UNI LIFE 101 || First-years are expected to struggle with grades

Whatever you do, don’t try harder. Try smarter. Here’s how.


“There’s a huge social myth that the people who will do the best at university are the smartest,” said Mebbie Bell, director of the University of Alberta's Academic Success Centre. “Everyone who gets to university is smart.”

In fact, until you find your footing, you can anticipate your grades to be below what you might want or even strive for. “One first-year student described the feeling like trying to stand on a carpet that’s constantly moving.”

What really gives students the edge at university is an ability to adapt, added Bell.

Learning tips for uni

Here are a few learning tips from the U of A's Academic Success Centre:

Stick with a routine.

“Most students with good academic performance go to bed and wake up at the same time,” said Mebbie Bell, director of the ASC.

Study and review course material in short, frequent sessions.

“The stereotype of a university student is them cramming into the wee hours of the night. But the best way to absorb material is in short, frequent review sessions, like reading your notes after class, and then again later in the week.”

You can’t retain everything.

“When you ask your instructor what’s important for the exam, a lot will answer ‘Everything is!’ But the best shortcut is to attend class to find out what the professor is emphasizing.”

“Being able to assess and adjust to new learning expectations and demands, while undergoing massive personal changes at the same time is the key.”

Facing an otherwise level playing field, how does one be a star adapter? Actually, it’s not nearly as daunting as you may think.

Step 1: After your first unsatisfactory mark, get help stat.

“It can be a huge shock when you realize that the habits you developed to get you an 80 per cent average in high school will now get you average (marks in university),” said Troy Janzen, a psychologist and an adjunct assistant professor at the U of A’s School and Clinical Child Psychology Program.

If you do get shocking results, take a few deep breaths, feel sorry for yourself for a day and relax. “First-year averages tend to fall to between B and C+.” said Bell. “This is normal until students settle in; learn how to adapt and the grades will rise.”

When students get to end of their degrees, do you know what the vast majority said they wished they’d done differently? “Ask for help,” said Bell.

Step 2: To ask for help, you’ll need to throw out everything you think you know

Change starts with not making assumptions about the right way to learn. High school academic philosophies and learning and testing formats are not the same at university, added Janzen. Just a few of the changes include:

  • Less learning in the classroom and more focus on independent study outside the classroom.
  • Emphasis on quality, analytical writing.
  • Firm rules and processes around exam redos.

Sure, it’s frustrating considering you just spent 12 to 14 years mastering a system, and now you have to start over again. “But don’t look at it like starting from scratch,” said Bell. “You’re going to use a lot of the skills you already have to figure out new ways to learn.”

Step 3: Develop new learning skills

With your new open mind, start to investigate what you’re doing wrong with your instructor by asking for feedback. Make sure you attend any seminars your professors or teaching assistants provide.

“A lot of instructors will announce informal drop-in sessions for everyone,” said Bell, adding that various student organizations also offer study groups or Q&A help sessions that will also connect first-year students with senior students.

But forget bad marks. Even if you feel like things are going fine—and still find it really hard—you probably need to enhance your learning skills to suit university academics, said Bell. “Most of us stumble our way through university and by the end we are fine. But that’s not ideal. It can be easier.”

The U of A’s Academic Success Centre is designed to offer professional academic support to students, she added. There are a host of online and in-person workshops, most for a cost-recovery fee, including Academic Bootcamp, which covers all the basics of academic life and campus culture.

Step 4: Ask yourself if you like what you’re studying.

A significant proportion of students, 30 per cent, will drop out of university because of poor program fit, according to Statistics Canada’s 2011 Youth in Transition Survey.

“I was good in math and sciences and I liked computers but in university I learned quickly I didn’t like studying computers and dropped it,” said Janzen. “I ended up with a math major and psychology minor.

“By the end of second year, I was asking myself some tough questions about what I wanted to do, who I really was, and what mattered to me.” Knowing he enjoyed people more than numbers, he switched majors and the rest is history.

Being honest with yourself and following your heart in choosing the right path of study is one of the toughest decisions you’ll make at uni, added Janzen. “But don’t look at it as years wasted or money lost if you switch tracks. It’s all a part of important growth.”

In the meantime, check out your faculty for vocational support or counselling services and the U of A’s Career Centre services.

If you do decide to withdraw from a course, make sure you do it properly, pointed out Bell. “We see a lot of people who think they withdrew but didn’t complete the paperwork and end up with a 0, which can greatly impact your grade point average.”

Step 5: About money ...

Mastering academics is only one aspect of successful transition to university life, said Bell. Stress, new living circumstance, independence and other factors, including financial pressures, can all interfere with your ability to learn. Get a few tips from UNI LIFE 101 || Making the big transition.

From a scholarship not coming through in time, to a student working nearly full-time to pay bills, financial issues can greatly impede your university success. “We find financial issues at the root of a lot of student struggles,” said Tiffany Sampson, a community social worker at U of A.

Don’t hesitate to reach out for assistance if money’s impeding your performance, she added. Student Connect is the best place to start for assistance with filling out paperwork for loans, to apply for bursaries, and to learn about additional emergency financial aid possibilities. The Community Social Work Team can also assist with assessing financial needs and navigating resources to fill gaps.

“A lot of students don’t realize they can reduce their academic course load by one course in first year,” added Bell. The point being, when in need, ask as many questions as possible. You might just like the answer.