The university struggle is real

By Piper Denholm

University for most high school graduates is a goal that has been planned ever since their primary school days. The relief of finishing Year 12, and the belief that the degree you will complete at university will not be as academically rigorous or as stressful as Year 12, is quite reassuring for many graduates.

But for Alexandra Watson, a current first year student at Monash University in Melbourne, reality was quite the opposite.

‘I struggled with the workload…I wasn’t expecting the amount of assessment tasks that I was given at all,’ Alex explained. ‘I thought I was quite well prepared for university, but I was definitely unprepared and unaware of the work load.’

Universities and schools often work together in order to prepare students for the best possible future, but it can be questioned whether these institutions are really doing enough to prepare students for life outside the high school classroom. In a survey conducted in 2014, 75% of students stated that they struggled in their first year of university. 30% of those students also believed that their high school did not adequately prepare them for university.

Julian Denholm, a college principal in the Northern Territory, states that teachers spend time counselling students to help them find the most suitable university course, and additionally spend time in both Adelaide and Darwin universities to demonstrate what university life is like.

Although prior immersion into university life is usually offered by schools, 70% of respondents to the 2014 survey stated that they found their first year of university more academically rigorous than Year 12. The SACE (South Australian Certificate of Education), which is an internationally recognised certificate of education used domestically in South Australia and the Northern Territory, provides a very different type of teaching and learning to universities. According to the SACE website, it ‘is designed to help students develop the skills and knowledge they need to succeed—whether in further education and training, university, an apprenticeship or straight into the workforce’.

SACE is completed throughout Year 11 (Stage 1) and Year 12 (Stage 2) and provides students with many options for subject study. Each subject incurs a 30% formative assessment which is not marked by the classroom teacher, but rather the SACE marking board for specific subjects. This 30% assessment changes depending on the subject; for many it is an exam, and for others it is a report, portfolio or performance. This final assessment has the largest weighting and usually causes many Year 12 students the most amount of stress, as it has an influence on the result of their ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admissions Ranking).

University is a higher educational institution and obviously requires more work than the final years of schooling. But when the grading of an assessment increases from 30% of your overall mark to 70%, many students are shocked and struggle in their first year.

Many respondents stated that they would rather Year 12 be similar to the first year of university so that the transition is easier and they settle into routine sooner, but Mr. Denholm disagrees. ‘The aim of the school is to assist students to get the best ATAR score possible to get into the courses they want,’ he stated. ‘If the school didn’t provide the level of support to students that it does, a great many students wouldn’t even get to university.’

But what is being done by universities to help prepare year 12 students? Alexandra described her O-Week experience and said that ‘information sessions and seminars were held frequently, covering all aspects of the university and how the concept of the first semester works’. Even though she attended these, she didn’t learn much outside of what she already knew. The majority of the survey respondents had similar experiences to Alexandra. The struggle was not coming to a new institution and being exposed to such a new environment, it was the time management, the workload and the sudden change to independent learning, as well as the teaching style.

The university teaching and learning style is very different to that of Year 12. Students make a change from being supported in a highly structured environment in their learning to more independent learning, where their motivation, passion and interest can sometimes be the only driving factor to complete their degree. If students are unsure of what career they want to pursue, this motivation can be very hard to find. Additionally, students are coming from a classroom where both Socratic and Multisensory teaching techniques are used, to lectures and tutorials where face-to-face contact and interaction is limited. Students stated that the biggest shock was coming from the constant support at school, to entering university where they become one of tens of thousands, known by numbers and not by names.

Changing the schooling system to be similar to university or vice versa, with the aim to please students and make their transition easier, would be a prolonged and difficult project. Current students just need to stay motivated, discover their passion, pursue their studies and adjust to change.

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