Engaging transition

Alison Beavis and Tony Baker in a lab

Alison Beavis and Tony Baker, photo by Joanne Saad

In summary: 
  • UTS’s First Year Experience Project is a university-wide strategy aimed at improving the first year experience inside and outside the curriculum
  • As part of the project, in 2012, 15 grants were awarded
  • They include those that bridge the gap between high school mathematics and university chemistry, and an overhaul of the Chemistry 1 subject

“For some kids, uni is a very scary place,” says Professor of Chemistry and Head of the School of Chemistry and Forensic Science Tony Baker.

“They’re used to an environment where they’re typically in a class of 20 to 30 students with one teacher. But there are actually very few experiences like that at uni.”

Baker is just one of many UTS academic and support staff working to make students’ transition to university easier. And not just for those coming straight from high school.

“All students are faced with challenges in their first semester at university,” says Senior Lecturer and First Year Experience Coordinator Kathy Egea. “They may be mature age students who haven’t studied for years, students from low socio-economic (LSES) backgrounds who are the first in their family to attend university, students in pathway programs or recent high school leavers who were recommended to UTS by their school principals.”

Since August 2011, Egea has been coordinating UTS’s First Year Experience (FYE) Project. The university-wide strategy supports a learning community approach to share practice that improves the first year experience inside and outside the curriculum. Run through the Institute for Interactive Media and Learning, it’s funded by the Equity and Diversity Unit’s Widening Participation Strategy.

A key part of the project’s strategy encourages subject coordinators to apply for up to $4000 of funding for sustainable programs that promote student retention and success.

“The concept is to embed a transition pedagogy, or way of teaching, into the first-year academic courses,” says Egea.

Kathy EgeaKathy Egea, photo by Joanne Saad

This year, 15 grants were awarded (there were 14 in 2011). They include second-year students supporting first-year students in architecture workshops, ‘culture shock’ videos to prepare midwifery students for the realities of working on a ward, and two projects run by Baker and Senior Lecturer and Director of Undergraduate Programs in the Faculty of Science Alison Beavis.

The first was aimed at bridging the gap between high school mathematics and university chemistry. The second was an overhaul of the Chemistry 1 subject.

According to Beavis, “It was really clear some of the mathematical concepts were impeding students’ understanding. We did a little fact finding and discovered a significant proportion of students are coming to us either with no maths or not really prepared for the maths they’re going to encounter.”

With the help of PhD student Jason Lee, they created a booklet covering all the critical concepts students need to navigate Chemistry 1, as well as self-test quizzes and online, multimedia resources.

The second project “was really about getting a different teaching and learning experience in the laboratory,” explains Baker.

The changes included writing new pracs to better align lectures and labs, a formal half-day induction for the school’s 30-odd lab demonstrators (all of whom are honours or PhD students) and an overhaul of the labs themselves to include ‘tutorials’ with sample problems and a 20-minute quiz on that week’s lesson.

“Research shows it’s very important for students to have early, low stakes assessment and we’ve tried to do that,” says Baker.

The aim, adds Beavis, is to “build confidence, so the students know where they sit. If they’re struggling, it’s good to know upfront to be able to source the right support. We’re trying to prevent that ‘Will I stay or will I go?’ moment students may have in their first year of study.”

With approximately 800 students undertaking Chemistry 1 in Autumn semester, the project was huge. “About half of the academic staff of the school actually contributed to the revamp,” says Baker. “It was a good bonding exercise, and I don’t mean that in the chemical sense!”

Honours student Suzy Streatfield conducted focus groups before and after the changes were implemented to gauge staff and student sentiment. As a demonstrator with two years’ experience, Streatfield applauds the changes.

“The induction was really useful because we got to hear what the staff expected of us. Before, everything you learned depended on which supervisor you were partnered with – each class consists of a demonstrator and a supervisor who has taught the subject before. So, there was little consistency. New demonstrators learned what to do either from their supervisor or from their own memories of demonstrators who taught them during their undergrad studies.” 

Streatfield says the changes have led to a big improvement in student engagement too. “Last year, students aimed to get out of the classroom as early as possible.

“With the new system, the focus of the labs is totally different. Completing the prac quickly no longer means students can leave early, so they spend more time both on the prac work and the new tutorial section afterwards. And because the main assessable item is a quiz, held under exam conditions, they know they need to pay attention in the lab to get the marks.”

Baker says the subject has seen a “substantial improvement in the pass rates” and “the more active teaching and learning engagement has meant not only a better experience for the students, it’s actually a better experience for the teachers too.”

He adds, the Autumn Student Feedback Surveys showed “at least 10 demonstrators who got an overall rating of 4.5 on a five point scale. That’s exceptional.”

Egea, who has herself taught primary, secondary and tertiary students, acknowledges for many, changing the way they teach “is a pretty big shift. It’s about intentionally fostering a sense of belonging and supporting students to learn. It’s not about the teachers going to the board and writing, it’s about the students engaging with each other and with what they’re learning.”

From next year, additional funding will help with this shift. Each faculty will receive funds to employ a Transition Coordinator, one day a week, to oversee their own FYE projects.

Egea hopes the expanding focus on the first-year experience will also see more first-year academics join her “community of practice” – a quarterly, cross-faculty meeting of academic and support staff who share experiences and advice.

“I’m trying to encourage casual tutors to come as well. We can’t pay them, but they can come, have some food, listen to what’s happening and share their experiences.

“There are a lot of activities and they’re all varied, and that’s the beauty of it. Every faculty, or even subject, has its own way of working and its own needs, and if we try to put something on top, it may not work. With the First Year Experience community we’re getting staff to tell us how they can create meaningful and lasting change.”