First Years, First Marks and Rude Shocks: Developing More Explicit and Effective Ways of Preparing Humanities Students for the First Written Assignment at University

By Joy McEntee and Rowena Harper.

Published by The Learner Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Ambrose Bierce once described the freshman as a ‘student acquainted with grief’. First year students are, indeed, subject to a series of rude shocks in their first weeks at University, chief among them the results of the first assessment. This is particularly the case in those disciplines that require students to produce a piece of sophisticated research writing (essay, research report, literature survey) within weeks of setting foot on campus. Such assessments require that students exhibit a complex synthesis of research and writing skills they are assumed to know, but may not have been explicitly or effectively taught. The panic over this process and the ‘shock’ felt by students when their results are not as they predicted play a large role in attrition, a problem experienced widely in universities across Australia and internationally.
This paper considers the demanding array of expectations placed on first-years writing in Humanities subjects, where discursive analysis is not just about ‘writing’ but about research, critical analysis, dialogue and collaboration and self-direction. The paper reviews and synthesises key insights from pedagogic literature about the first-year experience, about the effect first assessment experiences have on students’ integration into tertiary learning environments, and about the implications of those insights for designing new approaches to helping students succeed. The paper outlines the theoretical basis for an experiment that is to be trialled in two Australian universities in 2008. The experiment’s design synthesises online learning, peer learning and incremental research skill development activities to put the emphasis on preparing students for research-based assessment before the fact. This reverses the typical approach of providing feedback afterwards (which, research demonstrates, is often ineffective). The paper outlines an innovative and systematic method for intervening in student skills development in a timely, explicit, and, hopefully, more effective way.

Keywords: University, First Year, Humanities, Successful Induction Research Culture, Online, Peer Learning

The International Journal of Learning, Volume 14, Issue 5, pp.215-224. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 571.827KB).

Dr. Joy McEntee

Lecturer, English Discipline, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Joy McEntee currently lectures in American literuature and film at the University of Adelaide. She holds a PhD from Monash University, where she completed a thesis on revenge tragedy and the movies. Her discipline-specific research interests are in Gothic literature and film because she unashamedly enjoys things that are dark, daft and bloody. Dr McEntee has received a number of distinctions based on the quality of her teaching. In 2006, Dr McEntee won a Carrick Citation for Outstanding Contribution to Student Learning; in 2002 she won a Fulbright American Studies Institute Award, and in 2000 she won a Stephen Cole Prize for Excellence in Teaching in the first five years.

Rowena Harper

Lecturer, Foundation Studies, School of International Studies, University of South Australia, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Rowena Harper lectures in Foundation Studies in the School of International Studies at the University of South Australia. She is currently completing a PhD on American Teen Film at the University of Adelaide, and studying for the Graduate Certificate in Higher Education. In 2006, Ms Harper won the Executive Dean's Prize for Excellence in Teaching in the first five years from the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Adelaide.


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