Has your grade point average got you bogged down? For students looking to continue their education at the professional or graduate level, or those applying to full-time jobs after their undergraduate degree, GPA often plays a crucial role in their success. Fourth-year UTM forensics student Kyla Marie Jorgenson said that her grades were often her main motivation. “It makes sense,” said Jorgenson. “When you’re applying to medical school, you need to have a high GPA.”

According to a study conducted by Wayne Grove and Tim Wasserman for The Journal of Economic Education, the majority of undergraduates’ GPAs follow a similar pattern. Their article “The Life Cycle Pattern of Collegiate GPA” claims that a student’s GPA follows a “checkmark pattern”.

Grove and Wasserman tracked the GPAs of 12,663 students from five consecutive graduating classes, collecting each student’s GPA at the end of each of the eight semesters in their undergraduate careers. The pattern shows that students received their lowest grades at the end of their first year and their highest grades in their fourth year.

This pattern is alarming to many who come out of high school and expect to have the same level of academic success. “My marks were so much higher in high school,” said first-year life science student Adora Orhiobhe. “I really hope that my marks start to improve. I plan to get into medical school, and it’s very competitive.”

So why is it that grades take such a hit in a student’s first year at university? Diane Crocker, UTM’s registrar, attributes the drop in grades to the change of environment that a student experiences in their first year of university: “All of a sudden, 17- and 18-year-olds are given a great deal of responsibility, and the problem is that they don’t make the adjustments needed for them to be successful.” She also noted that many first-year students work as many as 30 hours per week in part-time jobs or in family businesses, adding, “It doesn’t hit them until they see their marks that they’re spreading themselves too thin.”

Curtis Norman, the student development officer for the genONE program, attributed the lower first-year grades to a shift in motivation. Norman said that students are in university for very different reasons in their first year than in their final year. “A lot of students are influenced by the goals and aspirations of their parents while in their first year of university,” he said. Another challenge for first-year students is the large class sizes in the majority of first-year courses, he said. Classes like first-year chemistry, economics, and psychology can have up to 500 students in a lecture. “Not to say that these classes are not meaningful learning experiences. They do teach a lot of life skills and push students towards self-learning,” said Norman. “They definitely contribute to a student’s development, but they are different from what students were used to in high school.”

Mike Jamieson, a fourth-year commerce and finance student, said he took a difficult but required first-year course that he felt was used to “weed out the weak”. “The class average was 50% in my first-year calculus class,” he said. “Most people don’t pass classes like that.”

But Crocker claims that the problem is not in the difficulty level of the class. “If a student puts in the time required and is passionate about the courses they’re in, they should be successful,” she said. The lowest cutoff for admission into any program at UTM is 75%. “We only accept students who have the ability to succeed here,” she added.

On the other hand, there are also classes purported to be “bird courses”. Bird courses are those with a reputation of being less challenging, and are therefore taken mainly to boost one’s GPA. Birdcourses.com, a website that allows students to share information about different bird courses offered at Canadian universities, picks out courses like first-year psychology, second-year ecology, and the second-year course “Philosophy of Religion” among the extensive list of bird courses at UTM.

Crocker doesn’t recognize bird courses as a reality at UTM. “I know, because I see the grades in courses,” said Crocker, “and you probably won’t be surprised to learn that students fail courses when they don’t prepare, participate, and attend, even if other students consider the course to be a bird course.”

First-year lectures are often skipped, says Crocker: “You’d be shocked to see how few students are attending.” By mid-October, class attendance is significantly lower than it was at the beginning of the semester.

Why does the average GPA increase so drastically after the first year? There are multiple contributing factors, according to Philip Clark, a philosophy professor at UTM. “In philosophy, students begin to gain confidence in their analytical abilities. They begin to identify themselves as strong philosophers,” he said. This applies to the sciences and social sciences as well. By the time students enter their third and fourth years of study, they start to become “experts”.

“I’m so much more invested in my classes now,” attested Amrita Mrahar, a third-year psychology and forensics student. “I’m interning at Princess Margaret Hospital in January, so I feel like I’m slowly becoming an expert in my field.” Mrahar said she’s more motivated to do well now that she loves what she’s doing.

“When you’re passionate about learning something and your GPA isn’t your main concern, then I believe that you will succeed in it,” Norman commented.

Crocker also highlighted the correlation between student grades and participating in transition programs like genONE, utmONE, and rezONE. These programs are designed to help first-year students in the academic part of their transition to university. “Students who participated in a similar program we had called ‘stepONE’ saw a 5% increase in their GPA,” said Crocker. “These programs are in place because they work.”

Another important element in academic success is finding a community to identify with. “It can be a group of students in your program, staff or faculty members, or a student club on campus,” said Norman. “Relationships like these really help to build an effective learning community.”

Clark said that the material doesn’t get any easier as you move into upper-year courses; rather, students are making the adjustments needed to succeed. He said that these adjustments include improved time management and regular class attendance. “It just takes time for a student to get it right.”

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