Take it easy in the first couple of weeks
The first few weeks of a degree are crucial. Most students have just experienced their first taste of complete freedom over what has often been a long, idle summer break, so it could be helpful to fill this time with “refresher lectures” to shake out those cobwebs.
An introductory session focused on your own teaching style and philosophy is a good start, while tips and guidance for self-directed learning will undoubtedly help the new cohort.
Encourage students to reflect on their own preferred learning style. There are several online quizzes and self-assessment questionnaires available to help with this; examples include Vark and one developed by academics Peter Honey and Alan Mumford. Such assessments will help students consider the obstacles and challenges that they could face at university, the kind of support that they might require and how to use their own learning style most effectively.
Ideally, the transition will start immediately after university offers have been given out. One or two taster sessions and workshops can be organised to cover the course content and expectations, which will also offer general guidance on how best to approach the subject. The long summer holidays are great to get organised for the start of the course.
Most students say that they want a reading list and a course outline with descriptions of the different modules to look at over the summer. It would also be useful to send them a summary of the assessment procedure and advice on how to prepare for self-directed learning at university. Schools are so focused on exams that many students have no understanding of the very important study skills that are needed at university.
Study aids with clear, actionable points will help students, as will direction towards useful websites and books that are available in local libraries. Sample questions and essays, based on introductory readings, for completion during the summer break might also help to communicate academic expectations before students start university.
Encourage critical thinking
Encourage students to get into the habit of reading critically. They must learn to exercise their own judgement and to question the source and the author’s motivations. Discuss some recent seminal research and ask the students to summarise the key findings, think of the limitations of the study and how it has been interpreted, the evidence the conclusions are based on, and if there are any underlying assumptions. This kind of critical thinking helps when they have to start reading a vast amount of new material, helping them to remember the material better and frame their own argument while writing essays and answering exam questions.
Mentioning related research in lectures also helps students to see the wider context and relevance of the subject that they are studying. It also helps to maintain their enthusiasm for the discipline as well as transmitting some of the enthusiasm that lecturers feel for their subject.
Enable peer review and regular feedback
Assignments that involve students working together in small groups, researching topics and presenting their findings help to create a peer support network. They also put study skills into action.
Being very clear in any early feedback that you provide on written work helps students immensely in future assignments and exams. Having a digital course calendar available for download is also useful. If deadlines are clearly visible, then it is easier for students to plan ahead and organise themselves, while also encouraging them to keep a personal planner.
Keep your door open
We often forget how insecure and overwhelmed some students feel during their first few weeks at university. It is extremely important to treat them with empathy and understanding, as many could be homesick or suffering from other mental or physical ailments that staff are not necessarily aware of.
Being approachable, having regular office hours, directing students to student support services and encouraging them to seek help could prevent feelings of isolation. Creating a peer mentoring support group within the course gives students an opportunity to discuss common concerns and feel supported by their peers.
Pragya Agarwal is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Liverpool’s department of geography and planning.