The first month or so of the freshman school year can often be the most exciting period of any student's time at university. But for some universities, it is also a key period to determine which students are at risk of failing or dropping out.
"There's every indication that we're going to know within the first six weeks who is and who isn't going to thrive," says Kathryn Carter, associate vice-president, teaching and learning, at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont.
The university employs an early-alert program, so that if faculty see a student struggling in class or with assignments, they can flag their concern through a website. Then someone, such as a dean of students, can reach out to the student to ascertain how things are going, and take it from there.
"I think, given the rate of student suicides you're seeing in various places, it's really important that we figure out how to connect with those students quite quickly and get them the support that they need," Dr. Carter adds.
Laurier also takes it upon itself to make sure that it supports its students by not holding them to unrealistic educational expectations. Dr. Carter says the school uses statistics and other methods for determining where the real roadblocks lie for students.
For instance, some math courses that accompany various science programs have proven particularly challenging for first– and second-year students, causing a high rate of attrition. So the university closely examines whether including the course is really serving the needs of both the students and its educational goals.
"Sometimes it means that we need to go back and do some work on the curriculum," she says, "[We] ask ourselves the hard questions about 'Okay, it might be nice if they knew this really advanced calculus, but do they have to know it in order to get the learning outcomes that we want in biology?'" At the University of Victoria, academic support comes in the form of services, such as the centre for academic communication, which is available to students to provide assistance with their reading, writing and speaking, and a similar program oversees math.
Increasingly, though, the university is focused on catering to each individual's particular needs to support their learning.
That can range from accommodating a physical disability to extra support for those with mental-health issues, which could mean extra time for exams or finding a peer volunteer to take notes for someone who is unable to listen and write at the same time.
Victoria also recognizes the big transition that some Indigenous students often have to make in coming to the city and the university setting. To try and help them through the transition, it has established a program called Campus Cousins through the on-campus First Peoples House, which pairs fourth-year Indigenous students with incoming ones to smoothly manage the transition, both academically and socially.
"I know one example where that has actually made the difference between an Indigenous student staying or leaving within the first three weeks," says Rosaline Canessa, associate dean of studies for the faculty of social sciences.
For international students, Victoria has established what it calls the UVic Global Community to try and foster connections between students of different nationalities, as well as helping them feel at home among Canadians through peer-to-peer mentorships.
It also has the Pathways Program for International Students for those students who meet the academic requirements to be admitted to the university, but do not have the language skills. The advantage of the one-year course is that students are able to take regular courses for credit alongside their language studies, so they are not just in a holding pattern waiting to improve their language skills.
At the University of Regina, the emphasis for student support is along the holistic lines.
"As much as academics matter," says Raeanne Skihar, the school's academic success co-ordinator, "we tend to look a lot more at the whole person in our services."
The school's Student Success Centre is designed to support every aspect of the student's journey to graduation, both inside the classroom and out. From an academic standpoint, the centre helps to co-ordinate tutoring, particularly in subjects such as writing, math and statistics. It also puts on study-skills seminars covering topics such as time management, study skills and note taking.
To ensure that students get off on the right foot, the university tries to contact those students it feels are at risk, particularly those who are undecided about where their path lies or who are coming to university with a relatively low admission average. In doing so, it establishes a connection with them and also lets them know what support services are available to them.
For students who are struggling, the University of Regina operates an academic recovery program. The two-semester program requires mandatory attendance and covers everything from note taking and goal setting to motivation and stress management.
"We make sure that students have access to tutors and the ultimate goal is to help the students raise their GPA and get back to a good academic standard here on campus," says Krisanne Gossard, the school's academic recovery program co-ordinator.
While some students self-refer themselves into the program, the staff also reach out to faculties at the end of each semester to find out where they might help.
"Those students then get entered into our database and we then follow up with them by telephone and e-mail to encourage them to come and have an initial meeting just to assess what's going on," Ms. Gossard says.
But while any university can put safety nets and supports in place to try to prevent students from struggling and ultimately failing, the onus is still very much on the individual to follow through.
"I think we probably do a good job of contacting all the students that need our support," says Bonnie Dobson, academic advising co-ordinator at the University of Regina. "Whether they actually choose to take advantage of those [supports] is ultimately up to them."