One issue that regularly pops up on university campuses all over the country is whether the first year of an undergraduate degree should contribute towards a student’s overall degree. It seems to stem from the increased attention to assessment at both university and school, as well as the national conversation about mental health, particularly of students. Should we write off the first year of any degree, or would that be a hasty and unhelpful move?
The main argument for discounting the first year of university relates to student stress. For many students, coming to university is a major move, the sudden shift in living arrangements, the sizable workloads, and the expectation of independent research causing a lot of confusion and anxiety. A set of three-hour exams a couple of months into their degree creates even more stress; a lot of students end up feeling lost and helpless. Naturally, nobody at any university wants to sow the seeds of emotional and mental distress amongst the student body, and writing off the first year of a degree is designed to alleviate the pressure – the first year would become a sandbox where students can experiment, make mistakes, and learn what really interests them before being formally assessed on anything.
I’m inclined to support any move that addresses student stress, only I’m not convinced making the first year of uni formative, or a ‘practice run’, would ease any stress. For a start, the other two years of a standard three-year undergraduate degree would become so much more valuable to make up for the first year, and the sudden shift from the ‘safety’ of the first year to the vital importance of the second year would likely end up replicating the anxiety students already experience. Even if that stress were more manageable, there would likely be some discontent about a first year that counts for nothing formally – what’s the point of studying hard, trekking to an exam hall, sitting multiple three-hour exams, and submitting substantial coursework pieces just to get a formative mark that contributes nothing to your final grade? Of course, there are great benefits to formative assessment, particularly at a midterm level, but having a whole year of exams, projects, and essays be ‘practice’ seems frustrating at best. I certainly wouldn’t love having my hours of work last year be written off as an ‘adjustment period’.
The mental health argument stumbles quickly as well, for me. I’m not convinced the main contributing factor to student mental health issues is the statistical value of first-year assessment, especially if the issue identified is explicitly related to the steep learning curve of living and studying independently at university. As somebody who moved across the country to a totally different environment for university, my main issues weren’t with my efforts in class and exams being monitored from day one. Being marked on your work is normal, the school system here is designed from the ground up as an environment of constant assessment and grading – I recall teachers frequently mentioning ‘league tables’ and ‘Ofsted’ (many mental health issues likely stem from that environment of relentless pressure, yet that’s far too great an issue to talk about here). Grades don’t contribute to stress as much as dramatic change does, and communicating the support available at university (as well as encouraging people to say when they need help rather than struggling alone) would do a lot more to addressing the imperative issue of student mental health than simply reconfiguring assessment value.
Of course, there may be benefits to writing off the first year’s work. I’m not convinced any of them are significant enough to go through with the idea, however. We must address mental health, no doubt, but this isn’t the way to do it.