Embarking on a university degree can be an exciting and at the same time intimidating experience. For decades, students have heard tales about how their grades will drop by 15 per cent, the heavy workload in University and the stress.
“Students come to university with all these preconceived notions and more,” says Susan Vail, associate vice-president, teaching and learning with responsibility for the oversight of York University’s Academic Innovation Fund (AIF).
One of their first exposures to York University is the welcome they receive, which can be overwhelming. Vail says that after students accept their offer from the University, they start receiving as many as 60 e-mails a day from various organizations on campus. Letters and e-mails with welcome messages, information on money matters, registration, advising and more are sent to the student. “Many new students stop checking their e-mail because they don’t know what to do with all of this messaging, which is well-meaning but in many cases duplicative and confusing for these students,” she says.
How is York University improving how students transition to University? The answer says Vail comes through a series of pilot projects known as YU Start, which have received support from AIF.
YU Start is part of the First-Year Experience system that has developed out of the AIF. Professor Martha Rogers, one of the YU Start project leads, proposed that the projects be centred on Lizzio’s Model of Student Engagement a theoretical framework for improving the student experience and retention, based on research by Professor Alf Lizzio, a psychologist based at Australia’s Griffiths University. Lizzio’s model focuses on the importance of building a positive transition and first year experience. He found that if students were engaged, felt supported and experienced a positive change from high school to university; they were more likely to have a better experience and continue with their studies.
With support from the AIF and backed by the theoretical knowledge, Vail says York University invested in a cluster of pilot projects that focus on improving how students transition from high school into university. To begin, YU Start project leads looked at the entire spectrum of information sent to new students. Vail says their first step was to build collaboration and streamline messaging to students. “Under the leadership of Lara Ubaldi [senior project leader, Services for Students, PRASE], representatives from all of the relevant groups at York were invited to come together and talk about how we need to have fewer messages going to each student and how we could collaborate so that we’re not overwhelming new students before they even start,” she says.
AIF Project leads Robert Bishop, director of strategic initiatives in the Faculty of Health, and Catherine Salole, director of Student Community & Leadership Development, then looked at how they could build a streamlined and consistent system of information delivery to new students. Building on learning from AIF’s first year, Bishop, Rogers and Salole, with assistance from a cross-functional team from Stong College, Student Community & Leadership Development (SCLD), the Faculty of Health Office of Student and Academic Services, and Communications & Public Affairs, decided to go online to where students are most comfortable. They developed a comprehensive series of online supports, videos and social media to deliver information and build connections with students.
Bishop focused his project on building a better student advising and online enrolment system, while Salole built a “how to” collection of informative videos and social media supports geared to easing anxiety about the financial and social concerns of new students.”
Bishop’s pilot project focused on building a better new student enrolment process in the Faculty of Health. The test group focused on students enrolling in the fall 2012 Kinesiology program. The students received a coordinated and informed welcome to York University, which they accessed through Moodle, a learning management system used to deliver learning material online. The welcome was further enhanced by an online Facebook community and blogs developed by Salole’s project team; and included a special one-day visit to campus in August that brought students together to meet their online Facebook friends and peer mentors, attend a sample lecture and tour the campus.
All of the initiatives worked together to help students get a head start on building important social networks, connections to the university and their course material, and co-curricular activities geared to getting them involved on campus.
“Prior to YU Start, new students had to come on campus for an in-person advising and enrolment session,” says Bishop. “It was not an efficient process; it was time-consuming and not always friendly introduction to university.”
At the end of the YU Start pilot, students were asked to fill out a brief survey to help determine the success of the project, as well as things that need refining. “So far the feedback has been excellent. For example, 97 per cent of students surveyed would recommend the YU Start program. As such, we are very excited about expanding this project in the future,” says Bishop.
Using feedback from students and metrics obtained from Moodle, the project will be tweaked and rolled out next year to new students in all of the programs in the Faculty of Health. Representatives from the Faculties of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies and Environmental Studies are also looking at how they can implement YU Start in their programs