U of T programs ease transition to university for first-year students during COVID-19

September 3, 2020 by A&S News

The first year of university is always exciting and challenging but what if your final year of high school was disrupted by a pandemic — would you feel ready?

To welcome incoming University of Toronto students and help them feel confident and prepared for the fall semester amid COVID-19, faculty across the three campuses created a wide range of courses, programs and workshops.

Offered throughout the summer, the free, optional initiatives were designed to help first-year students connect with peers, mentors and professors, and ensure they have the required course skills to succeed.

“Planning for the start of this academic year has been like no other in our history,” says Melanie Woodin, dean of the Faculty of Arts & Science. “We have reimagined every aspect of the U of T experience, not only from how we teach and learn, but to how we connect, socialize and stay informed.

“As a faculty, we worked to provide online programs to help students prepare for their classes in September — including the development of small collaborative study groups that build both on learning and a sense of community, as well as preparatory summer courses that helped students make the transition into university life.”

In the Department of Computer Science, for example, professors created a summer prep course on Quercus to help incoming first-year students enrolled in a Foundations of Computer Science course get up to speed and become acquainted with the department. That included introducing them to student clubs and other resources that are designed to help them find their feet on campus.

At U of T Mississauga, meanwhile, incoming students were invited to participate in Eagle Connect, a 13-week, student-led online program that provided them with on-demand information and helped them make personal connections with fellow students before classes even start.

Each week featured a themed module using the Quercus online learning platform. Topics included course selection, applying for residence, campus clubs and other necessary information. A discussion board gave students a chance to ask questions and get to know one another.

The goal of Eagle Connect was to give students the tools to feel confident, ready and excited to start their time at U of T Mississauga, says Trent Barwick, student success co-ordinator, orientation and transition programs with the Centre for Student Engagement. The program also allowed students to begin developing friendships and prepared them for working in a new online environment.

U of T Mississauga’s Robert Gillespie Academic Learning Centre also offered a free mathematics workshop to prepare students for their university-level courses.

“It was a very turbulent time for high school teachers as well as students,” when classes suddenly moved online, says Andie Burazin, assistant professor in the Department of Mathematical and Computational Sciences.

“Math is a big hurdle for many students — it creates a lot of anxiety. Even in regular situations, math is just one of those things they struggle with.”

Mindful that incoming students might not have the usual level of preparation before they enter first year, the dean’s office reached out to the academic skills centre. The result: a series of six, two-hour workshops designed to assist students taking calculus this fall by enhancing their foundational math skills.

U of T Scarborough also ran a month-long math preparedness program for students: the Online Mathematics Preparedness course, organized by Manaal Hussain, a program manager in the Department of Arts, Culture and Media.

Meanwhile, students registered for a chemistry course at U of T Scarborough were given the opportunity to better prepare for the start of classes with a six-week chemistry course.

“I know there are knowledge gaps and, with online learning, it may be more difficult for (students),” says Marco Zimmer-De Iuliis, an assistant professor, teaching stream, of chemistry at U of T Scarborough. “This course offered a low stakes way to refresh their knowledge and practice problems.

“A post-session survey indicates that most students found it helpful, and I plan to run it every summer.”

The Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering gave incoming students a chance to brush up on their skills with the newly-created U of T Engineering Academy, an optional and not-for-credit program free to all incoming students in the fall 2020 semester.

Designed in close consultation with high school teachers and curriculum leads in the U of T Engineering First-Year Office, as well as the Troost Institute for Leadership Education in Engineering, the academy offered students access to a suite of self-paced learning modules in chemistry, math and physics, as well as the opportunity to connect with upper-year mentors for assistance.

“U of T Engineering Academy gives students what they need to fill in any gaps in their Grade 12 year, as well as a friendly introduction to our faculty with the support of our incredible students and professors,” explains Micah Stickel, vice-dean, first year engineering.

The faculty also offers an optional First Year Foundations program that includes sessions, workshops and courses to help incoming students prepare for various aspects of university life, such as developing effective study and learning skills, and offering introductions to concepts like the engineering design process and communications.

“The year so far hasn’t gone the way any of us expected,” says Chris Yip, dean of U of T Engineering. “We’re here to make sure that no matter what happened in the final year of high school, we’re giving our students the tools and supports they need to be comfortable, prepared and ready to have a terrific experience when they start this fall at Skule.”

Professors, too, have received assistance preparing for this unusual fall semester. The Faculty of Arts & Science launched the A&S Online Learning Academy this summer, offering courses for faculty taught by peers with experience in online instruction. These experts were able share technical advice, best practices and resources toward creating a seamless online learning experience for all Faculty Arts & Science students.

“The university has come together to ensure that the year ahead will be full of rewarding and enriching experiences for all of our students – both near and far,” Woodin says.