Adapting to university: How first years tackled the COVID semester

The expectations of first-year students didn’t quite turn out as planned with COVID-19 turning the bustling university life into a makeshift virtual reality. (Image source: The Independent)

By Ashleigh Buck | @ashkbuck

On February 24, 2020, orientation week commenced across Adelaide’s universities, allowing first-year students to get a taste of uni life and the expectations of tertiary education.

With the latest round of high school graduates eager to immerse themselves in the excitement of their first year, many students gained a sense of the culture within the university environment, allowing them to embrace their studies.

With the semester underway and students beginning to rely less on their “Lost on Campus” app, the idea of university didn’t seem so daunting. This was until the last week of March when COVID-19 became a serious threat to the wellbeing and safety of staff and students, forcing classes online for the rest of the semester.

UniSA’s Vice Chancellor, Professor David Lloyd, informed staff and students of the switch on March 23. The changes were implemented seven days later, ensuring all students could continue their studies rather than lose a semester.

Transitioning entire courses online proved to be a significant challenge for tutors, lecturers and coordinators. Neelu Sharma, UniSA’s First Year Experience Coordinator, was instrumental in the transition to online delivery for first-year students.

“The main challenge was encouraging students to remain engaged with their learning whilst everyone was away from campus,” Ms Sharma said.

“It was hard to motivate students to join Zoom tutorials.

“But keeping the tutorials going on a regular basis and allowing students to attend in another time slot provided them with flexibility and encouraged them to attend.

“I felt that every step of the way, the university aimed to do all it could to ensure students were fully supported.”  

Ms Sharma provided students with one on one support sessions via Zoom to give them the ability to share any concerns or challenges they were dealing with. As many faced ongoing internet connection issues, the resilience of students was needed to overcome the persistent technical glitches and push forward.

The transition from high school to university has never been an easy task, and the impact of a global pandemic heightened the pressure of adapting to higher academic expectations and new coursework.

First-year UniSA student Aiden Heal started her Bachelor of Clinical Exercise Physiology (Honours) last semester. Her transition to online learning initially reduced her motivation, although it wasn’t long until she overcame this and began to embrace the opportunity to continue her learning.

“I had to almost be my own teacher,” Aiden said.

“When lectures were in person, I was able to go to all of them and ask questions if I didn’t understand a concept and have all my notes finished after each lecture.

“Whereas when these moved online, I would have to re-watch lectures multiple times if I was struggling with understanding concepts.”

Aiden expressed her appreciation for the tutors and lecturers, realising online delivery was not only difficult for students, but for the tutors who put in the extra effort to assist students in any way they could.

“They put in so much effort to help make the transition into online learning as smooth as possible and constantly checked in on their students to ensure we were all travelling well,” she said.

“My perspective of university has changed, but I believe it has changed for the better and has allowed me to have a greater appreciation for university as a whole.”

Studying a Bachelor of Contemporary Art, Natalie Bellardino, another first-year student at UniSA, discussed the many difficulties she faced with her course, especially the workshop component.

“My studio classes were the hardest to transform from hands-on to online,” Natalie said.

“Most activities were originally group inactive tasks, in which we would create several pieces that would accumulate into a final grade – my lecturers had to adapt a different approach.”

Being asked to create a range of pieces every fortnight using only the materials they were able to find at home, the students had to explore a range of mediums.

“Glass, embroidery, ceramics, filmmaking, performance poetry, jewellery and painting, the weeks flew fast and forced me to use my time effectively,” she said.

“Having an accessible and effective source of materials and mediums [was] the biggest struggle when learning online.

“Creating work that was strong both conceptually and visually with limited supplies (and closed stores) was difficult.”

After overcoming obstacles and adapting her learning and understanding of contemporary art, Natalie believes she engaged with her online classes more from home due to their accessibility.

Adelaide University first-year student Teagan Dix has similar views on the effectiveness of online learning. Studying a double degree in International Relations and Media, she found that most of her online classes were manageable.

“I had a politics class with a group case study,” Teagan said.

“Whilst communicating over Zoom was difficult at times, we tried to schedule as many out of class zoom calls [as possible] so that hopefully all members could attend and we could discuss it further.

“This seemed to work for us, and we got it done in the end.”

However, Teagan found that Zoom hindered her Spanish class. Learning a language is difficult at the best of times, but with low-quality connections and delayed responses added in, getting the most out of her class was a challenge from the beginning.

“Pronunciation and interacting with my Spanish tutor in the language was difficult,” she said.

“But I continued to communicate with my tutor online, and she was able to offer a lot of extra help to those who attended the Spanish tutorials.

“She would stay back to answer questions when we needed, and that helped to improve the process.”

With COVID-19 momentarily pausing everyone’s life, university students across the globe continued to progress through their degrees as best they could with online delivery.

As South Australia continues with stage three in its recovery plan, students are looking forward to heading back to face-to-face learning and finally embracing campus culture.

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