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.