Thursday 30 March 2017

Why our college kids are so lost

Many students are helpless on campus and need constant attention. Are parents to blame?

A new world: Students may find themselves all at sea when they arrive at third level but there are supports in place, says Sarah Moore assistant vice president of the University of Limerick
A new world: Students may find themselves all at sea when they arrive at third level but there are supports in place, says Sarah Moore assistant vice president of the University of Limerick

Ailin Quinlan

For some, going to college 30 years ago meant living in digs or at home, having no money and embarking on an often thrilling and sometimes confusing voyage of self-discovery.

But to some eyes, there is a belief today's college students are quite literally lost. They struggle after leaving school, they fail to cope with the environment and even need the help of specially employed marshals to help them find their way around a campus.

'Orientation' is the new buzzword and in recent years some universities have poured huge resources into providing the means for students to find their way around their new surroundings.

Some say it doesn't exactly inspire confidence in the notion of our 'smart economy' and argue it is a phenomenon that has arisen within the last 10 years.

So what has turned many of these 18-year-olds into such helpless souls?

One of the country's most senior academics, the former head of Dublin City University Professor Ferdinand Von Prondzynski, believes today's students have the wrong approach, the wrong habits, and perhaps more worryingly, the wrong expectations.

Dispensing with the second-level 'mindset' is crucial for students entering college and in particular the Leaving Cert rote method of learning. Social factors have contributed too; the Celtic Tiger years infused a sense of entitlement in many teens and fostered a failure in some to take responsibility for themselves.

Go to a college these days and the chances are you will encounter a 'marshal', probably wearing a specially coloured shirt and calling out instructions to students on how to find lecture theatres and offering guides to the difference between seminars and tutorials.

Elsewhere there are tutors on hand to provide advice on study skills and learning centres where the baffled new students can learn how to present assignments.

The question is, is this extreme hand-holding or crucial orientation for bewildered first year students?

The University of Limerick last year introduced a seven-week orientation course.

Sarah Moore, assistant vice president (academic), describes it as "an elongated introduction to university life", explaining that the course, which has its own Facebook page, covers everything from campus tours to advice on healthy eating and study skills to stress management and exam preparation.

"I think the supports in place now are things that students have always needed," says Moore.

"When students enter a university setting they need a bridge from the highly structured second-level system to the emphasis on more flexible self-direction at third level."

But is this spoon-feeding? No, she says, it's about helping former Leaving Cert students to "hit the ground running".

"We want students to really understand what's expected of them. This is about setting up good routines," says Moore.

"Students have a very structured experience in second-level with smaller classes, being monitored all the time and parents signing homework etc."

If you throw them in at the deep end, they don't have the skills to cope, she believes.

Many first-year students flounder, agrees Rebecca Murphy, welfare officer with the Union of Students in Ireland: "When you talk to first-years at the start of the year they're very bewildered and apprehensive.

"A lot of them have come from rural areas so they have a new college, new city; a lot of things converging at once which can cause feelings of isolation and loneliness."

University College Dublin, which, with more than 24,000 students, is the largest third-level institution in the country, provides a packed week of orientation activities to help freshers navigate third level.

"We have a week-long orientation programme with 300 volunteer students or orientation guides helping out," says student adviser Aisling O'Grady.

"They provide campus tours, explain what tutorials are and what seminars involve. Students get an opportunity to meet the academics leading their programme.

"They need all of this. College is a bigger thing than it was in our day," says O'Grady.

"Many students find the first semester is very difficult so the orientation is crucial."

But what about previous generations who went to college and were expected to get on with it? "Back in the 80s there was a lot of independent learning and self-directed learning with students who were very focused and had career goals," says Tim O'Connor, principal of Schull Community College in west Cork.

He believes that intensive orientation may be a response to the massive influx of students to third-level in recent years.

Before that a smaller percentage completed the Leaving Cert -- students who perhaps "came from families with expectations of completing second-level and going on to third level" and were thus better prepared.

So what to do? Dispensing with the second-level 'mindset' is crucial for students entering college says Prof Von Prondzynski.

He says one of the consequences is a high first-year dropout rate, which averages at around 15pc, according to a report by the Higher Education Authority.

"I don't think students are complacent -- I think they're confused," he adds.

"They come equipped with all the wrong skills -- rote learning, expectations of a set syllabus which does not change, etc," observes Von Prondzynski, president of Dublin City University for the decade to 2010.

It's difficult to wean them off the second-level mindset, he says. "It takes us about one-and-a-half years to re-educate students from the bad habits they learned in the Leaving Cert cycle.

"We can tell them all sorts of things, but they don't believe it. Nowadays about 40pc of students will fail exams in first year -- they just don't know how to approach third level."

On the issue of basic human behaviour, those who cannot shake off the second-level mindset fail to grasp the concept of personal responsibility, says Dan Collins, head of Careers and Counselling at Cork Institute of Technology.

"With some students there's an expectation that they'll be told everything. There's an expectation that the lecturer will 'chase down' a student, that the lecturer will continually keep after them for assignments etc. That's not the way third level works."

At third level the emphasis is on critical thinking, self-sufficiency and independence -- and the culture shock can have a major emotional impact believes Von Prondzynski.

"There's quite a lot of depression among first years," he says.

"They come out of second level thinking they know how to do things and then it dawns on them that they've no idea."

What must change, he believes, is the way colleges select students.

"The way to solve these problems is to change the Leaving Cert. It's really an entrance exam for university. What a crazy country, that we organise an entrance exam for third level that uses methods which are completely inappropriate to third level!"

There are a huge amount of issues in terms of progression from second to third level, agrees Moira Leydon, ASTI education officer, who says the matter is being taken seriously by the National Council for Curriculum Assessment and the Higher Education Authority.

"We need to move away from the current emphasis on knowledge content to a greater emphasis on understanding how to learn.

However, the Department of Education points to the recently launched Higher Education Strategy which acknowledges that some students lack the skills of critical thinking, problem solving and independent learning -- and insists the issue is being addressed.

Part of the solution could also lie in improved communication between second and third level, believes Professor Grace Neville, vice president of Teaching and Learning at UCC.

"Many students come in with the idea that there's a right and a wrong answer to everything. It takes a lot of time for students to 'unlearn' that.

"Thinking for themselves has not been part of their agenda throughout the second level system."

Constructive "conversations" need to take place between second and third level about the needs of students transferring into third level, she believes.

"Then we could pick where second level leaves off rather than starting from scratch."

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