A recent TECHE post explored how a faculty-wide approach to improving the experience of first-year students is boosting retention in MQBS.

In this follow-up post, Lisa Rohanek, Faculty Lead for First-Year Student Success in MQBS, shows us how, as a unit convenor and lecturer in Marketing, she translates the faculty approach into her first-year units – supporting transition to university, setting expectations, and providing a clear road map (with raspberry flavoured twisties) to lead students on their journey to becoming self-reliant.

I’ve had staff say to me that I shouldn’t be mothering the students – that they should be able to do everything by themselves when they come to uni. But you know what, that hasn’t proven to be successful for us. The students haven’t been passing as well as we would like, and we haven’t created that stickability to keep them around as much as we would like. So, we have come up with a different approach to support the students better and teach them to be self-reliant.

Lisa Rohanek

I think of first year as ‘year 13’

As a Convenor of a first-year unit, I aim to support students in the same way as a schoolteacher supports students facing the HSC – making it clear what they need to do, when and how.

Clear communication expectations are set upfront

First-year students need to feel supported by the university and one of the ways we can do this is to facilitate regular contact with academic staff. Teaching staff are the face of the university for the student. A student taking a full-time load has four touch points, that is, four teachers that they interact with, and whom they look to for support.

MKTG1001 Marketing Fundamentals is a core unit in the Bachelor of Commerce and the Bachelor of Business Administration. There are 1400 students in that unit so I make it clear that students can’t just come and find me in my office whenever they want. Instead, I sit on Zoom for 2 nominated hours each week (one during the day and one evening) where students can jump online in an ‘ask me anything hour’. If a student has something that they need to discuss with me one-on-one, I advise them to just make an appointment.

At one stage I was getting 50 emails a day from students. For a unit convenor that creates an unsustainable workload, not to mention huge fatigue. We now set clear expectations on how students can get the information they need, when they need it.

This infographic is shared widely with students to provide clear guidelines on where to seek assistance and what steps to follow when they have questions.

The iLearn site is simple and structured

The weekly content on iLearn follows a simple but standardised structure:

  1. What is this week about?
  2. What do you need to do?
  3. How long will it take you?
  4. How does this relate to the assessment?

Feedback from students indicates that they like the simplicity and guided instructions for each week. Every Sunday night I send an email using iLearn insights with guidance on the coming week and what they need to do. I assign a time budget to each activity they need to complete so they can plan their workload better. This lets the students know how long the lecture will be, how long should the reading take, and they can plan their week more effectively. Now whether they do or not remains to be seen, but it can help them look at how to forward plan to fit their week together.

A clearly mapped journey is essential for teaching students to be self-reliant

If there is an assessment coming up for example, we first need to show them how to go about researching at the library – so we’ll provide them with a video (on iLearn) explaining how to do the assessment.

We preempt student questions and provide timely information

I regularly seek feedback from my students to check if they know where to go to resolve problems and to find out if there’s something they don’t understand. This helps me understand the journey they need to take and enables me to provide a map against that in the unit.

Earlier this session I had a student who contacted me with an unusual situation. She hit her funny bone, it affected her optic nerve, and she couldn’t see. She honestly didn’t know what to do, who to contact or what to ask. I think that drives my point that students often don’t know what to do when something like that happens.

What we’re really trying to do is preempt what their questions are likely to be, and then make the necessary information available to them before they ask, rather than waiting until they ask.

We make sure they can access that information 24/7 so that the answers are available straight away when they need it.

We also make sure there is time in class for students to ask any questions they might have. This is in addition to the twice weekly Zoom drop in ‘ask me anything’ sessions.

Timely help for assessments

The evening online drop-in sessions are pretty busy around assessment time because the evening is when students are working on their assessment. I make myself available right at the time when they need the support.

Unit changes based on student feedback

Reviewing student feedback is something I do each session, but also during the session. The more changes I can make to teaching to improve the session for the current students the better. Data collected after the end of session is impactful for future students, but I want to make things better for my current students so I review data as well as take polls/surveys and obtain general feedback regularly from students to see how I can support them better.

Participation marks encourage students to come to class

I’m a big advocate for weekly participation marks in class. There is an expectation that turning up and sitting on your phone won’t get marks but being involved in the discussion and the activities will. So, they have the choice to participate or not, but there is a benefit if they do. We make sure the grades are updated weekly so students can see how their participation and involvement is helping them get closer to the finishing line. Now whether they learn, remember what they learn or it sticks via osmosis, they are getting better results from turning up each week. Participation marks are one incentive for them to come.

Last session I had 100% in class attendance during weeks 1-11 (where we had graded participation) and 98% engagement with iLearn Insights. The students were reading iLearn and they were coming to class. I was very happy with that attendance, and it carried through to week 12 where, even though there were no participation marks, I still had 75% of students attend because by that time they’d formed connections – they’d made friends and perhaps even had some sense of feeling a responsibility to the teaching staff. And they’re in a good routine by the end of the session.

In the first four weeks of session, we work really hard to build connections and a sense that we are all in this together. I’m not going to let you down. So, you don’t let me down.

Learning by doing

Every week we try something different in class. A recent topic was market segmentation. I segmented the class based on flavour preferences of Twisties. To add another level of interest I came up with Donut and Raspberry Twisties! I like to try activities that draw on the appeal of any learning style, whether that be visual, auditory or kinesthetic. The engagement activities are based on learning by doing – which means they have to get up and move around and do things. This also gives students something to talk to each other about – they have a common point of discussion.

I find students generally like working in groups. It gives them a chance to make social connections while learning. Many aren’t confident to speak in front of the class but given the chance to work in a small group, they shine. I base activities on something they know, drawing on existing knowledge and adding a layer on top of it. It means they start out feeling like they know what they are doing, and it helps create better connections in their brain.

Although marketing is a creative process, the foundation unit has some dry moments. But all my students are consumers, so they can relate to what they must do by looking at it through a different lens.

Practicing the assessment in class builds confidence

I don’t have exams in my unit. There’s no exam because there’s no need for it. Instead, there are a lot of portfolio tasks to do. There are aspects of each assessment that we practice in class first so students get the sense of what the assessment should look like and how to approach it. This informal feedback gives them the assurance and confidence that they can do it, that they are on the right track.

As a result, their assessment results improved. This is really important because we know that first-year students have a fragile mindset. As soon as they fail that first assessment, they are at risk of dropping out.

I spoke to unit convener (who has a follow-on unit from MKTG1001) at the end of last session and he said “well, I don’t have any of these problems, which tells me you’re doing a good job, Lisa, because when I get them, they know what they’re doing”.

The first-year of university is not just about learning the content and doing the assessments, it’s about learning everything else, so students feel that sense of belonging, they feel safe at uni, and they know what to do. It’s the whole self-determination model where they have friends, they have confidence, and they’re assured that they know what they’re doing.

Like to know more? Contact Lisa Rohanek lisa.rohanek@mq.edu.au

Post edited by Kylie Coaldrake
Banner image: Photo by Rawpixel.com on Shutterstock.

Posted by Teche Editor

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