Are Malaysian students ready for university life?

Prospective students are usually aware that university education will be different from their high school experience. But how ready are they? Do secondary schools in Malaysia adequately prepare students for tertiary education?

Associate Professor Jane Terpstra-Tong and Adlina Ahmad from the School of Business, Monash University Malaysia find “an obvious disconnect between high school education and university requirements.”

Based on interviews with a group of first-year business students, Assoc Prof Tong and Ahmad found four main areas where students lacked university readiness.

First, the largest challenge faced by these first-year students was independent learning and research assignments. They had little or no experience with such assignments, which are typically found in Western universities.

Next, almost all the students said time management was a challenge. In secondary school, they had not needed to manage time so effectively. In university, they now faced a large number of assignments which increase in difficulty over the semester. Assoc Prof Tong and Ahmad noted that “time management is a life skill that takes time to develop” and it would be best to teach students this skill while in secondary school.

Third, most students wished they had a better command of English, especially in reading and writing. Though many had graduated from a pre-university program conducted in English, they felt a stronger command of English would help them handle the high volume of reading, lengthy writing assignments, and oral presentations.

Fourth, the “spoon-feeding” school systems which most Malaysian students are accustomed to, led to “a general lack of critical thinking skills.” Despite scoring well in high school or university entrance exams, first-year students may not yet be effective critical thinkers. A critical thinker raises important questions and can articulate well-reasoned solutions.

As a result of these challenges, students experienced much stress. “However,” Assoc Prof Tong and Ahmad reported, “they showed resilience . . . and strong determination in overcoming their challenges.”

When asked what advice they would give to incoming students, the first-year students said:

  • Practise good time management
  • Develop learning and study habits
  • Seek social support and make many friends
  • Improve in English
  • Be independent
  • Choose the right university course
  • Be inquisitive
  • Be ready for emotional adaptation
  • Stay healthy
  • Identify a good living and/or study environment
  • Take risks and try new experiences

Among the 35 students who participated in this study, 83% were Malaysian and the rest were international students from mostly Asian countries. They were recruited from two private universities: a foreign university’s branch campus and a local university offering British business programs.

Most studies on first-year adjustment have focused on university students in the West. However, Assoc Prof Tong and Ahmad’s qualitative study provides much-needed data from an Asian sample.

Compared to findings from Western countries, Assoc Prof Tong and Ahmad did not find social adjustment to be a major issue for their participants. “Students appeared to understand the instrumental value of friendship. This could be explained by the influence of a relationship-based culture. Asian students learn from an early age that building social networks is essential to survival.”

They defined university readiness in terms of three areas: academic, skill, and psychological readiness.

Academic readiness consists of content knowledge in areas like language, mathematics, science, social studies, and the arts. Skill readiness encompasses abilities such as critical thinking, research, time management, exam-taking, note-taking, and communication. Psychological readiness consists of attitudes necessary for learning and living independently, such as self-discipline and inquisitiveness.

Several suggestions that secondary schools and universities could implement to prepare students better, were also provided.

Universities should provide impartial counselling, examine their admission requirements, and set an appropriate admission standard for English. Students whose English is on the borderline should first complete an English bridging program before embarking on university studies. First-year seminars can help them know what to expect in university and what is expected of them. These seminars would also cover topics such as time management. Finally, a writing centre could provide students with feedback and assistance in writing skills.

Secondary schools, meanwhile, could partner with universities to develop a curriculum. They can encourage students as young as 15 to give serious thought to their futures, what they intend to study and what they can do to develop the full range of skills needed to succeed in university. Schools can introduce career and study options by organising seminars or university visits. Having a goal in mind and a realistic view of university requirements may help students persevere and succeed.

Assoc Prof Tong and Ahmad’s study, will be published in International Journal of Educational Management, points to the need for Malaysian universities to strengthen their transition programs and proactively form closer relationships with high schools.