Change of Assignment Focus Group Report, October 20, 1998

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Change of Assignment Focus Group Report

Michael J. Dooris
Center for Quality and Planning

October 20, 1998


Abstract

On October 16, 1998 a focus group was held with six students who had changed assignment from another location to University Park. The purpose was to find ways to enhance this transition. The students made the following suggestions:

  • a fourth-semester preview program at non-University Park locations;
  • a fifth-semester University Park orientation program;
  • U.P. / campus “circuit riders” visiting all non-University Park locations;
  • bus trips from non-U.P. campuses to U.P., and guided tours of the campus and town;
  • improved distribution of the Weekly Collegian;
  • a prominent direct link to CAAIS on the Penn State home page;
  • greater integration of computer technologies with coursework at non-U.P. locations;
  • more aggressive publicity (at non-U.P. campuses) about Study Abroad and internships.

Introduction

Ingrid Blood, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education, initiated focus group research to investigate possible ways to ease the transition of students who change assignments from another campus location to University Park. Michael Dooris, Director of Planning Research and Assessment led a focus group on this topic. Shelby Hoy, staff assistant in the Office of Undergraduate Education, assisted.

Six Penn State undergraduates (two juniors, four seniors; five females, one male) participated. Each had changed assignment from another campus to University Park, and the students were enrolled in three different University Park colleges (Business Administration, Earth and Mineral Sciences, and Science). The participants had each attended different campuses (Altoona, Beaver, Berks, DuBois, Mont Alto, and Wilkes-Barre); three had started college at other universities and transferred to a Penn State campus.

The discussion guide protocol is appended to this report. The focus group occurred on October 16, 1998.


Findings

Many Positive Aspects

The students reported many positive aspects of their Penn State experience overall, and about the particular paths that they followed. For example, students said that “my campus was great,” “I would recommend starting at a campus to anyone,” and “this was the right way for me to do it.”

Participants noted advantages about their campuses of initial enrollment:

  • “I made my best friends there.”
  • “I liked feeling that I knew almost everyone.”
  • “It’s easier when classes and the campus are smaller.”

Participants also had positive comments about University Park

  • “There are lots more opportunities here.”
  • “I really liked my original campus but I’m glad I came to University Park, too.”
  • “Not all classes have been bigger here, and sometimes large classes are better.”

While positive comments are gratifying, it is often more useful to concentrate on opportunities to improve, and that is the emphasis in the remainder of this report.

Advising

Several students commented that advisors were accessible at their respective non-University Park campuses and helpful about freshmen and sophomore concerns, but that advisors were less helpful about planning for upper-division courses and expectations for the junior and senior years. None of the students was familiar with CAAIS (the Web-based Comprehensive Advising and Information System).

“Babying”

There was a sense that the non-University Park campuses did a great job of easing the transition from high school to college, but that sometimes the campuses perhaps “babied” students too much. Practices such as instructors giving detailed outlines before exams – although well intentioned and helpful to an extent – can make it difficult for students who eventually must adapt to life at University Park.

Computer Technology

The students reported the usual frustrations with computer labs (crowding, software availability, equipment failures, and the like). However, in terms of non-University Park / University Park differences, the relative availability and quality of computer technology were, perhaps surprisingly, not really at issue.

The students did emphasize the different ways technology is used at the respective campuses. Participants noted that there were generally low expectations and minimal requirements for students to use the Web, e-mail, and so on at the non-University Park campuses. At University Park those uses and skills are taken for granted; computer use is integrated into many courses through homework assignments, research applications, listserves, and related mechanisms. The students thought the more integrated philosophy was the right approach and, although temporarily challenging, beneficial in the long run.

Instructors for whom English is a Second Language

In terms of the quality of instructors, students reported having foreign-born instructors with a poor command of spoken English (at University Park only), but they were very clear that these were very specific instances and not a widespread problem.

Housing

Getting information on, and making arrangements for, housing in State College was definitely difficult for these students. It is hard to line up off-campus living from a distance, especially because housing usually must be found six months or more in advance, because the students from other locations don’t know their way around State College, and because semester leases are usually not available.

Collegian

The students reported that they rely heavily on the Daily Collegian to find out what’s going on. The Weekly Collegian, published for the campuses, would be a great source of information, except that it is difficult – or sometimes even impossible – to find at the various campuses. As a result, students felt that they were in some respects not well informed while at the campuses about what was going on in the University as a whole, and particularly about news and concerns at University Park.

Opportunities that Require Planning

The students reported that they were impressed by the many opportunities – clubs, Study Abroad, internships, various learning support services – they discovered once they arrived at University Park. However, they also reported that they would have been better able to take advantage of some of these if they had known about them in advance, and planned accordingly. For example, junior year is kind of late to begin considering Study Abroad or internships. Likewise, services such as those provided by the University Learning Resource Centers are great, but it takes a while for change-of-assignment students to learn about them.


Suggestions for Improvement

Fourth-Semester Preview Program (Non-U.P.)

The students suggested that every non-University Park undergraduate campus implement a voluntary, non-credit course or workshop for students anticipating a change of assignment. This program, which students typically would take in their fourth semester, could cover topics such as housing, facilities (libraries, computer labs), support centers, and social differences. The program could help students to anticipate differences in the academic environment such as more stringent tests, the importance of time management, and the adjustment to larger classes taught by a mix of faculty types (full-time, part-time, graduate assistants, international).

Fifth-Semester Orientation Program (U.P.)

The participants recommended a voluntary, non-credit course or workshop for students beginning the change of assignment at University Park. This would cover topics similar to those suggested above for the fourth-semester program.

University Park / Campus “Circuit Riders”

The participants suggested that Penn State make a deliberate effort to get more University Park faculty, administrators, and staff visiting and talking to students, faculty and staff at other locations. Some structured face-to-face programs are needed. Students do not want more written materials added to the packets of information they already receive, but they would probably listen to visitors. Also, the students suggested that non-University Park faculty and advisors (not just students) probably could benefit from attending these presentations. (According to these students, such programs may exist, but they have not been well publicized or made generally accessible to all students and campuses.)

Bus Trips to University Park

The participants suggested that every campus organize periodic bus or van trips to State College for its students. These should include a structured half-day or so guided tour of the campus and town. (Some campuses may do something like this already, but these students said they were not aware of such an opportunity at their respective campuses.)

Improved Weekly Collegian Distribution

All the participants agreed that regular reading of the Weekly Collegian is a great way to get informed about Penn State and University Park life, issues, and academic and extracurricular opportunities. They also agreed that the Weekly Collegian was often difficult if not impossible to find. Improved distribution of the Weekly Collegian would help students to anticipate, plan for, and more easily make the transition to life at University Park.

CAAIS Visibility

The participating students suggested that the Penn State home page have a prominent, direct link to the Comprehensive Advising and Information System.

Integrated Computer Use

The students felt that basic computer research and communication technologies ought to be required to a greater extent at non-University Park locations. Students now have access to the necessary software and hardware; they need an incentive to learn to use what is available.

Study Abroad and Internships Information

The participants suggested that a special effort be made to inform students in their freshmen and sophomore years about Study Abroad and internships. These are wonderful opportunities, but they require considerable advance planning. These programs don’t get the publicity they need and deserve at non-University Park locations.


Thank You

The following students willingly shared their thoughts and ideas, in the hope of making Penn State a better place for their colleagues. Thanks to:

Michele Dambowsky Brian Rendos
Nicole Dincher Jennifer Rennard
Allison Midgely Wendy L. Zeller