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If you are one of the thousands of students making the transition from secondary or vocational study into tertiary education, you may be wondering how you’re going to cope in a new learning environment.

But as Professor Sophia Arkoudis, an expert at the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education, who has extensively studied the experiences of domestic and international students, puts it, the challenges faced by first-year students are far from universal, suggesting that many will thrive in their new environments.

“Different people will experience it in different ways. So it’s very hard to generalise that everyone will find these particular challenges,” Professor Arkoudis said.
Nevertheless, Professor Arkoudis believes there are some key steps students can take to ensure that they meet the challenges in front of them.

1. Identify the places on campus that can help with your studies.

It sounds obvious, but according to the Professor, new students should be unafraid of visiting their student support centre to get the information they need.
“There’s always a central organising, enrolment, information, student hub-type place where you can go and seek all the information you need,” she said.

“People shouldn’t be shy… because they will find a university environment usually overwhelming in the first week or so; they need to familiarise themselves as quickly as possible with what’s out there to support their study.”

2. Use your subject’s online study guide and webpage.

With students often moving from a classroom environment to a lecture theatre or a seminar, Professor Arkoudis said students should make sure that they take advantage of the web facilities for their course of study.

“They’ll find that the environment might be different from what they’re used to in that there might be large class sizes,” Professor Arkoudis explained, adding that the information loads and preparatory work is often in centralised location online.

“They should be in constant connection to the subject’s website and find out what’s going on because that’s where the lecturer or tutor will try to communicate with them to give them advice about what’s needed.”

3. Get a diary and note your due dates

Deadlines may be bothersome, but the sooner students understand their requirements, the easier it will be for them.

“There’ll be different requirements in different subjects, and different times when they have to be handing in assessments,” Professor Arkoudis said.

“So they really need to be on top of managing their time… and documenting in a diary, or a planner… exactly what they need, what needs to be done by when.

“They need to find out when their [assignments] are due and if they can’t submit by the due date, that there are processes in place to ask for extensions that will safeguard them from being penalised in any way.”

4. Introduce yourself to the Library and Academic Skills Unit

With life as a student usually involving a lot of researching and writing, the library and academic skills unit (often also located within a university library) should be readily utilised by students, according to Professor Arkoudis.

“They’re really important people to help you navigate accessing references or material or information that you might need from datasets of scholarly work that’s out there,” Professor Arkoudis said of librarians, adding that there are usually sessions to help students find specific bits of information.

“They can make your life a lot simpler.”

Similarly, Professor Arkoudis noted that an academic skills unit can help clarify areas of academic writing for people who lack certainty in that area.

“The academic skills unit will be able to help people get a bit more in tune with how to structure and organise their writing,” she said.

“They often have a lot of online resources to help students and they also have drop-in sessions where you can go in and get your work looked at.”

5. Make the most of university and join a club

It can be easy to forget that university is often a place where people can align according to shared interests. Professor Arkoudis said students studying at university should look at joining a club, whether it is a student nursing association or something aligned to an outside interest or hobby, noting that collegial support can be enormously beneficial for a new student.

“Feeling connected to the university that you’re studying in and having other people around that can help you navigate some of the challenges you might face really makes people feel at ease at university and therefore probably more successful in their outcomes,” she said.

“We all need a friend.”

6. When in doubt, reach out

However, while all of these tips will undoubtedly help, Professor Arkoudis said if a student is ever in doubt about where to go for help, a willingness to reach out is key, even if in the form of emailing their lecturer.

“A lot of students think ‘Oh, the lecturer is too busy… they’re not going to answer my email,’” she explained.

“[If] you need some advice… just email the lecturer and they will usually respond back and let you know what you could do.”

“Try to address challenges when they arise, rather than wait and hope it’s going to get better.”

And if students are still worried about what to expect, Professor Arkoudis said that there is literature they can access on the topic.

“We also know from our research that the uncertainty and the challenges only last a short time and students fall into understanding what’s expected of them,” she said.

“It’s going to get easier… After a week or two, it will become very familiar to you.”