First Week At College

A few ideas from a Prof

Lac Saint-Pierre de Wakefield, Quebec

I start teaching my classes, at a Canadian University, in early September. You may already have started. I teach Introductory Physics, and the majority of my students are first years. As I have the early morning lecture slot, my lecture may well be the first ever lecture at University, for a large number of students. This is an awesome responsibility. I have to set the tone for the next four or five years. To help me do this, I set a pre-class survey and ask students a little about their educational background, and if they have any concerns about the course or University life. It’s an anonymous survey, and is very well subscribed — with a week before classes start, over half of each of my classes have responded. Now each of my classes have different characteristics, so the responses I get from my Engineering class, and those from the General Science class are slightly different, but there are general themes which come through. I’m going to discuss these here, and give a few ideas on how to resolve them. Remember that every institution of higher education, in different countries has its own structure and organisation, so you may need to adapt this to your own environment.

I feel unprepared for University life

This is absolutely the number one comment. The leap from high school to higher education is huge. It’s the biggest jump you have to make in education. And it’s the one done with the least amount of formal support. If you have parents or cousins or relatives who have been before, then they can give you some help with what it’s like. If, like me, you are the first generation at University, then it can be overwhelming. That goes double if you are from another country, another culture, aboriginal, or from a minority. It’s important to look around and establish a support network as soon as possible. This means identifying people and institutional structures (student support, welfare, medical support, for example) which can help. Joining a student social club provides a good way of meeting people with similar interests to yourself. If you are an introvert (yes, that is me), then this can be problematic. In many courses you will need to team up with a few other students to do course work (in my classes everyone has a laboratory partner, for example). Use these smaller groups if you can.

I am bewildered by the timetable/library/institutional organization

Most libraries have an introductory course on how to use their facilities. They love to help you. Take them up on the offer. Most places also have student organisations which can help you navigate University bureaucracy. The key thing is to go and ask. It’s important that you seek out help. That’s your responsibility whilst in higher education.

I feel unprepared for the course

This is always a frequent problem in physics, but applies to any subject, in any faculty. You will find that classes are very different from what you are used to in high school. For a start, they are likely to be much larger, particularly in introductory courses. My classes this year have 250 and 300 students in them. With this scale of class, it is impossible for the Professor to keep tabs on the progress of individual students. Don’t expect to be chased up if you don’t hand in work on time. Once again, you have to make the effort, if you need extra help, or guidance. The methods that different Professors use, and how they interact with the class can vary very widely too. Suffice it to say that some Professors are better at teaching than others, and you have to adapt, sometimes very rapidly, to their different demands. Also remember that you may be taking courses from several different Professors, and they don’t coordinate their efforts at all. This means that you may end up with tight deadlines for several pieces of work all due at the same time. This does not imply any meanness on the part of the Professor, it’s just that they have to focus on the work for their own particular course, and there are timetabling issues which they have to follow too. Deadlines are rarely arbitrary, there are usually reasons for them. Try to get work turned in on time. If you can’t manage that, ask the Professor for an extension. Give reasons. I can’t guarantee this will work, but it’s much better than just handing a piece of work in late with no explanation. If there’s one thing which will annoy your Professor, that is top of the list.

I keep my doors open for students, because I believe that pastoral care is important, particularly in that all important transition year from high school. You will cross paths with Professors who don’t do this. Just move on, until you find someone who does.

Now for a few general pieces of advice:

The key things for a successful university life in any subject:

Organising your workload

Learning how to learn

Managing Procrastination

Balancing education with outside life

You often find that there is a Learning Services Centre, or Student Support Centre, or Writing Centre which run seminars on these topics. Seek them out. Attend them. I make attendance mandatory form my first year engineering class. It’s simply one of the most important time investments you can make. Do it right at the beginning of your higher education career. It will help enormously.

Learning how to learn is a very personal thing. I did not do well at undergraduate level, and that changed the way I teach. Here is a very good discussion on which study techniques actually do work:

Balancing study with outside life is a perennially tricky one for everybody, at all stages of life. It’s particularly difficult for young adults dealing with problems like gender identity, sexuality, class, race, religion, relationships and a host of other problems, as well as study. The most general piece of advice I can give is — talk to someone. It really does work. I can vouch for this from personal experience.

A few notions that students often arrive with as they start Higher Education

Taking a class just means sitting in a lecture room.

It doesn’t. Most University learning goes on outside the classroom, as you do assigned work, discuss work with peers, read, write and solve set problems.

If you are not doing well on class tests or work set during term, then it will all come right on the final exam

It probably won’t. If you start to struggle with assigned work during term, then you should seek help right away, to identify the issues and challenges and overcome them.

Everybody else is smarter than me. I am over my head.

This is almost always not true. Even Professors fall victim to this one. We call it “Impostor Syndrome” — we are academic impostors, who shouldn’t really be there. Remember the Professors have been immersed in their subjects for years. In my case this is now usually longer than the age of my students. We’ve accumulated a lot of experience. Sometimes this is good, but sometimes it means that we’ve forgotten the difficulties which beginners in the subject face. (This is actually why I love teaching the Introductory Physics courses, it’s a challenge to my teaching abilities, much more so than an advanced course).

Higher Education will just be a continuation of High School, and the learning methods which got me good grades there will still work.

This is unlikely. There is too much information to learn, process, analyse and synthesise. Rote memorisation is not enough. You need to process the information, and be able to apply it. This requires practice, whether it’s solving physics problems, writing essays, doing background research or any other scholarly activity.

Using the phrase “That’s what my High School Teacher Said” is a good idea.

Often raises the blood pressure of Profs. We have moved on beyond high school level. You should too.


I hope that gives you a few ideas. You need to go out and actively seek learning opportunities, information and assistance. Don’t expect it to arrive unprompted.

Try not to worry as you enter higher education. It is different, but it should be in a good way. Education should change the way you think. It should provide you with the skills to keep learning, regardless of the subject you pursue.

Above all, make sure you have fun.