next lesson.”

As a sub-category of increased difficulty, there was a significant use of the term spoon-feeding by respondents. Most believedthat university would be a departure from the perceived tendency of secondary schools to teach for the test. Importantly,home students were more likely to use the term spoon-feeding than simply describe the phenomenon, although onestudent raised in Hong Kong also used the expression.This strongly suggests that British media portrayals have significantlyaffected perceptions of secondary education and expectations of university teaching. One home student explicated notedthat his expectations had come from media portrayals. “I’m the first member of my entire family that’s actually went intouniversity, so I honestly had no clue what it would be like, so I was quite reliant actually on the media and films and TV andstuff. I didn’t really have any other kind of thing to go on.”

With these point in mind, I dive into the task at hand. I will post the results this Thursday and hope you will offer your insights and suggests on my efforts.

Should any of my future students be hiding in the shadows, let your voice be heard. I am doing this for you!

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