On Slaying Educational Dragons

Posted by Jenny on Feb 13, 2013 in Snapshot |

Story  Jeanette O’Hagan

Nestled in the curve of the Brisbane River, a sleeping beauty is beginning to wake from its summer slumber. Now quietly somnolent, the almost empty expanses of green manicured lawns,  stately sandstone buildings and car parks will soon be a bursting with white canvas information booths, crowds of excited students and cars of every make and model.

The scene will be replicated downstream of the flood swollen river at the Queensland University of Technology Garden Point Campus huddled between the historic Botanic Gardens and Houses of Parliament, at Griffiths University Nathan campus set amidst Australian bushland to the south and indeed in multiple TAFEs and Universities campuses throughout Brisbane and the far reaches of Queensland.

With the start of orientation programs during February 2013, a new generation of tertiary students will arrive from city suburbs, regional towns and remote rural areas to slay educational dragons and secure a bright future. And like the heroes of old, first year students face many challenges as they negotiate the transition from secondary to tertiary education. Fronting up to University can be a daunting task.

“First year university students have historically faced a wide range of stressors and challenges whilst embracing new direction in their lives. The complexity of these stressors, however, appears to be ballooning as we enter a new millennium,” say Ms Libbie Douglass and Dr Mir Rabiul Islam from the Psychology Department, Charles Sturt University in a 2009 report on the emotional wellbeing of first year students. These stressors can result in increases in rates of depression and anxiety and student drop out.

Former engineering student, Chris travelled from Mt Isa to attend James Cook University in Townsville. In the first few weeks, Chris found the initial lectures boring. “They covered the material we had studied at school.” Thinking he wasn’t learning anything new, he stopped attending lectures and by the time he had realised his mistake, he was too far behind to easily catch up. Not surprisingly, he failed his mid-term exams. The work load had become overwhelming. Quiet and retiring, he had made a few friends in the residential college where he stayed but he struggled with literacy and didn’t know where to go for help. By second semester he had withdrawn from his course.

Studies have consistently shown that as much as one third to one fifth of students defer, transfer their course or drop out of study all together by the end of first year. The First Year Experience in Australian Universities, a 1994-2009 longitudinal study by Richard James, Kerri-Lee Krause and Claire Jennings found that in 2009 23% of students were considering deferring or discontinuing. A 2011 HERDSA study on First Years Transition into University reports, “High numbers (e.g. up to 40% at some institutions) discontinue studies prematurely, often due to the difference between the expectations of university life and the actual experience.”

Mrs Kate Hillenberg who worked for years in TESOL and TAFE says, “I think a lot of students feel that they are in a sink or swim situation. It’s a big learning curve and those who manage to keep it together survive but for some students the challenges cause them to walk away.”

Yet with realistic expectations, hard work and a willingness to ask for help when needed, it doesn’t have to be that way.

The Challenges

New students commonly underestimate the work load and the degree of self-motivated study required at University. The 1994-2009 longitudinal study found that a third of First Years found the study work load was too heavy.

Rosie, a quiet, softly spoken pharmacy student at University of Queensland, St Lucia, says, “I was not quite as prepared as I thought for the increased workload.”

In today’s financially tight educational climate, students can have unrealistic expectation of the amount of supervision their lecturers can give.

Kathleen, a science honours graduate, relates how one of her Chemistry lecturers informed the class of nervous first years,

“About a third of you will fail this course and it’s not my problem – your teachers in school cared but I don’t care – it’s all up to you.”

Many lecturers, such as lslam and Douglass, do care. Nevertheless there is a significant change in student-teacher dynamics between secondary school and tertiary education. The 1994-2009 longitudinal study found that lecturers were troubled by the widespread expectations that they would regularly look at student’s draft essays and would mark essays within a week. These things are just not possible with the way Universities are currently funded.

Smaller or more specialist tertiary institutions can provide more opportunity for teacher-student interaction.

Morgan (21) is a vibrant and talented singer, now in her final year of the Bachelor of Music (Classical Voice) at the Griffith Queensland Conservatorium of Music. “I really love my lecturers – they’re incredibly knowledgeable about their subject areas and are a constant source of inspiration. That said, I’m at a very close-knit uni, with much fewer students in classes than a normal uni,” she says. While she didn’t warm to the competitive push of one mentor, she says “my current teacher is a real pillar of strength for me.”

On a positive note, the findings of the 1994-2009 longitudinal study “suggest that good progress has been made in improving the transition to university and the quality of the educational experience for first year students. The investment in high quality transition programs and in monitoring and responding to the needs and experiences of first year students is yielding dividends.” “Half the school-leavers now say that school was a good preparation for university study. This is significantly above the 2004 findings.”

Students may struggle with motivation, procrastination and poor study habits, especially if there is a mismatch between the course and the student’s interests and natural abilities. According to the longitudinal study, 36% find it difficult to get motivated to study.

Caitlin (19), in her final year of Diploma of Justice Studies at South Brisbane Institute of Technology (SBIT) says, “I find it very hard to concentrate and get motivated and get my work done.”

Another challenge can be balancing work, social and family commitments. With rising costs and less government contributions, many students experience financial pressures.

More than half of students have some part-time work to help finance their time at university. While work can enhance studies, it can more often be detrimental to them. According to the 1994-2009 longitudinal study, 61% of students are working. The study concludes, “Longer hours of work are associated with a lower grade average and an increased likelihood of considering deferral … The high number of hours worked each week by a large proportion of first year students, often to provide for basic necessities, suggests educational outcomes are at risk of being diminished.” “The typical full-time student is also a working student who is sandwiching study and work”

Not having work may put other pressures on students with minimal incomes. The Longitudinal study reported that 33% of students found that money worries made it difficult to study.

SBIT student Caitlin said, “Another problem is the lack of funds. Not many people are willing to hire a full time student, and being jobless while studying is harsh.”

Many students experience isolation and loneliness, especially if they have had to relocate to study.

James, Krause and Jennings report an a decrease in sense of community and involvement in extracurricular activities related to an increase of online content of courses, less teacher involvement, bigger classes and increase in the need to work to support one’s studies. “Only one half of first year students report they feel like they belong on their university campus, despite the vast majority of respondents being full-time, campus-based students.”

Second year Pharmacy student Rosie (18), who lives with her family in the northern suburbs, says, “Possibly the greatest challenge for me was switching from an environment where I was familiar with everyone around me, to one where I didn’t know anyone at all.”

For 21 year old Morgan, enrolling in the Conservatorium of Music situated at Brisbane’s Southbank “meant moving away from everyone I knew in Mackay, where I grew up. For me, that was daunting, because I’m quite a social person. But that turned out to be just fine.”

For other students the social side of University or TAFE can dominate. They may be away from parental supervision for the first time. This can result in risky behaviours with drug/alcohol use and abuse and unpleasant sexual experiences.

Former TAFE lecturer, TESOL teacher Hillenberg says students “may use alcohol or drugs to relieve feelings of loneliness, anxiety and depression.” Some, she adds, become involved in the “drinking culture.”

Douglass and Islam in their survey of 181 students at an Australian regional university found ‘30% “experiencing drugs on campus,” 27% “taking illicit drugs” and 24% “smoking marijuana.” Twenty five percent had problems “controlling their alcohol intake” and 10% reported having an “extremely negative sexual experience.”’

The variety of stresses can be greater for rural and remote students who often have to relocate bringing additional burdens of financial pressure and isolation.

In a 2010 study of 32 students at regional University by Vicki Bitsika, Christopher F. Sharpley and Vira Rubenstein, students found “dislocation, to family, friend and partner relationships most stressful.” In a study of rural and remote students attending Swinburne University of Technology, Ms Meaghan Walsh, Ms Jennifer Crawford & Dr Ian Macdonald, students reported “social issues associated with dislocation from family and established social networks … and accommodation issues” as well as financial pressures and academic difficulties.”

Students from rural, minority or lower socioeconomic backgrounds may also be the first one in their families enrolled in tertiary studies. In many cases, their families may not value tertiary education or not fully understand the level of commitment such study entails.

The 1994-2009 Longitudinal Study found “Students from rural areas and low socioeconomic backgrounds are less inclined to say that their final year was a good preparation for university. Students from low socioeconomic backgrounds feel significant pressure from the financial commitment their parents have made, while at the same time are less likely to believe their parents have an understanding of what university is all about.” Nola Alloway and Meaghan Dalley in a study of rural students says “the value of education is not necessarily obvious to many rural people. … young people report that  they have no relevant role models in their communities who would empathise with the importance, benefits and values of education and learning – and no voice that would or could challenge family traditions and understanding.”

International students face the added pressure of adjusting to a foreign culture.

Hillenberg, who still maintains links with her former international students says, “Students from other countries may be dealing with language issues and cultural challenges. However in my experience a lot of overseas students form firm networks of friends in a similar situation and provide support for each other.”

For some students the academic, financial or social pressures become more than they can handle. They may struggle with anxiety or depression or, like Chris, drop out of study. Islam and Douglass state in their 2007 Roundtable discussion paper, “A number of studies suggest that higher rates of psychological morbidity [than among the general population] are being recorded among first year university students throughout the world.” “Many of these issues are extremely serious in nature, such as mental health problems, sexual assault and drug and alcohol crises.”

“Predisposition to depression, anxiety or character challenges such as perfectionism can manifest due to the increasing challenges that the students face. One student I know was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder during his university studies but he continued to attempt to complete his course,” says Hillenberg.

Overcoming the challenges

Despite the difficulties, the majority of students survive and indeed thrive in the transition from secondary school to tertiary studies. There are many strategies and resources available to students to overcome the challenges they face.

Universities and TAFEs are becoming more aware of the issues though there is still more that could be done.

James, Krause and Jennings suggest “strengthening the interactions between students and academic staff. … The student-teaching interaction appears impersonal and distant for many students. … [while] teacher empathy, demonstrated interest in students as individuals and respect for students are important factors in students’ academic and social engagement.”

The large 2011 HERDSA study found that Universities can assist student transition through providing “orientation, web-based course assistance, computer and study facilities, and university sponsored social events.” It concludes, “The research suggests that the university should focus on developing its web-based resources further, these being highly valued by students making the transition to higher education.”

“The TAFE and the University of Queensland have quite extensive student counselling and support available,” says Hillenberg. “These services are open to all students and can involve help with study skills or personal issues including accommodation. … Other general support services like Lifeline, Beyond Blue and Headspace can be accessed by students and need to be promoted so students know these services are available.”

Research shows that support of family and friends is an important factor in helping school leavers adjust to tertiary study.

Even though hundreds of kilometres from home, Morgan says, “My mother was a huge support system for me, re-coaching me in the holidays and monitoring my progress (she was my previous singing teacher before moving to the Conservatorium).”

For Rosie the support of her pre-Uni friends helped: “One thing that helped me keep confident in an unfamiliar environment was catching up with friends I had known from school. It allowed me to keep a connection to the familiar which made dealing with the unfamiliar less stressful.” It was similar for Caitlin: “I got a lot of help from friends and my boyfriend. Without them I would have been a lot more stressed I think.”

Hillenberg suggests families can “actively prepare students for the university environment and talk over the experiences that may be involved.” She adds, “I would suggest that family and friends stay in touch with the students and pay attention to the mood and demeanour of the students over time.”

Students can do a number of things to survive and indeed enhance their tertiary experience.

The 2011 HERDSA study concluded students can help their transition into tertiary study through a “willingness to seek academic support, effort and commitment towards study and embracing university culture.” They say, “Students adapt better to their university environment when they feel supported by their peers and when they are part of a social network and overall culture.”

Hillenberg agrees that “firm friendships can be made with other classmates and these can encourage each other as they are all in the same boat. …There are a variety of social groups on campus which give students an opportunity to reach out. However the onus is on the student to seek out and find these groups.”

Professor Marcia Devlin of Deakin University dropped from full time to part time study in her first year yet went on to earn five academic qualifications. In an article in the Age, she recommends six strategies for first year students:

1) Manage your expectations;

2) Find help early and often;

3) Connect with other students;

4) Minimize part-time work;

5) Be prepared for the crunch time often about the week six of the first semester; and

6) If the crunch comes, consider all options.

Devlin says “Dropping out is an option, of course. It solves your immediate problems. But there are other options. If you need support while you consider your options, talk to your family and friends or make an appointment to speak to a student counsellor.”

An Exciting Time

Despite the potential difficulties, for the majority of students, tertiary study is an exciting time that opens the doors to opportunities and growth.

Morgan (21), in her final year of music studies: “I love the independence of it. I enjoy being able to complete what I need to complete and choose what I want to do in my own time, when it suits me, which can sometimes be a bit of juggle with work.”

Rosie (18), in second year of pharmacy: “so far I am satisfied with my course. While difficult, I find it interesting … while there is more work involved, there is still a much more evident feeling of being relaxed compared to school life.”

Bachelor of Science Graduate, John (28) liked “The freedom to express opinions, discover yourself and others, be yourself, learn, lots of spare time, lots of activities to consider involvement in.” He says, “My experience as a university student was mostly positive. I grew a lot emotionally, spiritually and physically (a little bit, not too much physically). Got involved in a Christian group and that helped me a lot, especially in terms of finding life’s purpose.”

Caitlin (19): “I enjoy my course, and it has taught me a lot.” “It is a lot of fun and I have met so many new people. It has made me come out of my shell a bit, and grow up quite a lot.” “I think it was a big shock for me, studying justice. I studied law and crimes and it hit me hard. I think it finally impacted me how harsh the world can be. I really hit a low for a while, and wondered why I was doing it, but I think I’ve finally started to figure out that yes, it does happen, but that’s why I decided to study this… to help people and to try to prevent it in the future.”

Confronting tertiary studies for the first time can be daunting. Students often experience stress related to the changed study styles and expectations, adjusting to a new environment, making new friends, balancing study with social life, family and work commitments, and financial pressures. It can also be a time of greater independence and personal growth.

The Uni/TAFE experience is an exciting one that opens the doors to opportunity as thorny obstacles and entangling distractions are overcome and the sleeping beauty awakes. Just remember, be prepared, plan ahead, work hard, make connections, seek help early and whenever necessary and don’t despair•

People, programs or groups to contact that can help:

Utilize transition programs – orientation week activities, introductory sessions, study skills workshops etc

University handbooks and information manuals

Fellow students, family and friends

Lecturers, course co-ordinators and advisors

University counselling centres and chaplaincy services

Local doctors, counsellors or psychologists



Beyond Blue

Red Frogs

Student groups and societies such as Student Life, AFES, different clubs and societies


Alloway, N., & Dalley, L., (2009) “High and Dry” in Rural Australia: obstacles to student aspirations and expectations” in Journal of Research Into Rural Social Issues Vol 19 N 1 April 2009, p 45-55

Aston, J. & Elliot, R. (2007), “Study, Work, Rest and Play: Juggling priorities of student’s lives” in AJEC Australian Journal of Early Childhood, Vol 32 No 2 June 2007, 15 ff

Bowles, A. Et al (2011). An Exploratory Investigation into First Year Student Transition to University. In Krause, K., Buckridge, M., Grimmer, C. and Purbrick-Illek, S. (Eds.) Research and Development in Higher Education: Reshaping Higher Education, 34 (pp. 61 – 71). 34th HERDSA Annual International Conference, Gold Coast, Australia, 4 – 7 July 2011.

Bitsika, V., Sharpley C. F., & Rubenstein, V., (2010) “What Stresses University Students: An Interview Investigation of the Demands of Tertiary Students” in Australian Journal of Guidance and Counselling, Vol 20 No 1 July 2010, pp 41-54, http://www.herdsa.org.au/wp-content/uploads/conference/2011/papers/HERDSA_2011_Bowles.PDF, acc 2 February 2013

Devlin, M., (January 16, 2012) First year: a survival guide in The Age, http://www.theage.com.au/national/tertiary-education/first-year-a-survival-guide-20120116-1q267.html#ixzz2JbgtCMk9 , acc 20 January 2013

Douglass, L., & Islam, M. R. (2009) Emotional wellbeing of first year university students: Critical for determining future academic success. School Social Sciences & Liberal Studies – Charles Sturt University, pdf, http://fyhe.com.au/past_papers/papers09/content/pdf/8A.pdf, acc 20 Jan 2013

Islam, M. R. & Douglass, L., (2007) Emotional wellbeing of first year students: The challenge of engaging the “whole person” Roundtable Discussion Paper, Psychology Department of Charles Sturt University, http://fyhe.com.au/past_papers/2006/Round%20Table/Islam.pdf , acc 20 Jan 2013

James, R., Krause, K-L., & Jennings, C., (2010) The First Year Experience in Australian Universities: Findings from 1994 to 2009,The University of Melbourne, March 2010, pdf, http://www.latrobe.edu.au/ctlc/assets/downloads/dfl/FYE-Report-1994-2009.pdf , acc 20 January 2013

Lewis, C., Dickson-Swift, V., Talbot, L., & Snow, P. (2007) “Regional Tertiary Students and Living Away from Home: A priceless experience that costs too much?” in AJSI Australian Journal of Social Issues, Vol 42 No 42 Summer 2007, pp 531ff.

Walsh, M., Crawford, J., & Macdonald, I., () Rural and Remote Students: Transition Issues in Accessing Tertiary Education, IMAC Education Pty Ltd.,  http://www.imac-education.com.au/publications/Pub12.htm, acc 20 January 2013


Hillenberg, K., (2013) Personal interview conducted 26 January & 2 February, 2013 via email and chat.

Also additional personal interviews with current and past students conducted between 19 January – 2 February, 2013.

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