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DS disappointed with uni (year 2)

(27 Posts)
completelybonkers Thu 06-Mar-14 20:03:02

DS is in his second year at a RG uni. He is basically enjoying the course and his first year went really well on all fronts - socially and academically. This year, he (and others) are complaining about how the uni is run - particularly the general lack of organisation - and the slow marking of essays. He says his marks are all "fine" but he's frustrated that he has so much to do that he's not enjoying the subject as much as he was. I think that part of the problem is the lack of feedback.

We heard a few grumbles about the uni from him and his GF over Christmas but nothing too serious. Today was the first phone call when I sensed he needed to offload. He's generally very calm and unflappable but he even said that the thought of leaving had crossed his mind, although he will stick it out.

I offered to go down for a few days to "help out" but he's adamant that he doesn't want that [I take that as a good sign] but I'm feeling a bit useless as I don't know what to suggest.

Has anyone else come up against similar problems and what advice do you have, please?

BeckAndCall Fri 07-Mar-14 07:43:04

It's hard being at a distance, isn't it. I've got two DC older than your son so have been through some similar exchanges.

My experience is that the second year is generally the one where they move from the comfort of a hall of residence into a shared house with friends who are less well house trained than their family at home, which generally leads to some stress and bickering,, which even if its not the top complaint, is often there in the background. They learn to adjust, in general.

Work wise, they are generally well supported in the first year ( at least my two were) but for the second year onwards they have to be a bit more independent and seek out help if they need it. So if there's an essay due, they may have to organise a group work session themselves - stuff like that - and it takes a while to find your feet. And the work is probably harder - my DS certainly coasted in year 1 on the basis of his previous good school and it was a massive surprise to him that he needed to up the hours input from him as now everyone was at the same stage ( and he didn't adapt very well to the increased work to be honest!).

On things like feedback and essay marking, the uni probably has a structured approach where they have essay deadlines set for eg week 3 with marks due six weeks later. They should have all that information set out in their course booklet? So if your DS is not getting feedback when he's expecting it, it might be something to take up with the director of studies? But they should have a clear timetable on what's due and when.

And he should have a personal tutor who has what's called 'office hours'- a set time each week when you can just drop in and discuss things, so that would be an opportunity to go and discuss these things.

I recognise your instinct to jump in the car and head over there - I've done it myself ( for personal rather than academic crises) and I see it as a good sign that your DS just wanted to talk and didn't need you to come down - he probably felt much better after your chat and then went about his day, passing his worries directly over to you!

completelybonkers Fri 07-Mar-14 08:34:25

Thank you so much, Beck. That's reassuring to read and I shall pass on your suggestion to talk to the director of studies if necessary as I'm not sure if he's gone that route yet.

You comment about the significant increase in hours rings true and my DS's subject certainly involves a lot of reading first and then the writing - it must be overwhelming at times. I didn't go to uni so can't relate to the study side but I recall my brother having the same experience of shock in the second year as your DS!

I really appreciate your words of wisdom and hope your DC went on to happy and successful careers.

callamia Fri 07-Mar-14 08:40:14

Poor feedback is a frequent complaint from students. We have signed up to have marks back within three terms weeks (which does give us some extra space over h

callamia Fri 07-Mar-14 08:43:22

...holidays (stupid phone). But much more than that isn't helpful for students to make progress.

He can use his student rep to make his feelings known to the department, and if that's not working or there's little response, then I'd advise talking to the sabbatical officer in charge of academic affairs in the student union.

Bonsoir Fri 07-Mar-14 08:47:14

IMO some DC who have been at excellent schools and did A-levels/IB/whatever that were very pertinent preparation for their course and perhaps chose options that were in the continuity of their existing skill set have an easy time in first year. Inevitably first year is a bit of a an exercise in levelling out and some students will need to work harder than others to achieve good grades.

Those students who didn't have to work too hard in first year can then sometimes be in for a bit of a shock in second year!

creamteas Fri 07-Mar-14 09:43:48

If your DS's complaints about the dept are shared by other students, then there will also be institutional ways of discussing the issues.

Many depts have student reps who sit on staff/student liaison committees who can raise issues such as staff not meeting the feedback deadlines or general communication issues. The students union will also have reps that can take group complaints forward.

So if his peers are unhappy too, this would be a good route forward.

DalmationDots Fri 07-Mar-14 10:57:47

I agree with other posters, second year can be a jump up. What course is he doing? Is it that his modules this term are just not that interesting or specific lecturers?

First year is more about settling, getting used to everything and the social side. Second year it is into houses which can be OK at first but DD both years (she is now 3rd year) has got to about now and said 'my housemates are lovely people, but I am just so fed up of them and their little habits and I need space and to get out of this bubble for a weekend'. DD usually comes home about now (mid-point) of each term. She is home tonight for the weekend and texted yesterday to say how excited she is as she is exhausted, fed up and needs some time out!

I second that he should chat things through with his tutor (some can be more supportive than others but nothing to loose). DS used to take his feedback sheets with him to his tutor if they were unclear and ask for it to be explained or get specific questions answered.

DD found about this time last year that she had to start structuring her days more. So for example, go to lectures, library in between lectures and until 5:30pm, off to the gym, home and relaxing time, bit more work if needed or off out to socialise. It is very easy to let the days slip by and then get into panics or generally feel a bit low because you aren't busy enough.

I'm sure he will get through the wobble, it is really difficult at times being at uni. I think it gets quite intense for them because there is no structure and it can become a real bubble where you loose perspective. Resist going if he doesn't want you, he sounds very sensible and like he will get this sorted.

completelybonkers Fri 07-Mar-14 11:27:40

Many thanks for all your replies from which I'll extract the really useful parts and forward them on!

He's reading Classics and, as many of you say, there has been a step up this year, resulting in even more reading than before; it sounds as if the essay topics interest him but that the volume of work and the amount "dumped" on him is quite excessive. The slow marking means that he's not getting the feedback he needs to improve his technique for the next task. No doubt the gloomy weather and winter days haven't helped either; due to local flooding a few lectures and exams had to be rescheduled throughout the uni which no doubt caused a few additional problems.

Thankfully, there's a good atmosphere in the shared house and, although their subjects are very different, he recognises that everyone has masses to do and I think they support one another and manage to squeeze in a bit of a social life wink.

LRDtheFeministDragon Fri 07-Mar-14 18:00:56

Just a thought, but can he go to his tutor's office hour for informal feedback? I know it isn't the same as getting an actual mark. It's just that, from my very limited experience, lots of students either don't realize they could ask to meet with tutors informally, or they somehow don't connect it with getting answers to their worries. Surely his tutors have informal drop-in sessions where he could raise some of this? (Sorry if he already has and has got nowhere!).

noddyholder Fri 07-Mar-14 18:05:49

My ds is first year and I would say 80% of his mates are like this and are in 1st and 2nd years. After xmas this year several dropped out and are a lot happier My ds came home in feb for 8 days to think things through and went back and we are going to chat again at Easter. Tbh I think 9k for what they get is outrageous.

completelybonkers Fri 07-Mar-14 20:47:07

Thanks, LRD, I'll remind him of that.

Noddy - I totally agree and just hope it does prove to be worthwhile to stick it out in the long run. DS particularly wanted to do a degree that would be valued by prospective employers as well as something that genuinely interested him. I'm sad and disappointed for him [and others, of course] that his experience doesn't match his expectations. I hope your DS reaches the right decision for him.

JabberJabberJay Fri 07-Mar-14 20:57:52

Sounds like 'second year blues' to me (former academic in a RG uni).

Most able students find the first year quite easy. Much of it is consolidation of A levels and there is minimal pressure as they normally just have to achieve a pass mark to progress. Second year, split finals are looming, the work load goes up significantly and the pressure is back on. If he is unhappy with marking, this is something he should raise with the staff/student committee or similar. The department should have a policy on feedback (where I worked we had to return essays within 2 weeks).

It should settle down for him. it is very common for students to wobble in the second year. The vast majority go on to complete their third year successfully

UptheChimney Sun 09-Mar-14 11:05:30

A lot of students are unprepared for the step up in intensity & seriousness of 2nd year. The marks count! This can be scary. And academics' expectations that they start to really take on the independent learning we require.

But students need to remember that learning is cumulative and it's a process. And learning is difficult, if you're really pushing yourself. So sometimes students project fear or unhappiness with their achievements onto other things: the course, their tutors, and so on ...

I found my 2nd year the toughest year BUT it was toughness I wanted -- that was why I was at university. I have never been under the illusion that learning complex stuff isn't difficult. Really, what's it worth if it's too easy? The struggle is the learning.

but he's frustrated that he has so much to do that he's not enjoying the subject as much as he was

Personally, I don't get this? What does he mean by "so much to do"? I know I sound like an old fogey, but students don't read enough nowadays. In my first degrees (I did two overlapping) we read at least one substantial text each week, plus other stuff -- usually a big novel, and a philosophical text or work of history, or the equivalent. So I really don't buy the "too much to read." That's generally what students are at university to do.

As for feedback: I think it's important to work out what any student means by feedback. Do they mean the grade? That's actually not feedback -- that's simply the number.

Feedback comes in many forms: narrative written feedback with returned assessed work, but also feedback in terms of seminar discussions & debates. Often students don't think this way, and they miss out on opportunities for reflexive learning. For example, if you participate actively in a stimulating discussion in a seminar, and come away with your brain bubbling with ideas, then that's feedback -- it suggests you're firing on all cylinders and learning actively and your ideas are productive and others engage with them.

And yes, OP, your son can book a personal tutorial any time, or see a tutor in their office hours. This is also feedback.

Also, you use the word "disappointed." What else does he do? Is he pursuing the wonderful opportunities for extra-curricular engagement? I think that extra-curricular excellence is a really significant thing in a "good" university. Or is he able to do some volunteering, an internship, or a work placement?

I guess my advice is that your son think about why exactly he's disappointed -- is it just that his essays haven't been returned? There could be admin reasons for this, so how could he get the feedback in another way? First stop would be the tutors teaching him for the modules concerned.

completelybonkers Sun 09-Mar-14 14:03:22

I hear what you are saying, UptheChimney, and you may have some points that are relevant to many students; I certainly agree with you about reading.

Knowing him as I do, he will be pushing himself and throwing himself into each task. And yes, he is certainly involved in extra-curricular activities. I believe his grumbles are largely to do with the admin side of things and he is starting to question the value-for-money aspect of being at uni. He also said that much more could have been done in the first year and that a number of other students are/were significantly below par for the course.

You and several others have urged making use of his personal tutor so I will encourage him down that path.

UptheChimney Sun 09-Mar-14 16:50:07

That's great that he's involved in extra stuff, and reading!

It would still be interesting to hear him try to put his finger on a list of specific things that he's disappointed with. And what he thinks could be done to improve these things -- to be quite specific, rather than general grumpiness.

Then he might be able to work with academic & admin staff to try to improve things. Or understand why things are as they are.

I would really really really caution too much thinking in terms of "value for money." I know people in this country don't want to hear it, but at amost English universities £9k per year is excellent value. Have a look at US college costs. Or many other countries.

We might all wish that things political party-wise were different so that successive government policies did not introduce fees. But 15 years ago, the University system was seriously under-resourced & under-funded. And when I went to university, only around 15% of my age group had that opportunity.

The thing is, academic staff are not responsible for the fees. We get no more cash in our departments, and our current salaries are way below what highly expert professionals earn (you need to realise that at senior lecturer level, most academics are better qualified & more experienced than hospital consultants, work 50-60 hours a week, and are paid around a third of a consultant salary ...)

What I have found over the last couple of years, with the ramp up of fees to £9k (which doesn't quite cover the costs of educating students in my department) students project their uncertainty about their work onto the "value for money"/"we're paying for this" attitude.

It really doesn't help. The relationship between a tutor and a students is not a commercial one. Students are not customers, and tutors do not "serve" them. Students need to trust the process a lot more. We actually know more than the students know about what they need to know, and how they need to know.

So it'd be really interesting for your DS to try to work out the specifics of what disappoints him. Because only then can he work with tutors to help solve -- or learn why things are the way they are.

UptheChimney Sun 09-Mar-14 16:52:03

PS Meant to add, I hope he can work this out. As academics, we actually rely on intelligent & engaged students working with us to make things even better!

Katkins1 Sun 09-Mar-14 16:57:45

I'm in 3rd year. I really didn't like my 2nd year, 2nd semester. It is a long slog, and it can seem as though the finish line is a long way off. My marks dropped in that semester because my attitude and depression were off the scale. I think that was external, if I'm honest, but I wish I'd made more use of the tutor support and tutorials available. I did well this semester for third year, but it was hard to do it after dropping grades. I'd second the personal tutor option.

completelybonkers Sun 09-Mar-14 17:45:01

I really didn't intend to raise the issue of fees for a big debate as I know people have very strong views. I shall keep mine to myself so that I don't upset anybody! I suppose at my DS's age, young people become much more aware of the cost and value of things - I only mentioned it as part of his perception of the whole "package". Neither he nor I "blame" the tutors for setting the fees and I certainly don't want to undermine anyone or compare "who is worth more" or "who is harder working". It's a very unfair world in so many ways - I just hope that my DS will emerge at the end of the next academic year with a good degree that will help him continue to develop into a hard-working, decent, fair-minded adult who plays a valuable role in society.

I will encourage him to enter into a constructive dialogue with those who are willing and able to make any necessary changes but that, of course, must be his decision and done without pressure from me.

Katkins1, I appreciate you adding your comments which I will pass on. Best of luck with your finals!

Katkins1 Sun 09-Mar-14 17:50:24

I'm paying the 'old' fees, and even then, there are students who say they pay x so should get y and z, but put in minimal work.

My friend who is an academic says that's like joining the gym, never going and moaning if you don't loose weight! But it sounds as though your Son is really engaging with it- its very hard not to loose sight of things at this stage.

LRDtheFeministDragon Sun 09-Mar-14 18:15:36

I think the fees debate is a red herring, personally. Yes, students get good value relative to university in the US, no, tutors don't get paid especially well. But since the tutors don't set the fees and the students don't pay the tutors directly, it's not really helpful for the two to get into debate over it.

Irrelevant of how much the fees are, students ought to be able to expect work marked on time, feedback on time, etc. I do agree with chimney it'd be good if he raised this in a direct way, because it does not sound good. But, as well as him doing what chimney says and raising issues directly (which I agree sounds like a great idea, though she'd know far better than me anyway!), it might be sensible for him to check exactly what the course handbook says he's entitled to.

For example, if the handbook says students can expect marks and written feedback two weeks after an essay, or four, or that they can expect an office hour within the week, or whatever - he should be getting that and, IMO, he should be raising merry hell if he doesn't and there's no good reason offered.

If the handbook says he can expect written feedback in four weeks and he thinks this is unfair and it should be sooner, that is more tricky. He may still have a point, but he might be being unrealistic. Personally, I think it's still quite unfair on students when this isn't made clear and I don't blame a lot of them for being unrealistic, because I think sometimes they're expected to know things without being told. So this isn't me having a go, just trying to explain that there will be rules behind all of this and he should be able to find out what they are.

Excuse me if I'm being really nosy ... when he says work is 'dumped' on him, what does he mean? Does he mean they're just given loads to read/write with little guidance? Or that he's doing these tasks but doesn't understand why the work has been set? And does he have a sense of how many hours he's working? It might sound harsh, but as a rule, if someone has far more time for extra-curricular activities than a personal working a normal 9-5 job, they've either managed their time well, or they're not working long enough hours.

LRDtheFeministDragon Sun 09-Mar-14 18:17:21

'Irrelevant of' ... good lord, and I have an English degree. hmm blush. I mean 'regardless'.

And I hope that post doesn't sound as if I'm having a go because I'm really not - just if he's feeling disappointed enough to want to talk to someone about changing things, they'll ask these questions so he might as well have an answer prepared, if you see what I mean.

completelybonkers Sun 09-Mar-14 19:33:11

That's a good point about the handbook, LRD - I'll suggest he takes a look at it.

Apologies, but I shouldn't have said "dumped" in inverted commas to suggest that DS had used the word. That was my paraphrasing - you can tell that I'm not an English graduate, can't you! The impression I got from just one phone call was that the work was piling on thick and fast and that he was feeling a bit like a sausage factory churning out the essays, without the chance of improving on his technique because of the delay in getting marked work back.

I have to admit at this point that, because of difficult family circumstances over a number of years, he has had to find his own way at uni (and the process of getting there) with little of no help from us. Perhaps that's a good thing in some ways but the result is that I don't know enough about the structure of his course to be able to answer all the questions . . . either from him or MNers! He usually just gets on with life with little complaint, but the fact that he had a bit of a moan made me feel rather guilty that I've not supported him enough.

LRDtheFeministDragon Sun 09-Mar-14 19:36:52

I really doubt you should be feeling guilty!

I didn't mean to give you the third degree, it was just things that occurred to me. It sounds as if he's pretty independent which is surely proof you've supported him the right amount.

completelybonkers Sun 09-Mar-14 19:42:27

Thanks, LRD - I'm sure it'll all work out find but maybe I "could have done better"!

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