University 101 pilot a success

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First-year French studies student Shephali Gupta credits University 101 with helping her stay on track with her assignments this semester and contributing to her understanding of what success means in a post-secondary setting.

Shephali Gupta
Shephali Gupta

“During the first week of class, we discussed time management and SMART goals, and had to plan out a month on the calendar,” Gupta said. “It helped me organize myself, plan my schedule and not feel overwhelmed. I’ve learned to make a to-do list every week, split up by days, and I’m keeping on top of my coursework.”

Time management was only one of the many academic and life skills taught in this Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LA&PS) pilot program, which made its debut in fall 2020 term. Each week, lectures focused on a different topic that increased the students’ understanding of what university requires and how to get the greatest benefit from the experience. Topics included approaches to learning; exam preparation; writing skills and critical thinking; growing resilience through challenges; wellness and stress management; and career planning. The course was designed to help students develop five key aspects of student success: capability; connectedness; purpose; resourcefulness; and an understanding of academic culture.

Natalie Neill
Natalie Neill

“The course was a tremendous success,” said Natalie Neill, a teaching-stream assistant professor of English who delivered the weekly asynchronous lectures that were complemented by synchronous tutorials. Anita Lam [associate dean, teaching & learning for LA&PS] designed a questionnaire about the course for the students to answer anonymously, and the results were overwhelmingly positive with regard to the content, assignments and course delivery. Students said that University 101 will serve them well for the rest of their careers.

University 101 involved 125 direct-entry high school students from across the Faculty who were divided into tutorial sections for their weekly synchronous sessions. Each of the tutorials was taught by a tenured or tenure-track faculty professor, including Lam, Amy KwanAhrong LeeHeejin Song and Maggie Quirt, with the assistance of upper-year peer mentors.

Anita Lam
Anita Lam

“This is a new, pedagogically innovative model,” said Quirt. “It offers students academic literacy – competencies they need to be fluent in during their university careers.”

Kwan agreed, noting, “Some simple things we take for granted are things students don’t know, such as how to do a Boolean library search, combining keywords to refine queries. This course offers you information that no one sits you down and tells you; it helps students with the explicit skills they’ll need to make a successful transition from high school to university.”

Neill said that very few students dropped the semester-long course, recognizing its value.

“The parts of the course we felt were most important were also those to which the students responded most positively: transferable skills that they could use throughout university and, in fact, life, such as time management, academic writing and critical thinking.”

The course also strove to give first-year students a broader sense of the University as a whole, especially since they were taking classes remotely this fall. There were extra-credit exercises that encouraged participants to connect with a variety of student services and extracurricular offerings, something Gupta found very helpful.

“I took an online fitness class that energized me and made me realize that physical activity is actually healthy for both my body and my mind,” she said. “I also became aware of clubs; I didn’t realize they were available online, but the class pointed me toward my college [Founders College] and I joined two clubs – the French Club and the Italian Club – that I didn’t even know existed.”

Visitors and guest lecturers appeared during the asynchronous lectures to assist in familiarizing the students with important university services and skills. There were visitors from Academic Advising, the Writing Centre, the Career Centre, the University Libraries and Accessibility Services. Kwan, who teaches in the School of Administrative Studies, also offered a session about financial planning.

“My students really appreciated Amy’s talk about financial planning,” said Quirt. “We forget that many of our incoming students are only 17 or 18 and don’t necessarily have these tools.”

Students in the pilot program were drawn from various disciplinary and interdisciplinary programs from across the Faculty, offering what Kwan called “educational diversity and inclusion.”

online learning
Students in the pilot program were drawn from various disciplinary and interdisciplinary programs from across the Faculty

“Students were able to interact with peers across disciplines and see how different people approach challenges based on their various backgrounds,” she said.

The pass/fail nature of the course also helped students concentrate on the content, rather than on grades and competition.

“We learned not to focus so much on grades,” noted Gupta. “What matters more is learning skills like responsibility, integrity, co-operation and a good work ethic. In high school, we were taught to think about grades, but in university, you have to focus on personal growth, too.”

Kwan said that each student was actually competing with themselves, as they worked to earn extra experience points in order to have their course completion certificate indicate “Distinction” or “High Distinction.”

While University 101 courses tend to be more popular in the United States than in Canada, Neill said that the scholarship of teaching and learning supports their usefulness in promoting student success and retention. She called York’s openness to the idea “groundbreaking.”

As for Gupta, she just calls it wonderful.

“High school doesn’t really prepare you for how much of a jump university will be,” Gupta said. “I was really overwhelmed at first, but this course helped me. It has set me up for success.”

By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer to Innovatus