Teaching and Learning Forum 98 [ Contents ]

Helping under-prepared students

David Lake
Teaching and Learning Centre
Murdoch University
The backgrounds of Australian students entering universities have become more diverse. Universities are accepting more alternative entry students who may lack direct experience of academia, and so we cannot assume that they are familiar with even the basic aspects of university culture. It is unrealistic, and unconscionable, to ask these students to grapple with content at a tertiary level and simultaneously osmotically absorb the culture. Failure to supply these students with cultural guides may result in the loss of otherwise capable students.

Murdoch University has responded to this need with several innovations, one being the credit-bearing unit, A120: Introduction to University Learning. The unit content revolves around understanding the university as a culture, and the relationship between the self and the culture. The pedagogy relies on peer support in small tutorials where university expectations are made explicit. Entry is by interview during the first weeks of semester, accepting only those with the greatest need.

The success of A120 can be gauged by student outcomes. Despite enrolling only those students initially floundering in other subjects and considering withdrawal, A120 students performed beyond expectations in all subjects with few failures, and many exceptional grades. Students attribute their success to A120's personal approach.

Reasons for university withdrawal

Biggs (1996) has recently pointed to the need for constructive alignment in curriculum design: constructive in that the learner creates meaning within a context, and alignment in that this creation of meaning by the learner is recognised in all aspects of curriculum design. Biggs (p.348) notes that the: "learner brings an accumulation of assumptions, motives, intentions, and previous knowledge that envelopes every teaching/learning situation and determines the course and quality of learning that may take place". Nowhere in a student's university career is this constructive alignment more important than during the first semester on campus.

Lack of alignment between the student's assumptions, motives, intentions and previous knowledge and those of academia have been identified as important factors in student withdrawal. Tinto (1975) invoked Durkheim's 1961 analysis of suicide prediction to model the prediction of students to withdraw. He argued that institutional commitment, as opposed to goal commitment, was required for the social integration and academic integration needed for academic success. Students holding values that were highly divergent from the social collectivity of the university were more likely to withdraw, regardless of their inherent ability. Tinto recommended the development of supportive groups encompassing students, faculty and administration to develop institutional commitment and reduce withdrawal amongst at-risk students.

The importance of institutional fit and commitment for academic success has been well documented in subsequent studies, even to the extent that it outweighed academic and other social and psychological variables in predicting academic withdrawal (Bean,1985). Similarly, it has been found that students with lower credit loads, and thus it is argued, a smaller investment in the institution, are more likely to withdraw (Okun,Benin & Brandt-Williams, 1996); a finding of some concern given the move towards a higher proportion of part-time students in most Western university systems.

Despite the need for student orientation to build institutional fit and commitment among new students, the mechanisms provided by universities to prepare students for independent learning is poorly reported (Taylor & Burgess, 1995). This is somewhat surprising since the highest failure rate is during first year, and the first semester in particular. In Australia, one third of all new students consider withdrawal during their first year of study (McInnis & James, 1995). The high withdrawal rate at this time has been attributed to a failure to two factors. Firstly, a failure to adopt appropriate study skills (Tait & Entwhistle, 1996). This is a shortcoming which is amenable to intervention. For example, Manalo and coworkers (Manalo, Wong-Toi & Henning, 1996) improved pass rates by use of study skills workshops targeted at at-risk students. The second, less researched factor alleged to contribute to attrition is a failure to adopt an appropriate approach to learning. In one study (Killen, 1994) unsuccessful students emphasised three characteristics of their learning experience: an external locus of control, an unstable environment, and an uncontrollable environment. These three characteristics suggest that these students lack the techniques to control their own learning experience (that is a lack of institutional fit and commitment) , or that they misconceive the expectations that the university holds of them (that is a lack of constructive alignment).

The changing nature and needs of students

While relationships between institutional fit and commitment, and the tendency of students to withdraw from university studies are becoming clearer, there has been a shift in the size and nature of the university clientele that requires universities to respond to a new set of student assumptions, motives, intentions and prior experience. Australia saw a sixty-four percent rise in university enrolments between 1982 and 1992 (Mcinnis and James, 1995). Similar rises have occurred elsewhere; participation in higher education doubled amongst youth in Britain between 1988 and 1994 (Wright, 1996). However, focussing attention on the quantitative changes in the sector masks the qualitative changes that are occurring in higher education. In Britain the number of mature age students in higher education rose by thirty nine percent in the late eighties (Richardson,1994); a trend that is still evident in the face of a more recent tapering off in overall participation rates (Blaxter, Dodd & Tight, 1996). In the United States and Britain, this increase includes many for whom the normal entry requirements have been waived, but who have limited recent experience of formal education (Richardson, 1994). A similar situation exists in Australia where emphasis has been placed on encouraging new groups of 'disadvantaged' students to enrol in order to maintain growth. Support for these students once they reach university is less prominent. As Kennedy (1995) noted: "there is also the question of retention in courses which seems to have remained largely unaddressed in the literature. If these (non-traditional) students are to remain in their courses, attention will need to be paid to their teaching and learning needs."

An important group of non-traditional students entering the sector in increasing numbers are the mature-age students. In 1989, twenty-five percent of Australian university enrolments were from mature age students, yet forty two percent of these students discontinue their studies (Currie & Baldock, 1989). Such a high wastage rate warrants careful attention. However, the group is multidimensional with each subgroup having specific and distinct needs. Important distinctions need to be made between part- and full-time students, between those without the formal minimum entry requirements and those upgrading existing requirements, between the older students seeking personal development and younger students seeking career advancement (Blaxter, Dodd & Tight, 1996), and between those with outside commitments and those without (Scott, Burns & Cooney, 1996).

West and Hore (1989) distinguish between four groups of mature age students, each of whom could be expected to differ in their institutional fit. The first group are the early school leavers, often having little formal education many years earlier, and little interaction with higher education. As such, they are likely to experience the greatest institutional misalignment. The second group are the returners who started in higher education and then withdrew before completion, and would include many of those who withdrew in the first instance through lack of institutional fit. The third group are the deferrers who gained entry into university, but for a variety of reasons, did not avail themselves at the time. This group may have varying lengths of absence from formal education, and no experience of higher education. The final, and largest group making up about half the mature age students, are the recyclers. These students have one or more post-secondary award and return to university to upgrade their qualifications. While ostensibly a well-prepared group, they now include large numbers of students transferring from the non-university sector where study orientations and required skills differ from those in the university.

Despite the divergence among mature age students, several studies have come up with reasonably consistent findings. Most noticeable is the higher level of generic 'life skills' available to the mature age students. Those over twenty-five have been found to possess better time-management and related skills. However, the possession of these important skills appears to have only a slight impact on academic performance (Trueman & Hartley, 1996). Furthermore, mature age students possess many of the highly desirable approaches to study, in particular an orientation toward meaning rather than reproducing, attributed to the presence of intrinsic goals, more life experiences, and the lack of surface learning associated with secondary education (Richardson, 1994). The positive features of mature age learners exhibit themselves in a higher levels of persistence and attainment once they have established themselves within the institution of the university (Richardson, 1995).

However, the enormous attrition rate during the first semester results in the loss of many potentially competent students to the detriment of the students, their universities and society in general. Murdoch University, like many universities, has an increasing number of non-traditional students, including many mature age students. At the end of 1996 it was decided to launch a credit bearing course targeted at students who were contemplating withdrawal, and aiming to develop their institutional fit and commitment through a course based on the recognition of the students as an individuals, each with a personal history, who need to acculturate to a new environment. This course was titled A120: Introduction to University Learning.

A constructively aligned approach

Entry to A120 was limited to those most likely to benefit from such a course rather than allowing students to self-select. To accomplish this, the constructive alignment of the unit extended beyond the curriculum and teaching methods envisaged by Biggs into the course administration.

Since it is the mismatch between the university's assumptions, motives, intentions, and expected previous knowledge and those held by the student, it is not easy to recognise students who might benefit from such a course at the outset of the semester. Furthermore, not only do potential students not recognise their need (and therefore may not willingly participate in such a course), but the natural apprehension of students who, by virtue of their histories, are aware of the university's assumptions, motives, intentions, and expected previous knowledge, may seek assistance from such a course, which by its nature would be of limited value. It should be noted that this university provides students with a choice of core foundation units which are premised on the understanding that all students require an re-orientation of their study skills on entry to university.

By commencing the unit in week five of the semester, and conducting interviews with students during the previous two weeks, it was possible to allow students, and their tutors, to assess any mismatch in institutional fit. Students were referred to the course principally by tutors and administrative officers. The latter were particularly important since they were the staff to whom students returned unit withdrawal forms. Some students also sought assistance on their own behalf.

From the students interviewed, about half were counselled on the spot for minor concerns, or where problems were related to weaknesses in one or two specific skills they were directed to workshops or short courses offered by the university's Teaching and Learning Centre. The remaining students who were allowed to enrol in A120 were those most apparently exhibiting institutional misfit, and usually presented with moderate to severe emotional stress which was directly related to their studies. Not surprisingly, given the lack of institutional fit associated with mature age intakes, the fifty-two of the sixty-four students in the initial intake were mature age students, and forty of those were female. Of the school leavers, five spoke languages other than English as their first language, leaving eight that could be regarded as "traditional students".

The curriculum content, teaching methodology and assessment were also chosen to provide students with the opportunity for interactions with peers, academics, and general administrative staff to allow social integration, and the opportunity to develop the generic skills that would enable them to demonstrate their goal commitment. This recognises the link between the development of deep learning approaches and peer interaction (Biggs, 1987) Content was based around the concepts of self; what the student brought with them to the institution, and culture; in particular the distinctive culture of the university.

Some brief examples of the integration will serve to illustrate the main features of the approach. Content merged with process throughout, with explicit foregrounding of university expectations for essays allowing students to discuss and compare appropriate essay structures for the three essay assignments in the unit with those from other units which the students studied; theory with abstract where citation conventions were discussed in concert with the moral issues regarding plagiarism, and academic issues with social where student union representatives outlined the support schemes available to students during the week that students readings related to the sociology of academic environments.

Assessment also recognised the need to develop institutional fit and commitment among these students. The three assessed essays were graded to range from a short, narrative form, requiring minimal referencing in the first instance to a more extended, theoretically based abstract critique in the third instance. The additional expectations were made clear to students at each level. The assessment also included a journal with several parts. Central was a reflective diary of the students' learning, conforming to Morrison's (1996) empowering model. Associated with this were brief notes on each lecture in each of the subject's units, outlining in two sentences, the purpose of the lecture and its relationship to the unit objectives. More specifically, students were asked to compile a glossary of terms, their meaning, and usage for each unit they were enrolled in. Finally, the students were required to complete learning skills activities each week to emphasise the specific skills being focused on during that week. Students also sat for a two hour examination which was preceded by a trial examination two weeks earlier coupled with sessions on effective revision techniques and stress management from university counsellors.

One lecture per week was coupled with three hours of small group tutoring, with tutorial classes having no more than ten students. The emphasis was placed on making the tutorial environment supportive. Students were encouraged to read each others work and comment constructively. Tutorials regularly spilled over into the refectory, and informal support groups developed spontaneously from this.


The results of the first semester intake would suggest that the unit has succeeded in enhancing both the students' institutional and goal motivation. Of the sixty-four students that enrolled, 57 passed the unit, two did not show after the initial interview, two withdrew for health reasons unrelated to study, one withdrew for financial reasons, one withdrew to gain employment interstate, and one withdrew due to academic pressure. These results cannot be attributed to a lower standard in A120 compared with other subjects. As a group, students' scores in other subjects were worse than their A120 scores in 23% of units, the same in 45% of units and better in only in 32% of other units. In these other units the majority of grades were at credit level or above in 58% of cases. It should be remembered that these students were in week 5 and had most had already failed one or more assignments in their other subjects before they entered the A120 course. By comparison with the non-traditional, mature age students that might be expected to lack the institutional fit at the start of the semester, the small number of "traditional" school-leavers did not fare quite as well with generally poorer grades in A120 and not receiving grades higher than credit in any other unit.

An assessment of student perceptions conducted by the institutions' evaluation unit revealed satisfaction in ninety eight percent of responses in a thirty five item questionnaire. Five students also found it necessary to contact the university administration with letters thanking the university for the unit.

The anonymous, open-ended evaluations made by twenty students following completion of the course, like the letters to the administration, vindicate the use of the constructive alignment model to enhance institutional commitment. Not surprisingly, fifteen of the twenty respondents mentioned the value of developing specific study skills their integration into the unit content. For example, one student wrote "It felt like someone had thrown me a lifeline, with everyone so busy telling me what to learn, nobody stopped to tell me how to learn; this course did that." However, a large number also talked of the social integration that the course allowed them. Ten respondents specifically mentioned the relaxed interaction that was possible with tutors, five mentioned the benefits they had received from their interactions with other students in the tutorial group, while four stressed the role of interactions in general for their social integration. These comments were supported by statements from seven students which indicated that students were utilising a deeper, more reflective approach to their learning. In one case "I used to blindly study these concepts just for the sake of doing so, but now I know how these concepts relate to myself. ... What A120 really did was force me to confront myself in the university culture ... it has helped me immensely in evaluating myself as a learner." Even more noticeable in the responses were the references made by respondents to the way that the unit "has made me fit in here". For example, one student wrote: "I understand the cultural changes I have made at university and now I feel as though I am part of that culture instead of an intruder'.

If Tinto was right about the need for institutional commitment in order to achieve academic success, then it would appear that these students have benefited from the conscious attempt to raise their awareness of the university's assumptions, motives, intentions and assumed skills.


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Please cite as: Lake, D. (1998). Helping under-prepared students. In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times, 160-165. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1998/lake.html

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