Academic Transition

Posted on Thursday, August 11th, 2016


The start of university study for our loved ones is a time of many emotions for parents and family members – pride, hope, and excitement, as well as some trepidation and a lot of questions. Some of the most common questions family members have are whether their students will do well academically and achieve their goals, and what services are available to support them as they adapt to the changes and challenges of university learning. In this section, we’ll explain some of the differences between learning at high school and university, and what is available at Guelph to support your student’s academic transition.

The Library’s Learning Commons has numerous services, including individual appointments, workshops, handouts, and online resources, to assist students in the academic transition. All of the resources mentioned here can be found through the University of Guelph’s Library website.

Why Do New Students Need Academic Support?

The majority of our first-year students, most of them high achievers in high school, use the services offered by the Learning Commons in the Library. Why? Learning in high school and learning in university are not the same. While many high school students work hard in their studies, first year courses at university emphasize new skills and ways of learning. In university it’s not just about working hard; it’s also about working differently, and that is where the Learning Commons comes in. Most incoming students simply haven't had the opportunity to develop the range of academic skills required to succeed in university courses. These skills include managing time and controlling procrastination; adapting to new kinds of learning, advanced writing, and research; and working independently. All new students, regardless of their skill set coming out of high school, can benefit from information on how to study or write at a university level, advice from successful senior students, or reassurance that they’re approaching their course work in an effective way.

Every student accepted to the University of Guelph has the base tool set to succeed; encourage them to ask for help if they are struggling.

Getting a Head Start

Even before the fall semester begins, students can find out more about what’s expected in university courses and how they are different from high school in A Guide for University Learning, an online workshop created for entering students at Guelph. The Guide includes some of the typical tasks students will be asked to do in courses (such as analyzing a course outline, taking lecture notes, reading academic text, writing a multiple choice test) and integrates these tasks with information and advice on how to manage them intelligently, strategically, and effectively. Online access to the Guide is free through.

New Responsibilities

University students have more freedom in their courses and are expected to set goals and establish priorities for themselves. Homework and class attendance are normally not checked, so self- motivation is critical for getting to class, keeping up with course work, and completing assignments on time. Students must decide for themselves what homework to do, how much to do, and when to do it. Students are responsible adults, and are expected to be independent and self-directed learners.

The Workload

The workload is different in each program, varies from course to course, and fluctuates through the semester. Instructors may move through new content at a much faster pace than in high school, and new students are often caught off guard when instructors lecture and assign work in the first class. Students’ previous success and experience in a particular subject area, their course load in high school, and their involvement in high school extra-curricular activities can all influence how heavy a university workload feels to new students.

Keeping up with the workload of five university courses over a 12-week semester can be challenging, and if a student falls behind, it can be very difficult to get caught up. Many first-year students realize that they will have to work harder than in high school; what many don’t realize is that they also have to work differently - more strategically, more consistently, and more effectively. An important skill for students to develop is to learn and use strategies to help them analyze and synthesize information, understand and apply concepts, and think critically and creatively.

Encourage your student to start class work the Thursday after Labour Day, or they are likely to fall behind

One program that can help is the Supported Learning Groups Program (SLGs)! They provide regular, ongoing study sessions every week in many historically challenging courses facilitated by upper year students who have already taken the course and received an A. Students can also set up their own study groups through the Study Groups at Guelph website.

Procrastination and Time Management

The term “peer pressure” takes on a whole new meaning on a university campus - at no other time in students’ lives are they surrounded by thousands of people so close to their own age. In this environment, there is usually something more enjoyable to do than studying, and lots of interesting people to do something with. Sometimes studying gets pushed to the bottom of the list!

Maintaining a balance of work and fun is a key component to surviving and thriving in first year. Good time management not only allows students to stay on top of their work, but also allows them to fit in extra-curricular activities, a social life, and perhaps part-time work or volunteering. There are many opportunities for students to get involved in enriching, rewarding and enjoyable activities at Guelph. A healthy balance means that extra-curricular involvement or fun activities don’t monopolize study time, but also that other interests are not put aside to concentrate solely on academics.

We encourage you and your student to look at A Guide for Time Management, an extensive online resource of information, ideas, strategies and advice.

University Lectures and Reading

Most university classes will be larger than high school classes - in some cases, there may be several hundred students in a large lecture room. It’s common for new students to feel uncertain about how much to write down, or to be concerned about missing important information in their notes, or to feel that it’s difficult to keep focused among so many students. How much reading students do in their first year at Guelph depends on their program and courses. In general, science students have less reading but spend more time in labs. Arts students don’t have labs but may have seminars, and usually have more assigned readings. No matter what program students are in, reading will be an important part of their required course work, so it’s important to develop different reading techniques, and to choose the most effective technique for each reading assignment.

University Tests and Exams

The number, length, and format of assessments, as well as what they cover and how many marks they are worth, are entirely course specific. Most exams in first year are multiple choice, fill in the blank, and short answer, though some students may have essay, open book, or take-home exams. Details are usually found in course outlines. Students need to be aware of how many marks each test or exam is worth, and to allocate their time and effort accordingly. The Mark Calculator is an online tool that helps students keep track of their marks.

Midterm exams present unique challenges for some students. Some courses may have one midterm exam halfway through the semester and one final exam, while other courses have weekly quizzes or several midterm exams. Midterms can be scheduled as early as week three or as late as week ten in the semester, depending on the course. They can range from fifty minutes to two hours long, and may be written in class or at a specially-scheduled time. Because midterms can occur at almost any time during the semester, students have to balance studying for them while keeping up with day-to-day course work and assignments.

Final exams are written in a two-week period following the end of classes and are two hours long. There is usually a day or two without classes before the start of the final exam period. Many students find that they need to start studying at least a week before finals begin. Students who are curious about what a university-level multiple choice exam will be like can find out in A Guide for University Learning, a free online workshop.

Highschool Essays vs. University Papers

The topics assigned for university writing assignments are often more complex than in high school, and university papers are, as a general rule, less descriptive and more analytical. At university, students need to:

  • Know the difference between a topic and a thesis.
  • Be able to identify and define a problem.
  • Anticipate and address counter-arguments.
  • Summarize and organize.
  • Write in a formal, academic style particular to a discipline.

Students are also expected to have an in-depth understanding of what plagiarism is, understand the ethics of scholarly work, and know how to paraphrase and cite properly following a particular disciplinary style. To learn more about the University´s expectations, they can visit the online tutorial on Academic Integrity.

Academic Writing

The most common writing problem for entering students is adapting to the formal, discipline-specific style of academic writing. To help students adapt, most instructors provide detailed instructions for first-year assignments, and many students could improve their assignments by following these guidelines more closely during the writing process. Students can also ask their instructors where to find examples of the sort of writing they’ll be expected to produce. They should pay attention to the kind of academic language and level of formality used in those examples. When it comes to grammar and spelling, many students make the same mistakes again and again. To overcome this problem, students need to be able to recognize and fix the mistakes pointed out to them by their instructors or peer editors. In addition, sometimes first-semester students are unpleasantly surprised by the marks they receive on their first essays. Students are welcome to bring drafts of their writing or marked papers to review with a writing consultant, who can identify recurring errors and help them to strengthen their academic writing strategies.

About Lower Marks

A drop in marks is not inevitable in first year, but many students do find that their average goes down to some extent from high school. The mark drop is largely a reflection of the transition from high school to university-style learning (and living), and the academic adjustments that even the brightest students have to make. For students who do experience a drop in marks, it’s important to keep things in perspective. A drop in marks does not mean that they aren’t suited for university study, or won’t be able to reach their goals. A mark drop does suggest, however, that students could benefit from advice and information on how to approach their studies more strategically or manage their time more effectively. First-year students can minimize any drop in their average by taking advantage of the many support services offered in the Library.


News Archive