first year university

Questions Most Commonly Asked by First Year University Students

By 3M National Teaching Fellows

We recently asked the 3M National Teaching Fellows to tell us which questions are most commonly asked by their first-year students, and what responses they give to those questions.  Here’s what they said:

Angela M. (Angie) Thompson, Human Kinetics, St. Francis Xavier University, and 3M National Teaching Fellow:

Q. Will that be on the exam?

A. I usually smile first, and then remind my students that everything we talk about in the classroom has the potential to be on their exam.  And besides that, there are things worth learning more about that may or may not be covered on an exam.

Q. What can I do with my degree?

A. For this question, I try to respond as broadly as possible – particularly to first-year students.  My response to fourth-year students may start off in the same way but then would get specific to the particular student and his or her strengths (which I would have a better idea of by the fourth year). For first-year students, I want to help them realize that their degree is not about getting a job; it is about experiencing a higher level of education and gaining various experiences along the way. I usually say “a degree is a degree is a degree” and it does not matter which one you have as much as how you choose to apply that degree.  Most employers are not looking for a specific degree. They simply want to know that you were able to stick it out for 4 (or 5) years and finished what you set out to do.

Q. What courses should I take next year?

A. Although our program is fairly prescriptive (we offer BA or BScHK with the options for both to major in Pre-Education or Kinesiology, and further options for the BSc students to minor in Health Sciences or Nutrition), with half the courses in second year required, I want to encourage the first-year students to approach their 4-yr degree with a focus on breadth.  So I make various suggestions for their ‘Art” or ‘Science’ courses. I also suggest they talk to upper-year students about what they took. I suggest they ask questions other than, “Was it an easy course?”. Rather, I suggest they ask questions like, “What is the professor like?” “What is his or her teaching style?” or “What kind of assignments did you have to do?” “Did the professor grade fairly” “What topics were covered?” so that the student can get a feel for whether or not their choice for electives interests them.


Lee Gass, Department of Zoology, University of British Columbia, and 3M National Teaching Fellow:

The most frequent question my first-year biology students ask, and the most famous among my colleagues because it is such a hoot:

Q. “What do we have to know for the test?”

My standard answer is, “It just depends.”

“It depends on what?”

“It depends on whether you’re going for a 51 or a 91 in here.”

Always, and I do mean always, they tell me they’re going for a 91.

“Well, it’s pretty hard to get a 91 in this class, but quite a few people do it.  But if you’re going for a 91, I’m afraid I can’t tell you what you have to know. For starters, I’d say you’d have to understand everything we talked about in class and know and understand everything related to that in your book.  People who are going for a 91 usually don’t stop there, though, because there’s a whole library full of information on the things we studied, and you might want to check out some of the things you’ve wondered about or things I’ve wondered out loud about.”

At that stage, many students change their minds and say all they want to do is pass.

“Oh, if all you want is a 51, I’d say it’s pretty easy to get that.  But if I were you, I wouldn’t go for a 51, though, because what if there’s something on the test you’re not prepared at all for?  If I were you, I’d put a little slop in my target, just to be sure, like maybe shoot for a 61 or something like that.”

The really good students always laughed at my response, and most of them said that’s what they thought I’d say.  Then we get down to the nub of it, which is that knowing stuff, understanding stuff, and being prepared to discuss stuff you’ve never seen before in the light of what you understand about other stuff.  The best students want to know how they can tell how well they understand stuff before they get to the test. It made me very happy every time that happened.


Dana Paramskas, Department of French Studies, University of Guelph, and 3M National Teaching Fellow:

That reminds me of a story… As a first-year student a long, long time ago, I was in a History class.  One day, the prof did not show up, but his TA did and proceeded to give us a very good lecture on a crucial point in history. We all dutifully wrote down everything he said.  The next class, the prof showed up and lectured us on the exact same crucial point in history, but from a totally different viewpoint, often contradicting what the TA had said. Panic in the class!! What is the TRUTH?!? And, more importantly, what do we write on the final exam … 🙂 Being first-year students, none of us dared to ask those questions.

Lessons learned:

1) There are many ways of interpreting events/issues, something that struck me so strongly that it stayed with me all through university and grad studies. In my teaching career, I always try to present issues from varying/ contradictory viewpoints and assign research materials as well.

2) I received a top grade on that question on the final exam, with a note from the prof appreciating that I had cited different viewpoints and tried to express my own interpretation using examples from both sides. It was probably a simplistic effort on my part, but the prof recognized an effort to synthesize, to reach a personal conclusion. Please note: a simple personal interpretation will not work; it has to be argued coherently, with the inclusion of (proof of?) alternate interpretations.

3) As to the problem of first-year students challenging the prof: don’t do it in class (outside, one on one, is fine) unless you are an expert, well-read in the subject.  In which case you don’t belong in that course. 🙂 Do your challenges in assignments, papers, exams, but always use logic, coherence and document, document …

P.S.  This approach can even help in second language courses.  For example, when does one use the subjunctive in French?  Answer: only in very defined circumstances, and even in those cases, circumlocution will get you out of the problem which is the trick that many native French speakers use almost instinctively.  Il faut que je soumette mon devoir à l’heure -> Il me faut soumettre mon devoir à l’heure. Another example: when to use the “passé simple/défini”? Answer: unless you are writing in an extremely formal style, you don’t. It’s a dying tense, and you will rarely find it in newspaper articles or personal correspondence (assignment: find some example of its use in newspaper articles and replace/justify it as appropriate … and read Camus’ L’Étranger!


Brock Fenton, Professor and Chair, Department of Biology, The University of Western Ontario, and 3M National Teaching Fellow:

Least favourite, but most often asked:

Q. “Is this material going to be on the exam?”

A. “If I have taken time to present the material in class, it may well be!”

Most favourite, and least often asked:

Q. “I was fascinated by the material in your lecture today. Where can I learn more about it?”

A. “Thank you for asking.  As it happens there is a paper on this topic that just appeared in Science (or Nature) last week.  I will send you a pdf.” I would then go on to point out how this topic raises many other questions to make the point that the topic is alive and well.


Fred Phillips, Department of Accounting, Edwards School of Business, University of Saskatchewan, and 3M National Teaching Fellow:

As they enter the business school, students are eager to gain their first workplace experiences. Yet they find that job postings ask for applicants with prior workplace experience, so understandably they ask,

Q. “How can I gain experience if I don’t have any experience to offer in the first place?” 

One way through this seemingly self-defeating, reinforcing cycle is to realize that although the job postings ask for prior experience, what they are really seeking are the skills that prior work experience develops. They want to hire people who are dependable, can work with others, and are enthusiastic about tackling new tasks. So find ways to develop those skills outside a work environment. Become an active contributor to university clubs and community organizations. Volunteering is a great way to develop the communication, organization, and leadership skills that employers seek. Ideally, you will find an organization (or two) where you can contribute on a frequent and regular basis. Rather than unpaid work, think of it as trading your time and talent for a line on your resume and a reference that will help you land paid employment in the future.


Ron Marken, Professor Emeritus, Department of English, University of Saskatchewan, and 3M National Teaching Fellow:

Q. “Do I have to read all these books?”

A. If you don’t want to read all these books, you might re-consider your decision to go to university.  The readings for this class are small drops in a very big barrel of books, papers, articles, websites, and newspapers you will be expected to read during the next four years.  Excelling at university means reading, writing, and studying — until your eyes hang out. A first-year English class is your opportunity to acquire and develop the habit of reading these and many more books.  For my BA, I had to take a 10-week course in nineteenth-century British history. The reading requirement was 6,000 pages. Swim or sink.

On a more practical point: the final exam will cover all these books.  Buy a good reading lamp.


Sylvain Robert, Chemistry-Biology Department, Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, and 3M National Teaching Fellow:

Q. Is this going to serve me in my studies?

A. Of course, it will help you. You know, many people are doing a very good job preparing the list of courses to be taken in a given curriculum. We are giving you the tools you will need for your future job/life.

Q. Must we always come to class?

A. You know what? There is plenty of information and fun stuff that you will not find in the course material and that I am only presenting in the classroom. Do you think that I am such a poor teacher and that you will be bored to death attending my class? Or do you think that you already know enough so that you may pass all the exams tomorrow morning and not attend the rest of the semester? (They usually turn white here and realize the enormity of their question.)

Q. Do we have to do all the exercises even if they do not account for the points?

A. Of course not. These exercises are there only to prevent you from drinking too many beers during the semester. By the way, I take exam questions directly from these exercises. The choice is yours.

Q. Why is it that we cannot meet you outside the period of availability… when we are available?

A. Why is it that you are not available to see me 24/7 either? What do you do outside of the class hours?


Alex Fancy, Professor Emeritus, Director of Drama, Mount Allison University, and 3M National Teaching Fellow:

Q. What will be my greatest challenge?

A. Time management.   This is the most common challenge in university, leaving out, of course, health, energy,  mortality and the like. 

You alone will be responsible for time management, but many people can help you: ask for advice from your teachers, advisors, librarians, senior students, people in your university who provide learning resources. 

But you alone can set a realistic work schedule. Make sure it allows time for exercise and sleep. Find a place that is conducive to concentration, resolve not to be easily distracted, and ask yourself regularly: Is this schedule working for me?  If not, why not? 

Time management should become easier in the second semester, and in subsequent years, particularly if you have focused on this problem early in your first semester.


Arne Kislenko, Department of History, Ryerson University, and 3M National Teaching Fellow:

Q. “How do I do better in class?”

Most are referring specifically to participation marks in my large seminar classes, which revolve around assigned readings and discussion/debate with their peers. I always tell them two things: one rather predictable and necessary and one slightly more unusual.

The first is that they have to do the readings and come prepared to both contribute and listen to others in class. If the readings aren’t done well, they have no real basis for participation and are usually very quickly “found out” by either me or their colleagues. I’m sure I’m not the only prof who designs things so that no one – no matter how smart they may be – can fake their way through a long seminar dealing with complicated material and questions! But on this note, I also stress that listening is key too. So many just talk to demonstrate their command of their readings. But the key to a great discussion, and therefore doing better in class, is to take account of others’ opinions and really listen to what they have to say.

The second, perhaps more “off the wall” thing I say is that no one at the table is better than them until they prove otherwise. I try and encourage everyone that just because someone else seems “smarter” or says more, they are not necessarily “the best.” I find my students are quickly intimidated in first year when they’re confronted by students who talk more, faster, or seem more confident. They often retreat into a shell and contributions decline or disappear.

To fight this, I make it clear in class – to everyone – that they will always be students. We all are, and the quest for knowledge never really ends. I drive home that they have to craft their contributions with thoughtfulness and critical thinking. Additionally, they always have to listen with patience and respect to others. The “odd” part comes in that I sometimes have to challenge the ones who speak so much, quicker, or with more confidence. I confess that with one or two “cockier” students I will sometimes try and (as nicely as possible) challenge or confront them with the idea of showing those more hesitant that no one is “so good.” I then follow it up by making sure everyone contributes or at least feels like they can by setting an environment that is friendly and positive, even if quirky and a bit edgy! I mean I teach mostly “death and destruction” in modern history and contemporary international affairs, so the material requires some intensity!

Overall, I make sure that everyone feels like they CAN contribute: that they are worthy of being there and, as I always say, “find their voice” even if I have to drag it out of them! Gaining confidence and a sense of responsibility towards the material, fellow students, and the class discussion empowers students and makes them believe that they have a part to play in it all. But it all stems from coming prepared, taking the work seriously, REALLY thinking about it, and listening to others. Most of all, no matter what, I tell them to always try and challenge what they believe and to come to some sort of critical discussion in their own heads about any topic.


Rick Schwier, Educational Technology and Design, University of Saskatchewan, and 3M National Teaching Fellow:

I’m seldom asked questions by first-year students.

I wish first-year students would ask me tons of questions, but they almost never ask.

When you’re a first-year student, I would love to talk with you about your dreams, and how being a teacher might fit into those dreams.  I would love to reassure you that you will not be signing up for a life of poverty by being a teacher instead of a lawyer or doctor. I would love to share my opinion that our profession is not only noble; it is one of the few noble professions left.  Nothing would make me happier than to ignite a small flame of desire in you to make a difference in the lives of people who will literally shape the future of our planet.

But I’m not asked.

So I beg you.  Ask. Anything. 

Talk to your professors, whether they are scientists, artists, writers, engineers, or educators.  They want to talk to you. They welcome your questions. They will spend time with you and they will be more generous than you probably expect.

And if you happen to run across a professor who is not welcoming or generous, move on to the next one.  There are a lot of us out here who are anxious to talk with you.