My other line of work is ombuds in higher education; I see students whose academics have been compromised for several reasons. I also view the notion of “success” as relative. Some feel it is unachievable, while others believe that previous success means they don’t have to work hard at achieving it. It is a term that gets criticized even in the student support world. Some would like to discard this “loaded” term, e.g., success “in the eyes of whom”, and “why”?
So I prefer to use the idea of Tips for a Healthy Study Lifestyle. This is a reframe of ombuds tips given at our workshop on Fairness Day with the Alberta Ombudsman at University of Alberta.
Navigating the Bureaucracy of University Regulations. The Online Student Manual is like a summary of any regular University Calendar. Let a student know that when they register for a course, they are tied to all terms, conditions, academic standards, rules, regulations, policies, and codes of behavior (So you cannot negotiate your grades or create rules around rules) There is always help to understand/interpret these policies (expert support such as an academic advisor or an ombudsperson).
Carefully Planning a Course Load. AU students are diverse, and have a number of competing commitments: work/family/social. Whether they register for one or several courses per term, they are responsible for setting up a time schedule that meets their needs, and can fit everything they do by the course term. Too often we hear the student needs an extension, and they have not been able to anticipate this on time.
Planning Which Courses to Take. Ensure that all pre-requisites are met. I received a note from a student asking me to accept college-style instead of university-style papers as she was unsure she could handle the concepts. I noted how important it was to take the introductory level courses to build foundational skills before moving on to senior-level courses where it is expected you know core concepts. Check with academic advisors to ensure you can handle these and are actually doing what is required for your degree. You could end up not meeting your degree requirements without check-ins to your faculty advisor.
Designing a Study Schedule. Do it right away, so you can complete your assignments before preparing for an exam. This is particularly important at AU as a student may feel there is a lot more time because many courses do not have scheduled dates, only suggested dates for sending in work, and only an end date. Following a study schedule also means you can send assignments in a timely way, to ensure time for feedback and time to make corrections to your writing and argument before submitting the next one. Too often we receive all assignments by the due date, too late for feedback.
Talking to Your Instructors (Tutors). Many courses allow for peer discussion (online forums) but don’t forget your instructor for difficult concepts. Typically an instructor will tie the concept to your own life experiences so the term is more meaningful to you. Engaging in discussions over the phone, via email, or online, will help to develop your ability to engage in constructive dialogue rather than just one-way feedback. This one-on-one attention is critical to your development in scholarly discussions and scholarly writing.
Using Student Support Services. I let students know that their fees not only pay for their instructors’ guidance, but also for important support services throughout their studies. Many such as the AU Write Site and counselling are listed in the study guide, but students often like to hear a personal name connected to the service. Sometimes students do not feel they are eligible for certain services, and some may need accommodation for exams. We need to ensure we do not act as though we are professional counsellors or can do diagnostics on their situation. It is critical for us to be aware of the support persons that we can refer students to right away.
Prioritizing Academics with Work/family Responsibilities and Other Social Activities. It is important to maintain a healthy balance of work/family/social and academic life. However, studying and learning consumes a lot of energy. It is important to check in on how the student is managing time and energy for these commitments so that academics remains their priority. There may be times when students need to take breaks in their academics when personal, life commitments/work obligations or physical/mental health issues become the priority. We can help by being supportive to students who may have to withdraw from a course for these reasons, by reiterating the notion of education as a process that can take breaks as well. We should remind students to let others in their lives know that their academics are a personal priority.
I like to examine one’s academic endeavours in a holistic manner. I have seen so many students with high academic grades and degrees who are unable to engage in socially meaningful lives. Getting the highest marks may be a sign of academic success, but does not guarantee a healthy approach to academics. I would like to see us paying more attention to helping students maintain a healthy lifestyle approach to academics than just striving for a nebulous notion of success. With this notion of the “whole” student, we can help the student see the social connection of their academics to their community; their academic achievement is one way they can give back to their community, their society, in a meaningful way.