First-Year University Students Find Learning is Mostly Independent this Year

Sign in front of Wilfrid Laurier University. Photo by Sidra Ismail.

Students beginning college or university in September of 2020 have had very different first years than students before them. Because of the pandemic, institutions have had to create and adapt to new ways of education, meaning many students began their first years at home.

Some schools have gone to fully online learning models with no live meetings while others have chosen a blend of learning models.

Students are finding the adjustment to learning in university most challenging because they are left alone to learn at their own pace, often feeling like they need to teach themselves the content with little contact with other students or instructors.

Some WCI alumni shared their experiences:

Christine: First Year at University of Waterloo

Christine Hahn is a former WCI student who is currently in her first year at the University of Waterloo. She is in a General Honours Arts program, but by the end of the first year, she is hoping to declare the French Teaching Specialization as her official major. 

When asked how her first year of university is going, she said, “This is not the most creative answer, but it’s just been stressful, and I’m sure most/all first year students can relate. I’m still adjusting to the heavy workload and making sure my mental health comes first.”

She shared what she expected her first year of university to look like, as opposed to what has actually happened:  “I looked forward to studying in libraries with my friends, participating in university extracurriculars and clubs, meeting new people through classes, talking and getting to know professors, etcetera,” she said. 

She was also asked which she prefers, online or in-person classes: “If we’re talking specifically about university, I can’t compare online to in-person since I don’t know what ‘real life’ university classes are actually like. That being said, I’m 90% positive I would’ve enjoyed in person classes a lot more.”

Instructors at the University of Waterloo are providing asynchronous lessons that can be done according to students’ timelines.

“I think I’d feel like I got a lot more support had university been in person,” Christine explained. “Unlike some other universities, I don’t have zoom class meetings or live lectures to attend, so it can get hard because I’m basically teaching myself the material. But I’m able to email my professors if I have questions or concerns, and when they do respond, I can tell they really want to help me understand.”

Feride: First Year at Wilfrid Laurier University

Feride Ismail also went to WCI, and now attends Wilfrid Laurier University for Communication Studies. She commented on the independent learning aspect of her experience, too: “My first year has been very challenging because I do not have zoom classes and have to do everything by myself.” 

Before the lockdown, she imagined her first year of university would look very different. “I thought that I would meet a lot of new people, have study groups and professors to ask questions,” she said.

She was asked if there have been any challenges for her so far, to which she responded, “I was a part of the cross country team for three years back in high school, and I always thought I would join it in university, but it got cancelled because of COVID-19. I was most excited to join clubs and teams in University, but most of them got cancelled and if not, they are online which is less interesting.”

She also mentioned that being responsible for herself was a big difference from high school to university, because there is no longer anyone to push you or tell you exactly what to do.

She also talked about not learning anything, since she does not have professors to explain it to her. “I personally don’t think that I get enough support from my professors. They post the lecture notes without explaining anything, which doesn’t really help me to learn anything new.”

Somina: First Year at Western University

Somina Mysicka now attends Western University, studying Media Information and Technoculture. 

She said, “I wished that I could experience living in residence and having the face to face lectures.”

Like Feride Ismail, she said she has also found that being independent has been much harder in University compared to high school. She shared that “the lack of support has been challenging for me, especially asking questions.” 

Zhuhan: First Year at University of Waterloo

 Zhuhan Li goes to University of Waterloo and is in the Planning program. He said, “Before COVID-19, I expected my first year of university to be exciting, have a lot of chances to interact with my classmates, and I expected my first year to be easier.”

Something that was a different between high school and university for Zhuhan was the difference in how learning happens. He shared, “In high school, most of the learning is in the classroom but in university, most of the learning is self-learning (outside classroom).”

Zhuhan continued, “I don’t always get support from my professors. For example, for one of my classes, my professor meets us online three times a week but for my other course, I have never even met my professor since I started school.”

Albert: First Year at University of Waterloo  

Albert Ton is in his first year in Recreation and Sports Business at the University of Waterloo. 

He described his first year in this way: “My first year of university has been busy. At first I struggled with time management/ organization; however, I have now adapted to the flow of university. Classes are all online so that was definitely challenging for me at the beginning.”

He said, “I expected my first year of university to be exciting and challenging, even prior to COVID-19. Unfortunately I have not experienced what it is like to attend in-person classes and winter term is also going to be online.”

He continued by saying, “One thing that has been challenging for me to do because of COVID-19 would be my freshman year of university rugby. Although we’re still practicing with proper safety protocols/ precautions, my season has still been taken away by COVID-19. This also happened to me as a fifth year in high school.”

In addition to being fully online, courses are more demanding, according to Albert. “One major difference that I have noticed between high school and university is the workload,” he said. “I feel as if I had much more free time in high school in comparison to university.”

All of these students have found that learning in university is more independent than they expected. And they have all had to adjust to this as well as how much work they get and how stressful university can be as a result. They were all surprised by the fact that university is very fast paced and nothing compared to high school.