Make the new lot feel at home

September 7, 2007

To help your new students settle in, make yourself available to give advice and encouragement and know when to refer them to specialist support services, advises Harriet Swain.

Another academic year, another bunch of clueless freshers. Ah, well. You'll just have to brace yourself for terrible grammar and the odd nervous breakdown.

Not necessarily, says Ama Uzowuru, vice-president (welfare) at the National Union of Students. A robust personal tutorial system should make sure that students are settled and understand what they can expect from the university and what the university can expect from them. The tutors should direct students to appropriate departments for help, she says, including writing support services.

But Janet Aldridge, chair of the Association for University and College Counselling, says you shouldn't just leave everything to personal tutors. Some students won't get on with them, or they won't be there when they need them. Any lecturer could be a potential point of contact.

"The one thing all academics should know is where the specialised support is in their university and how to access it," she says. If possible, this should entail meeting face to face the individuals who head each of the services on offer - be it welfare, counselling or academic support. Your role may involve persuading students who have been put off counselling in the past to try it again or referring them to non-university help. Either way, she says, maintaining a good relationship with internal counselling and other services is invaluable.

Meanwhile, you should watch for changes in your students over the first three or four months. Monitor those who appear to be suffering from sleep loss or have problems concentrating, or those who repeatedly fail to turn up to lectures.

Julia Lamb, a spokeswoman for the mental health charity Mind, says it is a good idea to fix a meeting for week four or five because this is when most students think about leaving. Encourage students and let them know you are interested in their work, she says. "If students feel teaching staff believe in them, it encourages motivation and self-confidence."

It is also important to give students the opportunity to talk. "A simple question such as 'how are things going?' can give students the confidence to discuss their concerns," she says. If a student does open up to you, listen and don't make unhelpful comments along the lines of "pull yourself together".

James Nicholson, an executive member of the Association of Managers of Student Services in Higher Education, says a phone call to someone who hasn't been attending lecturers or tutorials can make all the difference. But you have to know your limitations. If someone has mental health difficulties, in particular, you need to know how to refer them to appropriate help while not appearing to push them out of the door.

For Uzowuru, one of the most important ways in which academics can help first years is to understand what it is like being a student today. "I had to work during my masters, and I had to point out that simply changing the timetable when they felt like it was actually quite problematic," she says. The response that as a full-time student she should have been permanently available was not realistic, she argues.

"Also, one thing that bugged me both as an undergraduate in the first year and this year was the fact that what is blatant mismanagement is passed off as teething problems," Uzowuru says. Lecturers arriving late to a lecture or changing timetables or rooms at the last minute makes new students feel frustrated and uncomfortable.

Don't expect students to read and digest every piece of information about the university given to them in the first few weeks either. "They get information overload, and it gets to a point where students don't hear any more," Nicholson says. He advises drip-feeding them with what they need to know, at appropriate times. For example, tell them about counselling or writing help around the time of the first assignment.

Aldridge says it is a good idea for the first assignment to involve a number of stages so that you can check a first draft to make sure that students are on the right track.

Lamb says it is important to give students information about what you expect from them because some can set themselves unrealistic academic goals.

Helen James, academic developer in the UK Centre for Legal Education, says that formative assessment is a vital tool to help students understand what they have achieved and what they ought to be achieving, and to help academics understand what skills they have brought with them from school.

Nicholson advises giving feedback early via e-mail because students are more likely to read it. He says you have to be aware of how the way students learn has changed. "It's not like it was when you were at university, and don't expect people to learn in the same way," he says. He advises looking regularly at the school curriculum and thinking about how to deal with issues raised by new technology.

Uzowuru says lecturers should pay particular attention to plagiarism and hold special sessions to discuss the issue, rather than just relying on students reading their handbook.

Finally, be aware that, fantastic as your course is, it may not be right for every student. Aldridge advises telling students at the beginning of the course that if they are not happy with any aspect of it they should contact you. Nicholson says you should make it clear that it is OK for them to leave and refer them to the right support. But if you make it clear that you are more concerned about them than about bums on seats, it is more likely they will stay. "Often all it takes is a few words of encouragement," says Nicholson.

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