Fuzzy-trace theory can help improve first-year students’ university experience

February 23, 2023
by Courtney Geritz and Maria Raciti

It’s a special time of the year. Early February marks the annual BEST Conference. At BEST 2023 we had the opportunity to present Getting the Gist of the University Experience and in this blog we unpack our presentation further. Late February is equally special as thousands of first-year students across Australia begin their university experience. In the coming days and weeks, these students’ expectations of what they thought university would be like will be compared with the raw experience of what it actually is like. For some students, their expectations will match their experiences, but for most this will not be the case. In these instances, expectation-experience mismatches prompt a range of behavioural responses, with attrition data indicating that many regional and remote students will choose to abandon their university studies[i].

Expectation-experience mismatches may result from institutional and external factors. The Australian university experience today bears little resemblance to what it was pre-pandemic. The widespread adoption of blended learning delivery models has changed campus life from people-rich environments to digitally enhanced experiences. This change has been met with mixed responses. Many university marketing practitioners, when describing university life to potential students (and thus establishing expectations), experience frustration and a sense of being disingenuous as the persistent tinkering with delivery models fundamentally transforms the university experience[ii]. This is where fuzzy-trace theory (FTT) can help by providing a fresh perspective on how today’s post-pandemic first-year students form expectations and how university marketers can begin to remedy expectation-experience mismatches. We offer three observations and three recommendations.

Observation 1. Expectations about going to university are fuzzy

The decision to go to university is complex and protracted[iii]. Potential students are exposed to a wide variety of information from an array of sources over many years[iv]. Much of this information is relegated to memory. FTT highlights the role that memory plays in decision-making. FTT purports that people form two types of recollections from memories of past information—exact, verbatim representations or fuzzy, ‘gist’ representations. Gist representations capture the essence of information (i.e., ‘to get the gist’) where individuals extract the essential meaning[v]. Gist representations shape expectations and have the potential to create imprecise or, in the case of post-pandemic university life, outdated expectations. Hence, starting university can be a confusing experience, lowering student satisfaction and increasing the risk of attrition[vi]. FTT’s notion of gist offers a new perspective on how student expectations are formed and how university marketers can support the successful development of these gist representations.

Observation 2. Post-pandemic first-year students draw gist representations from online content   

Potential students extract the gist of university life from a wide variety of influencers, including friends, family, schools and universities[iv]. Universities regularly engage with influencers, providing information and guidance. However, this engagement is patchy, with research showing that pre-pandemic those in regional and remote areas were engaged infrequently and on an ad-hoc basis[vii] and this pattern was exacerbated during the pandemic. In the absence of university-led engagement, gist representations are likely to have been drawn from online content, some of which originates from overseas contexts with little similarity to Australia (e.g., America college YouTube channels). Post-pandemic, university marketers can learn much from gist representations in online content. In particular, there is an increased appetite for relatable content that is optimistic about the future and from reputable sources that accurately reflect, ‘warts and all’, the actual, real-time experience of going to university. Relatable, relevant and reliable online content is critical to creating gist representations that minimise post-pandemic expectation-experience mismatches, especially for regional and remote students.

Observation 3. The expectation-experience mismatch is amplified for post-pandemic first-year students 

Students in secondary school and adult learners returning to study over the next few years are likely to experience amplified expectation-experience mismatches. The inconsistency between expectations and actual experiences results in cognitive dissonance with individuals attempting to harmonise inconsistency through various psychological and behavioural means[viii]. To address the amplified mismatch of post-pandemic cohorts fresh insights are needed as to how this generation of  students rationalise their behaviour and feelings so that gist representations embedded in university marketing can address the mismatch in a timely and proactive manner.

Recommendations to manage the expectation-experience mismatches

While there is extensive pre-pandemic research into the first-year student experience, FTT offers a fresh take on how expectations are formed via the role of memory and gist representations formed over the years preceding enrolment. FTT offers a new way to manage expectation-experience mismatches, including identifying opportunities through online content to help post-pandemic students reconcile inconsistencies especially for those from regional and remote areas. The following recommendations are offered as a starting point to help practitioners manage first-year students post-pandemic mismatches.

  • Be open to being relatable. Higher education can benefit from creating meaningful messages to better shape gist representations and expectations, which means universities should consider communicating outside the corporate narrative.
  • Ground your ‘gisty’ messages in reality. Understand there is always going to be gap between expectations and reality, but craft messages with truth as a cornerstone to create continuity for prospective students.
  • Focus on connection. Acknowledge what’s been missed during the pandemic and turn this into opportunity. Gist, expectation, and experience should all be anchored in connection.



Courtney Geritz is a seasoned marketer who has led dynamic marketing teams to influence strategic decisions around communication, marketing, and brand management. As a Masters by Research Candidate, at the University of the Sunshine Coast, her research explores student expectations and their experience to further understand these drivers in the context of higher education.   
Professor Maria Raciti is a passionate social marketer whose research interests are at the intersection of educational equality and Indigenous peoples. Maria is a BEST Fellow, Co-Director of the UniSC Indigenous and Transcultural Research Centre and Co-Leader of the Education and Economies Theme in the ARC Centre of Excellence for Indigenous Futures.



[i] Napthine, D., Graham, C., Lee, P., & Wills, M. (2019). National Regional, Rural and Remote Tertiary Education Strategy. Australian Government Department of Education.

[ii] Raciti M. (2022) Recommendations for reducing higher education inequality in a post-pandemic Australia, AASM Viewpoint, Vol 11, No 1, pp. 16-20.

[iii] Raciti, M. (2019). Career construction, future work and the perceived risks of going to university for young people from low SES backgrounds, National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, Perth.

[iv] Russell-Bennett, R., Drennan, J. & Raciti, M. (2016). Social Marketing Strategy for Widening Tertiary Education Participation in Low SES Communities: Field Research. Brisbane, Queensland University of Technology.

[v] Renya, V. F. (2021). A scientific theory of gist communication and misinformation resistance, with implications for health, education, and policy. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(15), 1-6. https://doi.10.1073/pnas.1912441117

[vi] Rivera Munoz, C., Baik, C., & Lodge, J. (2020). Teacher and student interactions in the first year of university. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 4(8), 1130 – 1142. https://doi.10.1080/0309877X.2019.1664731

[vii] Zacharias, Mitchell, G., Raciti, M., Koshy, P., Li, I., Costello, D., & Trinidad, S. (2018). Widening Regional and Remote Participation: Interrogating the impact of outreach programs across Queensland. National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education. Report of the Australian Government Department of Education and Training, Canberra.

[viii] Festinger, L. (1962). Cognitive dissonance. Scientific American, 207(4), 93-106. https://.10.1038/scientificamerican1062-93