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Enhancing First Year: The First Year Experience

Entering university, whether directly from school or after a longer period away from education, brings very significant challenges for first-year students who need to become used to an educational environment where they are expected to function as independent and self-motivated leaners. Students also have to adapt more broadly to life in university, becoming part not only of their degree programme, but also joining other university groups in sports, societies and residential communities. 

Because of the considerable changes faced by students, the educational and support structure of first year has a significant impact on how they will engage and succeed in their university life. These are a cohort of students who need to be taught and assessed within well-structured educational environments which acknowledge what encourages and what hinders their capacity to learn. Only then can they function as engaged, intelligent students, capable of reaching their potential.

As the diagram below illustrates, in UCD the structure of first year is characterised by high levels of student support, both academic and non-academic, particularly in the first six weeks of the first semester. 

Starting with Orientation week, students are introduced to the specifics of their programmes of study and the learning outcomes expected in each of their modules. For students, many of who are accustomed to an almost total focus on end-of-year exams, how they are assessed in this period may well be the most important determinant on their capacity to cope and flourish in higher education, and to successfully complete half of their modules before Christmas.

Research undertaken by the UCD Fellows (UCD Fellowships Report 2007-09) highlights the importance of helping students organise their time better to develop useful study skills at the beginning of their programme.

International research also indicates that assessment requirements are strong influences on the approach to learning adopted by students (Ramsden 2005). In particular being able to undertake short, well-designed assessments early in the first semester, followed by responsive feedback, gives students the required guidance as to how they are progressing and how they may need to adapt their learning behaviours in order to succeed.  


Diagram of first year experiences


These following pages will focus on assessment, providing resources and guidance via six modular design principles to enhance and support the first year experience.



Resources for Students