Starting university can be an exciting but stressful time. The University of Sydney is a very large institution with a wide range of disciplines on offer and a very diverse student population. This size and diversity offer huge opportunities and challenges for new students. Unfortunately, many feel that they do not fit or belong during the crucial first few weeks. Transition – the first few weeks at university – is very important in determining whether a student’s time here will be successful and enjoyable. Students joining us in 2021 have experienced a unique year in preparation. Some will be able to participate in face-to-face activities. Others will begin their university journey remotely. A successful transition for all students is particularly important and challenging this year.
The quality of students’ interactions with each other and with their teachers, and the overall quality of the transition experience, are the most important factors in developing a sense of belonging. To feel part of our institution, it is critical that students feel that their teachers care and can be approached. Relationship-rich experiences with their lecturers and tutors will help students to feel valued and connected to the University and the disciplines in which they choose to focus.
The Educational Innovation team have been working with colleagues across the University to develop activities to ensure students feel welcome and that they belong here. The activities are designed to be adapted to each cohort’s context and are highly flexible.
The first activity, My Journey, is designed so that students can get to know their teachers and classmates by talking or writing about their journey to the University of Sydney. The aim is for students to reflect on the important steps in their life, at a level that they are comfortable with, and for them to learn about the diverse nature of our institution. It has been used in a number of disciplines with strong student feedback. It is a rich and meaningful icebreaker and can be run as a synchronous or asynchronous activity. It’s also a great opportunity for doing an Acknowledgement to Country and introducing the excellent resources in the Kinship module.
The second activity is a values affirmation exercise. In this activity, students are asked to identify values that are important to them from a short, pre-prepared list and then to write about how they build them into their lives. The results are not “marked” or commented on, but the simple process of thinking about values in areas unrelated to their studies appears to boost students’ confidence and reduce the fear of failure. The literature shows positive effects on student outcomes, particularly for those in under represented groups and for those feel out of place in their subjects and in higher education environments.
The third activity is designed to be completed before an assessment, as students are preparing for it, because it focuses on academic integrity. It encourages students to discuss academic integrity, and in particular the grey areas often present. Academic integrity should be discussed as a positive concept – rather than a term designed to scare. This activity asks students to consider what it means to act with integrity, and how they will do so as they move through their studies. It is based on the Academic Integrity Board Game, developed by UTS Business School academic Dr Amanda White and her students.
Facing challenges positively
Facing challenges positively – This activity is also designed to be run close to an assessment. Studies suggest that acknowledging stressful situations and talking about them can help students improve their performance and lower their anxiety in summative assessments. This activity encourages students to acknowledge stress and encourages them to consider the relevance and value of the assessment to their aims and values. In 2020, students reported considerable stress and worry about online assessment and this will be similarly unfamiliar to students this year.
My Sydney journey so far
This activity supports students in reflectively acknowledging their first-semester journey. Students are encouraged to reflect on challenges and how they have overcome them. The activity includes two interrelated parts.
- In ‘letter to a first-year student’, students are asked to reflect on what they have learnt (beyond the curriculum) and would want to have known at the beginning of the semester.
- In ‘message in a bottle’, students similarly commit their future plans and thoughts to paper on their progress and future studies.
Both activities can be combined with a final framing intervention associated with potential worries about results or, for units with high stakes final exams.
Tell me more
If you’re interested in finding out more about these activities and using them in your teaching, enrol in the Transition Resources site https://canvas.sydney.edu.au/enroll/TLDHY9 or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Workshops are available for those teaching and tutoring first year units of study that are using transition activities as part of the transition unit pilot. These will cover the transition activities described above and cover how to run and facilitate classes that use them. There are two repeat sessions: