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Acquiring the skills to succeed at university

Acquiring the skills to succeed at university

Andrew Skelton

Having taught high school earlier in his career, Andrew Skelton saw first-hand the gaps between a graduating student’s experience and the demands of a university education and set out to bridge them.

“There are big changes in study skills, life skills and learning skills and students need to acquire the ability to reflect and adjust,” said Skelton, an assistant professor, teaching stream, in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at York University.

In the United States, it is quite common to find first-year seminar courses, taken for credit by first-semester undergraduates. These courses have a small faculty-student ratio (30:1) and focus on assisting students to develop practical and intellectual skills that will enhance their university experience. Such courses are not prevalent in Canada, so Skelton began pondering how a Canadian model might look.

“All over the York campus, there is experience in helping students develop these skills, but how do we get students to take advantage of these resources?” he said.

His solution was to develop stand-alone modules that could easily fit into a first-year course. The models address three types of student needs: mathematical skills (how to learn from homework problems, effective mathematical communication, multiple representations and other aids); study skills (avoiding procrastination, notetaking and the neuroscience of learning); and, life skills (managing academic stress, how to send an email and combating perfectionism).

It is a project that has been three years in the making. The first year was funded by the Junior Faculty Fund in the Faculty of Science. Skelton had three summer students work with him to develop proof of concept. Feedback from the first group of students led Skelton to modify the offerings. The second year was funded by an Academic Innovation Fund (AIF) grant and was focused on balancing the cost and benefit to the students to create a product they would find valuable. Students in the second group perceived that the value of the modules had significantly increased, while the cost relative to the value had decreased significantly. In other words, the redesign process was effective in better optimizing student motivation and effort.

“I wanted them to be of benefit to students in terms of time and emotional energy and wanted to determine how to advertise them to students and how they would figure into a student’s grade,” Skelton said. “In doing so, I realized they were built for me and my teaching style and weren’t transferable to other professors.”

The third year of his project, funded by a grant from eCampus Ontario (and the York Science Scholars Award program), focused on making the modules suitable for use by any faculty member and on balancing the cost and benefit to the faculty members so more would adapt the product to their courses.

“If you, as a faculty member, have an interest in helping the students in your course with these learning skills, I have a product that you can adapt to your teaching style,” Skelton said.

Data were collected over each year of the project and have produced interesting results. There was, for example, a significant correlation between the number of modules completed proactively and the final grade in the course. This gives support to the advice that faculty often share with students: it’s a good idea to set small goals if you want to see long-term change. Trying to submit just one more thing proactively is a perfectly reasonable goal. Each proactive submission is associated with an increase in average academic performance, so start small and build from there.

Jermin Bates, a 2020 alumna with a BA in mathematics and education, spent two years working with Skelton in developing the modules for e-class, turning them into portable modules and tracking the cost and benefit to students.

“It was great to see the results of the modules and how effective they were,” she said. “Especially after we redeveloped them, we saw an increase in overall student grades. I wish I’d had these modules as a first-year student. It’s tough for a lot of us as we go through it.”

Skelton is currently using the modules with 1,200 first-year students and will give the modules a final tweak, once he sees the impact they have in the classroom. In February 2022, the modules will be posted online on the eCampus Ontario website, so they are available to faculty anywhere. In creating the eCampus Ontario modules, Skelton reached out to colleagues at the University of Guelph and Western University to collaborate.

“It was nice to bring perspectives from other universities to the product,” Skelton said. “Although the student demographics there might differ, all students need these skills.”

The modules are designed so that students can do them independently or as part of a course.

“Faculty can accompany them with instructional activities and make them part of the grade,” Skelton said. “For example, they can ask students to do five of 20 possible activities and make each of them count for one per cent of the grade. You don’t want there to be such high stakes that they infringe on the course content.”

He thoroughly enjoys teaching first-year students and hopes that these modules will smooth their journeys from incoming students to graduates.

“It’s such fun to see them transition and grow,” Skelton said. “By fourth year, they are completely different people.”

Bates, too, is a different person after working with Skelton. She had previously planned to pursue a degree in education but is now considering attending graduate school to obtain a more research-based degree.

“This opened my eyes to the possibilities of research,” said Bates. “I don’t think I realized how broad it was. This had a bigger impact on me than I was expecting.”

By Elaine Smith and featured in the Jan 2022 Issue of Innovatus.

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