Student success: how are the first weeks at university decisive?


Success or failure in higher education are often measured quantitatively, in percentages by sectors and types of baccalaureate obtained, or even according to the socio-professional origin of the parents without sufficiently taking into account other more qualitative factors. Thus success is measured according to the success rate from L1 to L2 or even according to obtaining the license in three or four years.

Is it a failure to have a license in four years, but by having deepened your knowledge or by having clarified your professional project? Is it a success to obtain a master’s degree in 5 years at the end of which you realize that you took the wrong direction? Likewise, if students who have already repeated a year or failed a previous baccalaureate have a tendency to drop out more quickly than others, few studies show what happened to them a few years later.

For Bernard Charlot , even if social factors exist, they do not explain everything. To try to understand when the student experience turns into success or failure, it is interesting to look at the student’s personal history and their experience.

In this logic, we tried, in ethnographic research , based on the diaries of students enrolled in around twenty universities of varying sizes and formal and informal interviews to better understand the issues of the first weeks at university. : how do students experience this entry into a new educational world? What work strategies do they develop? What are their professional and personal projects?

Alain Coulon had already mentioned that university success was linked to the students’ capacity for active integration into the university environment and the hypothesis could be formulated that everything is at stake in the first 100 days of the student at the university and that this ability to fit in depends on factors which are not only linked to the relationship with academic knowledge and its prerequisites.

A heterogeneous student population

The university has experienced an explosion in its numbers since the 1960s. According to Hugrée and Poullaouec , from 2008 to 2021, the number of students increased by 25%, while at the same time the budget fell by 12%. Enrollment in French higher education has increased eightfold in 50 years for both demographic and academic reasons. Indeed, according to the same authors, more than 80% of a generation obtains a baccalaureate compared to 10% at the beginning of the 1960s. Three-quarters of them enroll in university.

The term student corresponds to an ease of definition to constitute a common notion. However, the typical student does not exist. François Dubet proposed the construction of a typology of the student experience through the combination of three elementary dimensions: the nature of the project pursued, the degree of integration into university life and commitment to an intellectual “vocation”.

The objectives for which high school students enroll in higher education are very varied: knowledge for knowledge’s sake, the desire to prepare for a career, to be a student for the sake of being a student, the desire to test oneself in studies considered difficult, the possibility to think about various projects… To take a sporting metaphor, we also distinguish several categories of students arriving at university:

  • sprinters: we try to go quickly over two or three years and not waste time to join an engineering, management or business school through parallel admission;
  • marathon runners: we know that university is going to be a long journey and we think we have time to get used to it. Even if there is a failure in the first year, this does not portend future problems;
  • the beaten ones in advance: we know or we think that we do not have the level. We are there to participate but without having the training and without really knowing the rules of the game.

Some students are still in a phase of research and personal discovery, others are in the process of learning autonomy both academically and personally. This learning of independence is more or less progressive and is experienced differently depending on the student. Sometimes, the fields of possibilities turn into dead ends.

Isolating factors of success or failure as certain studies have done by highlighting the nature of the baccalaureate obtained is relevant in terms of rationality, but does not take into account the intricacy and complexity of each factor. the ones with the others. Failure or success corresponds to a nebula of interactions that goes beyond causal and statistical analysis. Socialization in the first weeks is indeed an indicator of university affiliation, as demonstrated by a student in economics and management who explains this growing doubt about the usefulness of her entry into higher education:
“Over the first few weeks, I experienced a lot. I started a job in the evenings after school and on weekends which allowed me to meet other people. I also met a boy a little older than me who has been working as a salesman for two years after a BTS. He seems passionate about his work and I wonder if short studies wouldn’t have been more interesting. I also feel quite isolated at university. I left my parents and my high school friends in September and then, for almost three months at university, I have the feeling that we don’t learn life at university. So today, I have lots of doubts, even if I think I passed my exams. »

A welcome that counts in the feeling of affiliation with the establishment

Several reasons for affiliation or distancing appear in the students’ testimonies and which correspond to moments experienced during the first weeks of higher education. The discovery of the premises, first of all, is often a more or less pleasant surprise for the students, as expressed by a participant in the survey:
“I was already in a high school which wasn’t great, but this isn’t a university, it’s an HLM. These are buildings built in the seventies. Most TDs are in prefabs dating from the 1980s. The toilets are in a terrible state. We bring our own toilet paper, because there isn’t always any. I heard the minister talking about university excellence on the radio. She should come to us…”

Other students are more satisfied:
“We have the impression of being in a family, we have a room with armchairs, we can connect to WIFI and the teachers often come to this room. It’s also very nice to chat with L2 or L3 students. »

The welcome during the first days is particularly important. It will then be a more or less strong factor of integration:
“The sector manager came to talk to us for ten minutes, then we had our first lesson. She didn’t give us a time to receive us and the welcome was a little cold. I feel like it was a chore for her. »

In other cases, the impact seems stronger for integration:
“We had a great half-day of integration; Most of the teachers came to introduce themselves and, in groups of 15, L2 students showed us around the premises and the information rooms. They showed us where the offices of the secretariats, the sports association, the BDE were. We felt very taken care of. It was good and what’s more, it gave us contact with 2nd year students  . »

Study and change your living environment

Entry into university corresponds to the period when you will leave your parents for the first time in a lasting manner. It’s a moment that is rarely mentioned when we talk about failure or success at university and yet this moment is crucial for first-time students who are experiencing this new life. One says:
“It’s impossible to sleep in my university residence. Every night, it’s a party in a studio. I tried to complain, but they made me look like a killjoy. But after a while it’s unbearable to only sleep four hours a night. »

Another adds:
“At first, it’s a bit stupid to admit, but I was a bit scared in the evening… we realize that the parents are perhaps often annoying, but it’s reassuring to be at home . »

Geographic mobility, particularly the move from a small town to a large city (or from a town to a medium-sized town) is still an element that remains significant for many students. Some students still get burned by the city lights.

Going to university represents a series of ruptures: leaving your high school, your family, your city, your province. The more these ruptures are numerous, the more real the risk of isolation is:
“It’s not easy when I find myself in my CROUS room in the evening in front of my computer. The other residents on my floor are older, so contact is not easy. »

To these new configurations are also added the times of new socializations, of building a network of friends, of adapting to taking notes, particularly in an amphitheater, of organizing domestic tasks, the testimonies of which show their effects on life. success or failure during the first semester at university.

Author Bio: Gilles Pinte is a Lecturer in Educational Sciences at Université Bretagne Sud