Going from high school to college or university is typically a stressful time.
But having to navigate the transition after spending most of high school in a pandemic makes it even harder, says 18-year-old Jamie Raybould.
"I wasn't sure ... if I was learning the content — if I was learning all of it or if I was retaining all of it — because of the constant shift from online to in-person [classes]," they said. "My biggest concern was honestly that I would be behind."
Now a first-year student at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Raybould said they're still not sure if they are prepared.
"I have struggled with some of my courses in the beginning, trying to get my footing, [wondering] 'Do I have the same baseline as everyone else?' and 'How do I get to that same baseline?'"
Better support for students starting post-secondary studies was on the radar pre-COVID, but pandemic learning disruptions have amplified the need, according to students, professors and those researching higher education. And the educators behind new courses that are focused on first-year students hope to bridge the gap — and help get them on a path to academic success.
Introducing or expanding upon programs to help first-year students strengthen academic skills and bridge knowledge gaps is one of the recommendations of a 2022 report from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO), published after researchers surveyed Ontario students who graduated high school in spring 2020 and started post-secondary that fall.
In addition to feeling they didn't have the skills needed for the shift to strictly online courses, more than 70 per cent of the students surveyed said they found a lack of motivation to be the main challenge to academic success in their first year after high school.
"A similar number said a main challenge was staying focused and engaged," said Jeffrey Napierala, senior researcher at HEQCO and co-author of the report. "A lot of students also said that they have difficulty just staying on top of their coursework and their homework."
He and colleague Natalie Pilla, also a co-author of the report, encourage institutions to help students develop their ability for independent learning — how to manage their schedules and course loads, for example — as well as how to build specific skill sets needed for remote learning, given the greater reliance on online course delivery in the past few years.
"What we heard from students was that this was a real big need and a gap in in their knowledge and skills," said Pilla, a fellow HEQCO researcher.
The sooner this is addressed for incoming students, the better.
"These are skills that students need right away, when they start [post-secondary]," Napierala said. "If we wait too long ... then we risk students being overwhelmed and becoming disengaged."
Ensuring each student 'starts from the same page'
Nearly three months into the fall term, Raybould feels they're now on stronger footing, thanks to one of two new courses offered to first-year Dalhousie students in September.
Introduction to Humanities and Introduction to Social Sciences were specifically designed to better engage students, underline the real-world connections to what's being studied and to coach them in building key academic skills.
Topics for the courses are broken into smaller learning modules, each with a main assignment and a related field trip. Lectures from a variety of speakers — different professors and guests — also make classes more interesting, Raybould said, since they're hearing a range of perspectives, knowledge and experiences.
Beyond learning course content, students are pushed to make wider connections and express views on what's being explored, Raybould said. "You're not just spitting back out what you've been taught."
And the general arts student has found the course's short assignments on the side — for instance, how to email a prof, access campus resources or correctly structure an essay — helpful and confidence-building for university life: "I know all of the different ins and outs of what I'm supposed to be doing."
These courses will soon wrap up their inaugural editions, but students still enthusiastically attend weekly lectures and tutorials, with high engagement in activities posted online, said Robert Huish, an associate professor of international development studies and co-ordinator of the social sciences course.
"Every week we rock up in there and we have 300 people who are there of their own choice and come out of there engaged," he said. "They're applauding. They're tuned into their assignments."
The associate professor credits the high student engagement to the care that went into crafting the new courses, starting with tapping experienced, confident professors to share the responsibility of teaching and the constant emphasis on the real-world connections of studying the humanities and social sciences.
The instructors also teach academic skills in gradual, confidence-building and non-disciplinary ways; learning about proper use of citations and sources was linked to the fight against misinformation, Huish offers as an example, instead of traditional finger-wagging about plagiarism.
Another key component has been to quickly identify and offer support to those who may be struggling. Rather than a few major assignments or exams, final grades are based on "many small evaluations," quiz-like knowledge checks, a final essay and participation marks, Huish explained.
That way, through an online course management system, "we're able to get data very quickly to see how people are doing ... Are there people who maybe didn't do that first assignment about going out and engaging with people at the student society — and they're also not attending tutorials? Is that something we should be worried about, in terms of maybe some social anxiety? And if that's the case, we can direct you to the right resources," he explained.
We can't assume high-scoring high schoolers "are just ready to go," Huish said.
"We don't know that. We've got to make sure that everyone sort of starts from the same page and then goes forward together."
'Take away the pressure,' get students thinking
At York University in Toronto, Andrew Skelton has also seen how students can benefit from a bridge between high school and post-secondary studies.
Since 2020, he and colleagues have taught non-credit, online summer transition classes for incoming first-year students. York's five-week summer modules weave skills development — effective note-taking, for instance, or different approaches to studying — with some content review.
One of the main goals is "to take away the pressure of grades, to take away the pressure of assignments. Take away the pressure of deadlines and just start getting [students] thinking 'You know what? The university class might look a little bit different than what my high school class looked like, but I have some skills that I can develop to help me with that,'" said Skelton, an associate professor of math and statistics who has also taught at the senior high school level.
York is considering expanding the modules to reach more students, but for now Skelton considers office visits from past summer students — to tell him how the modules helped them — an unscientific barometer of success.
First-year students need opportunities to develop and practice the skills required for college or university and life beyond — skills that many adults take for granted, he feels — and this doesn't just happen instantly during orientation week.
"It's not reasonable to expect that a 17-year-old student knows how to do some of these professional skills. That's the point of university ... to graduate four years later with these adult skills."