Recognizing that the transition from high school to university isn’t always an easy one for students, York University’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LA&PS) hopes to smooth the way with an introductory course called University 101.
This fall, LA&PS has enrolled 125 direct-entry high school students in the course as a pilot project to see if it helps them adjust well to university life, both academically and personally. The first-year course aims to help students develop five key aspects of student success: capability; connectedness; purpose; resourcefulness ;and an understanding of academic culture.
“The offering of a University 101 course is very exciting, and in some ways, long overdue,” said Professor Anita Lam, associate dean of teaching and learning for LA&PS. “It’s especially important because I don’t think that we have a specific course in this Faculty that carefully considers the way students handle the important transition from high school to university. This transition produces anxiety for students, no more so than this year. This year, we are asking students to not only transition to university, but to also simultaneously transition to online and remote learning at a time defined by the challenging circumstances of COVID-19.
“With this pilot, we want to see if we can teach a group of students useful skills that will help them succeed both at university and in life.”
The course will be taught through lectures and tutorials. Natalie Neill, a teaching-stream assistant professor of English, will deliver weekly asynchronous lectures. The students will also attend synchronously-delivered tutorials each week, run by experienced, tenure-track and tenured faculty members from the three broad areas that define LA&PS – specifically, from the humanities, social sciences and professional studies.
“This is quite groundbreaking,” said Neill, who is experienced at delivering lectures remotely. “It is a very exciting new course, and I hope it will be rolled out on a larger scale in the coming years. The scholarship suggests that university preparation courses are linked to student success and retention. I think there’s a real place for University 101 at York. First-generation university students and international students will especially benefit from an introduction to the university community and academic culture.
“We’ll be teaching academic literacies, equipping students with practical skills, and exploring how university is different from high school, even in such things as the vocabulary people use: syllabus, teaching assistants, office hours, academic integrity, etc,” added Neill.
Each week’s lecture will focus on a different topic that will increase the student’s understanding of what university requires and how to get the greatest benefit from the experience. Topics include approaches to learning; exam preparation; writing skills and critical thinking; growing resilience through challenges; wellness and stress management; and career planning.
“It’s about packing in as much information and fun as I can,” said Neill. “I’ll also be embedding advice from former students and peer mentors into the lectures to help welcome the students, along with visits from representatives from the library, the Writing Centre, Student Accessibility Services, and the Career Centre, to name a few, to put a friendly face on campus resources.
“Even more important, however, are the tutorial groups, because students will build a learning community with peers and, I hope, form friendships that will last,” said Neill.
In addition to listening to the lecture, students will attend – and participate in – weekly tutorials, keep a reflective journal and undertake formal research and writing assignments. At the end of the course, participants will receive a certificate of completion. The certificate can include additional notations, such as “with distinction” or “with high distinction,” in order to motivate students to do their best in this course.
“We have gamified the tutorial material so that students can earn experience points (XP) as they gain academic and personal skills, and as they familiarize themselves with different parts of the university. In the North American offerings of University 101, gamification represents a truly unique pedagogical innovation,” said Lam. “Students will also be able to gain additional XP on their own time. Their personal habits will come into play as they balance work, school and life.”
For example, students might earn experience points by visiting a professor during their office hours; by attending an event at their college; or by participating in a wellness activity.
Neill says that many of the course’s topics touch on skills that students eventually figure out, often in a painful way. Offering the course eases their path by giving them opportunities for hands-on learning at the start of their university careers.
“The transition to university is tough, so if we can teach them to manage time and handle stress, especially during the pandemic, that will be extraordinary,” she said.
The students taking the pilot course were randomly selected to reflect the diversity in admission averages and majors of the incoming first-year cohort.
“We want the coursework in University 101 to be applicable to all students, regardless of their chosen major and where they are on the grade spectrum,” said Lam. “We also hope it will offer students who are undecided majors an opportunity to learn more about University resources. They can then draw on these resources to form their own academic path through York.”
Lam describes the pilot course as a “labour of love” that draws on input from the Student Success team, the colleges and an excellent teaching team (Professors Amy Kwan, Ahrong Lee, Heejin Song and Maggie Quirt). She, herself, is teaching one of the tutorial sessions, while Neill plans to drop in on each of them to get to know the students that she is teaching and will encourage them to drop into her virtual office hours. Each of the tutorial instructors will also have a senior peer mentor from another discipline, giving students a “well-rounded view of what the Faculty offers.”
After the fall semester, the faculty members will review and evaluate the success of the course, tweak it accordingly and look toward offering this amazing opportunity to a bigger group of incoming students.
“In the first year of university, students are launching themselves as adults,” said Neill. “It’s a huge period of growth that’s so exciting. Even by December, we’ll be able to see the amount of confidence they’ve developed.”
Some of it will undoubtedly be accomplished thanks to University 101.
By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer to Innovatus