Teaching and Learning Forum 98 [ Contents ]

Students' apprehensions on commencing first year: Some student groups at The University of Western Australia

Geoff Cooper
Support Centre
The University of Western Australia
What do students imagine that their first semester at university will be like? What are their concerns and worries at this point of significant academic transition in their lives? This study looks at three groups of undergraduate students who are provided orientations before they begin their formal studies: international students coming directly from their home countries; international students who have studied for tertiary entrance in Australia; and local Australian students who participate in an equity project targeted at 'disadvantaged' students from country areas and students neither of whose parents have a degree. For three years short questionnaires have been given to these students to gauge their perceptions of difficulties they might encounter in moving to higher studies and from secondary to tertiary modes of teaching and learning. Although there are some variations in response between the three groups and between different years within the same groups, the overall pattern suggests that there is a considerable degree of anxiety among students, and that, with only slight variations, there is remarkable unanimity in the ranking of their concerns.


This paper began, not as a research project as such, but as a practical teaching exercise. Nevertheless, it has some interesting implications for the academic orientation of students in their first few weeks of university. The transition from school to university is a major step for students: McInnis and James (1995, p. x) refer to the 'gap' or 'gulf' that may be caused by the difference between students' expectations of university and the reality of academic study in their first few weeks. Their research surveyed students at the end of their first semester so they had had some weeks' exposure to the academic system. The students in the present study were surveyed at an earlier stage, at a series of orientation activities before they commenced formal academic study at the University of WA. So far as I can ascertain, no study so far has looked at students' expectations before they begin their degree programmes.

UWA runs three separate orientations for special groups of students, viz. international students coming directly from overseas, mainly from Singapore and Malaysia; international students (mostly Singaporeans and Malaysians) who have previously studied for their tertiary entrance exams in Australia, (this group are called commencement students); and students participating in the Transition Support Programme (TSP) who are local Australian students selected on the basis of 'disadvantage' (this is an equity project). In my capacity of learning skills adviser I have briefed these groups on the differences between secondary and tertiary education to forewarn them of what to expect in the first weeks, as well as to assure them that help is at hand should they need it. Initially, I used the major part of these short sessions (30-45 minutes) to lecture the groups on my perceptions of the major differences. However, on reflection I realised that it might be more effective if the students were more actively involved and if the focus were concentrated on their perceptions of university studies. I therefore constructed a questionnaire on those aspects of university teaching and learning which are likely to be new to the students but about which they may have formed some (mis)conceptions derived from hearsay or reading or whatever. Its main function was to stimulate thought and discussion which was encouraged by a pyramid exercise (Gibbs et al. 1988, pp. 123-4), that is, discussion in pairs, followed by discussions in groups of 4-6, followed by 'plenary' discussion in which each group was invited to input the concerns that were most common. At the end of the sessions questionnaires were collected, and, though not all students handed them in, the majority did: in total 879 questionnaires were returned over the years 1995-7.

The questionnaire

This is a list of things that often worry students when they come to university. Read the statements and tick any that you feel are applicable to you. If you feel that there is something that concerns you that has been omitted, please add it at the end (9).
1I'm afraid that I won't be able to keep up with the work.
2I'm not sure what I'm expected to do at lectures.
3I don't know how much I will be expected to read.
4I don't know what tutorials and seminars are for.
5I won't have the nerve to speak up in class.
6I would find it difficult to ask a tutor for help.
7I dread the thought of writing essays and assignments.
8I expect most people in my course will be smarter than I am.

Responses to the questionnaire were predictably variable, from those where no items were checked (perhaps indicative of an excess of confidence?) to those where every item was checked (perhaps indicative of extreme neurosis?). Only a very few students took the invitation to add items of concern such as a fear of getting lost on campus or anxiety that they did not have a timetable as yet. Although insufficient to be really significant these items should remind us that everyday practicalities loom large in students' minds at this time.

The results

Table 1: Percentages of students signifying they feel that an item is a potential problem
Bold italic numerals infra indicate the rank orders
Table 1

Some observations and implications

These data demonstrate that, when prompted to think about academic life, students do reveal a considerable degree of trepidation. Overall, the students sampled agreed with almost half (47% on average) of the statements. This response would indicate that they are not at all complacent about beginning university studies; that they are well aware that there will be some major differences in the ways of teaching and learning; and that they are feeling somewhat insecure about the transition.

The widest range of response is from the international students who had the lowest (12%) to the highest (81%) rate of agreement, the average respondent indicating agreement with 44% of the items. Thus, of all groups, the international students show the greatest propensity to be concerned about some items and unconcerned about others. By contrast, the TSP group has the narrowest range of agreement, from 33 to 62%, and, and yet their overall average is just the same as the international students, 44% agreement overall. This suggests that, although the TSP group are West Australian students, they have the same amount of concern as overseas students but spread more evenly across the items. The commencement students are clearly the most anxious, agreeing with 9% more items than the other two groups: on average they agreed with just over half of the statements (53%), with a range from 29% to 79%. The commencement students have the highest response rate for five of the eight items and the lowest response rate for none. For two items, numbers 5 and 7, they are significantly higher, and these responses may exemplify why they are more anxious overall: having studied in Australian secondary institutions, they have realised the difficulties of learning in another language and this has affected their confidence in speaking and writing. In contrast, local students are not bothered by studying in English and perhaps the international students underestimate the difficulties of working in English in an Australian environment.

Overall the data show that, although there are some variations from group to group and from year to year, over the three years there is quite strong agreement in the rank order the three groups produce. Despite considerable differences in their composition and educational background, they rank their concerns in more or less the same order.

The questionnaire items

Item 1:I'm afraid that I won't be able to keep up with the work.
This is the main worry for all groups. The response of overseas students to this statement is much stronger than the local students', with 4 out of 5 of the international and commencement students agreeing with it as compared to two thirds of the TSP students. Of course, the phrase 'keep up with', is capable of being construed in at least two ways: that one will not have the necessary time and energy to keep up with the sheer volume of work, or that the nature of the work will be so difficult that one will fall behind no matter how hard one tries. Nevertheless, in general we can deduce that a good majority of students recognise from the outset that more is demanded of them in tertiary study: they expect, as McInnis and James (1995, p. 43) discovered, to be challenged by their university experience.

Item 2:I'm not sure what I'm expected to do at lectures.
Since lectures are generally considered to be characteristic of university teaching, and schools generally do not train students in note-taking, greater anxiety might have been expected. As it is, this is only a middle rank concern for all. The international group show least concern of all for it. A possible explanation for this is that a large number of the international students are Singaporean secondary students who are accustomed to lectures that are 'highly structured, teacher directed, and typically accompanied by visual and written support, in the form of notes directly handed out to the students or copied down from overhead transparencies' (Volet & Renshaw, 1995, 429). It is likely, therefore, that they do not anticipate the difficulties of note-taking in lectures where voluminous information may be transmitted to large classes at rapid pace in an Australian accent!

Item 3:I don't know how much I will be expected to read.
A rather surprising second overall concern, this may reflect students' awareness of one of the key differences between secondary and tertiary education, the difference between teacher-directed reading and 'reading around' as many lecturers like to call it. Students are perhaps worried either that the reading will be excessive or that they will not be given an indication of what is the required amount. It is possible that students have based their perceptions on rumour and hearsay of friends. Since this item may well have (unintentionally) attracted responses from those who doubt their proficiency in reading in English, it would not be surprising to find the overseas students expressing more concern about this than local students, but this is not so. Though a little variable from year to year, the local students also rank it overall as the second main concern.

Item 4:I don't know what tutorials and seminars are for.
This is one of the lowest-ranking concerns for all students. For international students in particular it offered little threat, only 12% responding to this item compared to almost a third of commencement and local students.

Item 5:I won't have the nerve to speak up in class.
This item as another of the low-ranking concerns for all groups, though it attracted a much stronger response from the commencement group for reasons I have speculated on above.

Item 6:I would find it difficult to ask a tutor for help.
Like items 4 and 5 which all centre on tutorial relationships, this is not anxiety-provoking, for international students least of all. Again, this may result from the influence of Singaporean students who are reported to be 'accustomed to consulting teachers after class' (Volet & Renshaw, 1995, 428).

Overall, these three items suggest that students may perceive tutorials and seminars as little different from classes at school and reflect their ignorance of the nature of these classes and the different roles of students and teachers.

Item 7:I dread the thought of writing essays and assignments.
A somewhat surprising third ranking overall and in second place for commencement and TSP students. One might expect that this item would attract most responses from the combined overseas students who will have to write in a foreign language and for whom the strong verb 'dread' might be more appropriate. However, the fact that the TSP group also rank it highly suggests that students generally dislike writing. Perhaps these responses reflect the toils and troubles of composition that we all feel at some time: perhaps they reflect the apprehension that accompanies work that will be assessed.

Item 8:I expect most people in my course will be smarter than I am.
This item was included in the questionnaire to bring into the open students' often-unfounded, usually secret, fears of inadequacy. As its appearance in fourth position indicates, it succeeded! Almost half of the students believe that most other students are more intelligent than they. This may indicate that students are by no means complacent about their ability and recognise that they are no longer the big fish in the small pond that they were at school.


These data provide some indications of the apprehensions of students about to enter higher education. While variations among the different groups must be recognised, the agreement in ranking by the different groups is in itself remarkable and justifies some conclusions about students' initial perceptions of academic study in general, and from them we may deduce their needs in the transition phase.

The students' responses indicate a fairly high level of insecurity. At the top end of the ranking three out of four students are concerned about keeping up in their studies, and even at the bottom of the scale roughly one in four students is anxious about tutorials and asking for guidance from a tutor. On average students respond to almost half of the items. For more than half of the students in this sample the most pressing fears are keeping abreast of their work, knowing how much to read, and writing assignments. The thought of these private activities actually provokes greater anxiety than does the prospect of formal academic teaching (lectures, tutorials, seminars). In my experience, not a great deal of academic guidance on these matters, the key ones for private study, is given: university students are expected, from the outset, to develop independence and manage their workload, reading and writing for themselves (Cf McInnis and James, 1995, pp. 32-3). Although a degree of anxiety (no pun intended) is natural and perhaps even beneficial, students, while being given the intellectual challenge they expect, would benefit from explicit guidance on what is expected of them, especially as regards what they should do to in their private study to complement the formal academic programme.


Gibbs, Graham et al. (1988). 53 interesting things to do in your lectures. 3rd edition. Bristol: Technical and Educational Services Ltd.

McInnis, Craig and James, Richard (1995). First year on campus: Diversity in the initial experiences of Australian undergraduates. AGPS: Canberra.

Volet, Simone and Renshaw, Peter (1995). Cross-cultural differences in university students' goals and perceptions of study settings for achieving their own goals. Higher Education, 30, 407-33.

Please cite as: Cooper, G. (1998). Students' apprehensions on commencing first year: Some student groups at The University of Western Australia. In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times, 80-84. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1998/cooper.html

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