Teaching and Learning Forum 2000 [ Proceedings Contents ]

Are they glad they came? First year students' views of their university experience

Christina Ballantyne
Teaching and Learning Centre
Murdoch University
    Under its Strategic and Quality Improvement Plan for 1997-2002, Murdoch University is committed to providing a teaching and learning environment which meets the needs of its students. The student population at Murdoch is a very diverse group, for example less than fifty per cent are school leavers. Given this diversity, it is vital that the university obtains up to date feedback from students on how well it is meeting their holistic educational needs, if it is to attract and retain students in the current competitive higher education environment. To this end a large scale survey of first year students was undertaken towards the end of 1998.

    The survey collected information on a wide range of issues, including reasons for choosing Murdoch University and a particular program, satisfaction with the physical environment of the university and with a variety of student services, academic and personal issues which impinge on the student experience and a self assessment of generic skills. This paper focuses on issues relating to the students' experience of their first year at university; what do they like about being a student, what issues have caused them problems, what might have made them consider withdrawing from the university, how satisfied are they with the course they have chosen and the staff teaching it. Significant differences found between the responses of the two age groups, school leavers and mature age students, will also be examined.

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Introduction

Universities in Australia are currently operating in a highly competitive market where student numbers mean funding. They not only need to attract students to their campuses, but must endeavour to retain them until they have completed their degrees. In this climate it is important that they meet the needs to the student population. Under its objectives for teaching and learning, Murdoch University's Strategic and Quality Improvement Plan for 1997 to 2002 (Murdoch University, 1997) states the following;
To offer programs of study of the highest quality which ensure that students can achieve their full potential. (Objective TL.1)

To provide a teaching and learning environment which achieves interpersonal interaction, interdisciplinary studies, flexible delivery and meets the needs of students. (Objective TL.2)

In order to gain some information on whether the university was meeting these objectives it was decided to undertake a large scale survey of first year students in 1998. The first year cohort is a diverse group, with the traditional school leavers making up only fifty per cent of it.

Interest in what has come to be known as 'the First Year Experience' began in the 1950s (McInnis, 1995). With the increasing numbers of students in Australia in recent years, and the subsequent increasing diversity of the student body, coupled with the competitive climate in higher education, interest in first year students has become a priority.

Methodology

The initial stages of the survey were carried out by Dr Rick Cummings and Christina Ballantyne of the Teaching and Learning Centre in collaboration with Jackie Ho, an independent research consultant. In constructing the questionnaire, a number of sample questions were drawn from questionnaires used in other Australian and overseas universities. Key members of academic and administrative staff were canvassed on what they felt were the main purposes of a survey of first year students and the relevance of each of these questions to those purposes. The main purpose was seen as being to provide the university with information on the university experience of first year students, which could be used to improve teaching and learning outcomes. Questions which achieved a mean rating in 'very relevant' to 'extremely relevant' categories were included in the pilot version of the questionnaire.

An attempt was made to conduct focus groups with students to identify issues of importance to them. However as the response was particularly poor and no new concerns were identified, nothing was added to the questionnaire. The questionnaire was piloted in May 1998 and, after a number of small changes, the final version was mailed to first year students in September 1998. First year students were identified as all students who entered undergraduate programs at Murdoch for the first time in either semester 2, 1997 or semester 1, 1998. Approximately twenty-five per cent were admitted with some credit or advanced standing from previous studies. An independent research company was hired to administer the survey.

The questionnaire addressed the following issues:

2600 students were sent the questionnaire and 1402 returned completed forms, giving a response rate of 54 per cent. Whilst this is reasonable for a mailed survey, it is still somewhat low. A comparison of the respondents with the population on known demographics, however, showed a close match and thus increased confidence in the applicability of these findings to the whole first year cohort. Table 1 outlines this comparison.

As can be seen females and full time students are somewhat over represented in the sample. A similar comparison across the Divisions of the university showed a good match with the Division of Science and Engineering being over represented by 4% and the Division of Business, Information Technology and Law being under represented by about 3%. It was felt that these differences were not large enough to influence the degree to which the findings of the survey could be generalised to the total first year population.

Table 1: Comparison of first year student population and survey sample.


Population %Sample %
Age under 204849
20 and over 5250
Sex male3833
female6267
Attendance type full time6576
part time3523
Attendance mode internal8785
external910
mixed mode44

As indicated, this survey covered a number of issues. It is the intention of this paper to concentrate on a few areas only, namely:

What do first year students like about being at Murdoch University

Respondents had a very positive attitude overall to the physical environment of the university and to student services. Students were asked to rate both their satisfaction with a particular area, and its importance to them, on a five point scale. This student satisfaction approach was developed at the University of Central England (Harvey, 1996) and allows easy identification of areas in need of urgent intervention, ie rated high importance with low satisfaction. With the exception of the availability of computer and printers, students were highly satisfied with all areas they rated as important.

Students were asked about both positive and negative experiences at university. Table 2 shows the mean response on a five point scale, where '1' equals 'strongly disagree' and '5' equals 'strongly agree'. A high mean score on positive aspects indicates high student satisfaction. On negative issues we would hope to find high disagreement, and therefore a low mean value, from students if they are happy with their university life. A mean of '3' or more, therefore, indicates general agreement with the statement. Table 2 provides a comparison across the two age groups. Mature age students are generally more positive about their experience than school leavers. Only one of the positive statements, 'I often interact with students of other cultures outside class', shows a mean of less than three.

Table 2: Experience of being a first year student at Murdoch University - Comparison of age groups

The Student Experience Age group (mean response)
School
leaver
(n=690)
Mature
age
(n=695)
Total
(n=1391)
Positive statements
aI really like being a university student 3.984.12*4.05
bMost of the academic staff are approachable 3.793.92*3.85
cI would like to make more use of university facilities if I could 3.733.783.76
dI really like the atmosphere at this campus 3.773.663.72
eI think university life really suits me 3.573.573.57
fMost administrative staff are helpful 3.423.67*3.55
gStaff are usually available to discuss my work 3.333.51*3.42
hI often interact with students of other cultures in class 3.433.353.39
iI would have liked more opportunities for local-international student interaction at orientation 3.073.143.11
jMost academic staff in my units take an interest in my progress 2.913.19*3.05
kI often interact with students of other cultures outside class 3.082.83*2.96
Neutral or negative statements
lI am not particularly interested in the extra-curricular activities or facilities provided 2.713.11*2.92
mI generally keep to myself at university 2.703.11*2.90
nThere are not enough opportunities for local and international students to interact in class 2.602.712.66
oI have not made close friends at university 2.382.86*2.62
pI have had difficulty adjusting to the different style of teaching at university 2.652.43*2.54
qMy financial status has a bad impact on my academic performance 2.432.59*2.51
rUniversity just hasn't lived up to my expectations 2.442.05*2.25
* differences between age groups are statistically significant at the .05 level.

What issues cause problems?

Questions were included in the survey on the overall student experience of first year, examining particularly issues which might impact on students' academic success. Around twenty per cent of all students 'drop out' in their first year at university and the information collected here may help identify initiatives which could be taken to reduce this number.

Two hundred and twenty-six students (16 per cent) had withdrawn from one or more units during their first semester at university and three hundred and ninety-eight (28 per cent) had seriously considered withdrawing from the university. Table 3 outlines students' reasons for considering withdrawal, showing the differences between the age groups and sexes. Students were allowed to give as many reasons as they wished, therefore percentages do not sum to one hundred.

There were some considerable differences between respondents of the different groups. Female students were more likely to have considered withdrawal because of emotional health, university not being what they expected, family or financial reasons and problems with travel. One explanation for these differences may be due to the female students having given more reasons than males. (This is something to consider when designing a questionnaire with questions which allow multiple responses.) Mature age students had also thought about withdrawing due to family or financial reasons, whereas school leavers were more likely to have given reasons relating to academic issues, ie dislike of studying or the program and university not being what they expected.

Table 3: Students' reasons from considering withdrawal from
the university/ deferring their studies - Comparison across sex and age groups

Reasons for considering withdrawal Sex %Age group %Total %
(n=396)
Male
(n=123)
Female
(n=273)
School
leaver
(n=201)
Mature
age
(n=195)
Emotional health 2030262927
University wasn't what I expected 1628371224
I disliked studying 171932519
I disliked the program 111216812
Financial reasons 1521142419
Family commitments 111952816
Problems with daily travel 71314811
Other 4037294738

Students were asked to report on how the marks they received during their first semester related to what they expected. Those who reported receiving marks lower than expected were no more likely to have withdrawn from a unit or considered withdrawing from the university.

Students were also asked to comment on any personal issues which had caused problems during their first semester, ie personal decisions, distance, family, employment and health. The majority of students had experienced no difficulty at all with these issues. Of those who did report some degree of difficulty, the differences are as might be expected, eg mature age students had more problems with family, employment and health, less with distance and personal decisions. Female students reported more difficulties with health, family and distance than male students.

Research into university study has shown that organisation and interest in the area of study are highly related to student success. Students' level of agreement on a number of statements relating to these areas was sought. Table 4 shows mean responses, calculated on a scale of '1' strongly agree to '5' strongly disagree, for all students, males and females and school leavers and mature age students. Both positive and negative statements were asked. About half of the students surveyed feel that they work hard at university and they enjoy their studies. However, although the majority of students seem to have settled well to university study, thirty-nine per cent report that they have problems with time management for their studies. On the positive statements, female students are more positive than males. Between the age groups, however, the differences are more marked. Overall mature age students are more positive on these issues than school leavers, ie they have a higher mean response on the positive statements and a lower mean response on the negative ones.

Table 4: Student's agreement on issues relating to study skills/
academic preparation - Comparison across sex and age groups.

Study skills/ Academic preparation Sex
(mean response)
Age group
(mean response)
Total
(mean response)
(n=1393)
Male
(n=460)
Female
(n=928)
School
leaver
(n=690)
Mature
age
(n=698)
Positive statements
aI work hard at my studies 3.363.65*3.343.76*3.55
bI enjoy studying 3.253.43*3.003.74*3.37
Negative statements
cI have problems organising my study time 2.952.822.942.79*2.86
dThe transition to university is more difficult than I thought it would be 2.392.422.492.33*2.41
eI felt 'burnt out' by gaining the entrance qualifications 2.082.082.511.65*2.08
* differences between age groups are statistically significant at the .05 level.

Table 5: Students' agreement on statements relating to teaching
and learning issues - Comparison across sex and age groups.

Teaching and learning issues Sex
(mean response)
Age group
(mean response)
Total
(mean response)
(n=1385)
Male
(n=456)
Female
(n=924)
School
leaver
(n=687)
Mature
age
(n=692)
Positive statements
aI have been encouraged to be an independent learner 3.834.00*3.844.04*3.94
bI am finding my program intellectually stimulating 3.803.96*3.744.07*3.91
cOverall, I am really enjoying my program 3.783.853.673.98*3.83
dOverall, I am very satisfied with my university experience so far 3.813.833.703.95*3.82
eThe quality of teaching in my program is generally good 3.723.82*3.733.85*3.79
fStaff are enthusiastic about the units they teach 3.573.653.543.71*3.63
gThe teaching staff are good at explaining things 3.473.513.423.58*3.50
hStaff try hard to make the units interesting 3.473.523.393.61*3.50
iThere is a positive attitude towards learning amongst my fellow students 3.363.48*3.383.50*3.44
jI have a clear idea of where my program is going 3.443.413.293.56*3.42
kStaff made it clear from the start what they expect from students 3.323.383.233.48*3.36
lThe staff made a real effort to understand any difficulties I was having with my work 3.233.283.153.37*3.26
mTeaching staff here usually give helpful feedback on my progress 3.153.253.093.34*3.22
Negative statements
nThe volume of work to be got through in this program means that I can't comprehend it all thoroughly 3.203.163.283.07*3.18
oMy program workload is too heavy 3.072.92*3.032.91*2.98
pIt seems to me that the syllabus tries to cover too many topics 2.972.913.092.77*2.93
qI would like to have more computer based or online learning 3.072.75*2.713.00*2.86
rIt would be possible to get through this program just by working hard around assessment times 2.512.392.622.24*2.43
sThe aims and objectives of my units were not made very clear 2.482.362.432.372.40
tThe course work is not challenging enough for me 2.001.901.951.921.94
* differences are statistically significant at the .05 level.

School leaver transition

A section of questions on school leaver transition was included. School leavers make up slightly less than half of the first year population and constituted a similar proportion of the survey sample, however they are a problematic group. As has been seen already they are generally less positive about their experiences of university than mature age students. While over 50 per cent of this group found university study more demanding than school, over 80 per cent found it more fulfilling. One third reported not being ready to chose a program of study, although only 22 per cent would prefer to do a general first year before choosing a specific area. Family support was more important to girls, whereas boys were more likely to choose an area of study which built on their school subjects.

Satisfaction with their program and the teaching they receive

Most students chose their program because they were interested in the subject area (46 per cent) or because they wanted to obtain professional or academic qualifications in that particular field (31 per cent). Overall the students were positive about their programs with female students being generally more positive than males, mature age students more positive than school leavers. Table 5 provides mean responses for all students, males and females and school leavers and mature age students on teaching and learning issues. Mean values are calculated on a scale of '1' strongly disagree to '5' strongly agree.

Students were asked to rate their satisfaction out of a maximum score of 100, with their program. Overall the students were highly satisfied with a median score of 77 across all programs.

Conclusion

While the higher education sector in Australia continues to operate under competitive market forces obtaining information about how first year students are progressing. The overall results from this survey are very heartening with the majority of students being satisfied with their university experience. Of particular interest is the fact that the younger group of students were somewhat less positive and any strategies put in place as a result of these findings are perhaps best directed in that area. The importance of the survey as a vehicle for students to give feedback on general aspects of the university should not be forgotten however. As one student said after making some negative comments, I feel so much better now I've got all that off my chest!

References

Harvey, L. et al. (1996). Student Satisfaction Manual. SRHE and Open University Press, Buckingham.

Murdoch University (1997). Strategic and Quality Improvement Plan for 1997 to 2002. Murdoch University, Perth.

McInnis, C., James, R. and McNaught, C. (1995). First year on campus: Diversity in the initial experiences of Australian undergraduates. Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne.

Please cite as: Ballantyne, C. (2000). Are they glad they came? First year students' views of their university experience. In A. Herrmann and M.M. Kulski (Eds), Flexible Futures in Tertiary Teaching. Proceedings of the 9th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 2-4 February 2000. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2000/ballantyne.html


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