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5 ways to succeed in your first units at university

James Davis

Careers Commentator
Those first units at university can be daunting and quite different to what you’re used to, which is why we’re happy to provide some advice.

Students across all courses can struggle to complete them, a fact reflected in the general non-completion rates among university students in Australia. Completion rates of cohorts between 2005 and 2015 were sometimes disturbing, with some cohorts like that of 2005 only managing 73.6% completion after nine years. Closer to the present, the 2010 cohort managed a frightening 66.0% completion rate after a six-year period. Furthermore, students who entered university with a low ATAR (40 or below) were roughly 50% likely to succeed.

Although the figures are stronger these days, particularly at institutions like ANU (81.1% average six-year completion rate), they are still cause for concern. Fortunately, there are plenty of things you can do to subvert the possibility of you joining the ranks of students failing to complete their courses. Universities often have many ways of ensuring you succeed, provided you’re willing to put in the effort.

1 - Revise concepts you’re struggling with sooner rather than later

Although it’s not only admirable but a necessity to attend tutorials and keep up with assigned work, it’s important to take note of any and all areas where you’re struggling. This way, you can make a point of doing additional questions on these topics later.

You might think this is questionable, as you’ll inevitably have more work to do from other units and big assignments coming up. However, if you can find a small amount of time to bolster your knowledge and proficiency in a skill you lack as close to the time it was looked at in class as possible, you’ll have a greater chance of getting the concept. Why? Well, in the weeks or days to come you’ll likely have forgotten the weakness altogether. The closer you come to doing this revision in relation to when it was first covered in class, the better.

If you can’t find the time to do this additional work however, just make a detailed note of where and how you struggled in preparation for SWOTVAC down the road. Your future self will thank you!

2 - If you’re still struggling, don’t be afraid to get help

Many universities hold PASS (Peer Assisted Study Sessions), which allow you to get some help from students who did well in your specific units as early as the previous semester. What makes this really excellent is these peers will not only know the course content, but the professors, order in which it’s taught and all the nuances specific to what you’re currently going through as well. It’s more than a lecture or tutorial; it’s a chance to get first-hand insights into what it takes to succeed in that specific unit you’re struggling with. Better yet, it’s far less intimidating to learn from someone around your age who you can share obscure memes with occasionally.

PASS isn’t normally something you need to book. Many first year subjects hold these sessions for a period of hours, where you’re free to walk in and walk out at your leisure. Peers will walk around the room to see how you’re going and you’ll be able to ask them specific questions about this or that part of a tutorial question. To find out when one is happening, you can either contact your faculty support desk or peruse their Facebook page. If you benefit from these sessions after finishing the unit you struggled with, consider giving back yourself and helping students in the following semester! It can be very rewarding.

In addition to PASS, simply contacting your professors via email with general questions is often acceptable practice. Just make sure the answer isn’t covered in other material, like an assignment sheet, question or course guide PDF. Professors hate being asked questions they’ve answered elsewhere, so just be doubly sure you’ve checked all course materials before sending them an email. Yet another reason why PASS is a great idea! This also leads well into the next tip...

3 - Consolidate all your course information

Most subjects will involve the distribution of various documents detailing what’s required to succeed in your course, due dates, what each assignment is worth and what it requires. It’s a huge quality of life improvement to just gather them all up at the beginning of the semester, log all your due dates into a Google Calendar or similar function and pepper regular notifications over each. Have a reminder ring a day out, week out and month out for each. Also, fill each entry with all the information you need to complete the assignment; just copy paste it in there. This way, you’ll never be caught off-guard and won’t have to rifle through 4+ PDFs every time you need a specific piece of information on an assignment. It’s a simple thing that’ll only take about 15 minute to complete, but you’ll thank yourself for doing it.

4 - Get involved in relevant student societies

We’ve talked extensively before about how beneficial it is both professionally and socially to join student associations, but there are myriad academic benefits too. For one, joining a subject-relevant society allows you to build relationships with your professors other students probably don’t have. Even if your professors aren’t involved, there’s a good chance you’ll meet students from different year levels that have been through similar experiences. It’s an opportunity to learn more about your field of interest in a sometimes highly practical contest.

For instance, if you’re a budding accountant, what better way to learn about accounting than a guest lecturer who’s a senior accountant at PwC? How about practical challenges that require you to team up with other students to tackle simulations of actual accounting projects? Not only is this professionally advantageous, but will put you in good stead for future assignments. If you’re a law student, joining that debating society could sharpen your reasoning skills, which naturally have academic benefits when constructing arguments in your papers. If you’re a student of English literature, what better way to immerse yourself than to join your university’s poetry club or literature society? Whatever you’re studying, there’s bound to be a multitude of multi-faceted advantages to joining a subject-specific club.

5 - Study with friendly acquaintances rather than old friends

It’s very easy to get distracted when you’re with someone you’ve known for a long time, especially if you’ve just come out of high school with them and you’re in your first year. Those early foundation units are a critical period, so making sure to study with classmates you may not know as well is an ideal way to stay productive. Not only can you bounce ideas off one another and help each other out, but you’re nowhere near as likely to get off task. It’s definitely not as much fun, but when you’re trying to do well, that’s honestly a good thing!

With some luck, these tips should put you in good stead for your first few units at university and hopefully build habits you can utilise throughout your degree. It’s not always easy putting yourself out there to join clubs, study with acquaintances or talk to professors, but if you give it a go you’ll quickly find you’re surrounded by people in the same boat as you. All it takes is to break the ice and you could find yourself not only getting good marks in those early units, but making some friends too.