For those teaching first-year students
If you are teaching first-year students and want to support them in transition to Higher Education, here is what research says you can do – even if the course you teach has been designed by somebody else:
Develop strategies to foster an inclusive learning environment and make sure that the personal and socioeconomic background of students does not translate into academic problems.
- Many of the issues associated with the difficulties in transitioning to university are particularly exacerbated for first-generation and underrepresented students. This especially relates to their sense of belonging and their understanding of expectations and the rules of the game. This is particularly the case for first-generation and other underrepresented college students; or students at-risk of dropping out. (See: Hagler et al., 2021; Elffers, 2012)
- Making expectations about your course explicit without assuming any prior knowledge about university life can be particularly important for these students. This concerns assessment expectations, but also things like how best to contact you or ask questions.
- Good teacher-student relationships (trust & rapport) have been shown to be key for student engagement and achievement, for student feeling they belong, for students coping with “difficulties in the academic context” & for students’ academic adaptation (Li, 2022: 539; see also: Brooman & Darwent, 2014; Gill, 2021; Kyne & Thompson, 2020; Meehan & Howells, 2018; Piel, 2018; Timmis & Muñoz-Chereau, 2022; van Herpen et al., 2020; Young Ahn & Davis, 2020).
Help students “‘imagine’ themselves as students” – because (some students) “do need that reassurance about ‘could I be a student’.” – especially if students come after having worked, when they are older or if they have followed a less traditional/academic track – “That lack of confidence, that is really big. And there are barriers about ‘I haven’t studied for a long time’ or ‘I don’t have the academic background’ and you do need to break these down.” (Goodchild, 2019: 783).
Students struggle understanding the expectations of a new academic environment. Making expectations about your course explicit and accessible can be very helpful for students.
- Students not only struggle understanding the ‘rules of the game’ of the university environment but also adapting to the existing diversity of rules across teachers, courses, and university services.
- Making explicit the expectations, requirements, and procedures at the beginning of the course, and keeping this information readily available throughout (e.g. by putting it on the online platform) can help students navigate these rules.
- Make clear expectations about assessment, attendance, work, and contact procedures.
- Help your students to navigate the ‘unspoken rules’ of academia and do not assume that they have prior knowledge about how the university works. Remember that the ‘unspoken rules’ are in many cases things that we assume everyone knows, e.g. the need to work and read outside the classroom, what constitutes proper email etiquette, what do we mean by ‘reading a text’, or the meaning of common terms such as ‘peer-reviewed journal article’.
See: Pownall et al., 2022
Help your students develop their autonomy and ability to 'learn to learn'.
- Giving feedback on their performance and assignments in ways that allows students to build on this feedback for future tasks is key. This can sometimes include not only giving feedback on the content of assessed work, but also helping students understand how their performance is connected to broader skills: e.g. if they have not spent enough time on independent work, if there are language issues that need to be addressed etc.
- Explicitly discussing learning strategies in class, such as how to make use of their time most effectively or how to read an article, can help students develop learning autonomy.
- It is helpful to make the differences between high school and university approaches explicit. This comparison helps clarify new expectations about learning.
- First-year students struggle navigating the complexity of the university system. Pointing them to resources within the university where they can tackle broader issues can help them address them.
First-year students usually struggle understanding the set-up of the university. As someone with regular contact with them, you can help students to navigate the system and make clear who, how, and when to ask for different resources and help.
- Students are used to the teacher being the main point of contact, and find a more complex environment like a university difficult to navigate.
- You can help them in this transition by providing clear and readily available information about who to address for different situations (library, student services, etc.) and how to contact them.
- Students may not know how best to contact you or ask questions. Providing clear and readily available information about your preferred mode of contact can ensure that all students who need help will be able to ask for it.
Implement a transition pedagogy: there are small adjustments to in-class teaching that can help students with their transition to university.
- Research tells us that both the feeling of connection of students to the university and their broader feeling of belonging are key in determining student success. What happens in the classroom can help with both these elements (See, for example: Sources: Gill, 2021; Meehan & Howell, 2019)
- Small teaching adjustments can be very helpful in fostering relationships and sense of belonging. Small in-class group discussions, for example, can help students get to know each other and build a supportive social environment.
- Welcoming questions, and explaining how they can ask them for your class (in office hours, via email, in individual appointments) can help lower the burden for those students who may feel less secure about their belonging at university.
Engagement is key to student learning and retention. It is important, therefore, to provide for multiple means of engagement for students (in terms of course content, types of learning activities, and ways of demonstrating learning - see, for example, Universal Design for Learning (UDL)).
Student engagement will also be enhanced by academics showing that they care - about the course content and about student learning and wellbeing.
Students often suffer from the ‘imposter syndrome’ and might feel they do not belong to the university or their course. The University needs to give students a fair chance to see if they have made the right choice. As research has shown, “University staff (academic, administrative and academic support) all have a significant role in support[ing] the students’ feelings of ‘connectedness’ to the university by regular, open and clear communication, relationships that provide stability and provide genuine concern and empathy for the challenges faced by students in transition. The building of trusting and respectful relationships is key to student success and belonging” (Meehan & Howells, 2019: 1388-1389).
Small teaching adjustments can be very helpful in fostering relationships and sense of belonging. Small in-class group discussions, for example, can help students get to know each other and build a supportive social environment.
First-year students are in transition. They have different starting points and many of them still need to learn how to learn at university level. Students might not know how to read, write or even reason as required in particular disciplines. Dealing with this cannot be delegated to support services only. Course content and its facilitation should explicitly assist students' transition from their previous educational experience and prior knowledge to the nature of learning in higher education and learning in their discipline as part of their lifelong learning.
It is helpful to make the differences between high school and university approaches explicit. This comparison helps clarify new expectations about learning.
First-year students need to be engaged in a dialogue about what helps them learn. Academics, in turn, should find ways to engage students in new - and perhaps challenging - forms of learning by explaining why these are important for their academic growth.
Dialogue between students and academics will build trust and confidence, and can help both sides to have a better understanding of roles, rights and responsibilities in the context of learning and higher education.
Remember that you are a ‘native’ at the university and take for granted many rules that have become part of your subconscious. First-year students, on the contrary, are ‘foreigners’, new to the university culture and not familiar with the rules. They do not know what is expected of a university student. They do not know how to interact appropriately with those who facilitate and support their learning. They do not know what their programme, a particular course or a particular academic expects of them.
Therefore, it is worth the effort for academics to spend some time at the outset on making basic rules and expectations explicit and reminding students of these as you go along in the course as required. A “Pedagogical contract” is one tool that can help you here.
When teaching first-year students, remember to make the rules of the game explicit. Although we take it for granted, things like office hours, what it means to read, proper email etiquette or how much to work outside the classroom may not be clear to students.
Those teaching first-year students have a special role in supporting student transition. This is a professionally enriching experience but can also be challenging. This is why it’s important for academics to feel part of a community of practice - a team of peers with whom they can share their wealth of knowledge, from whom they can learn and whose support they can count on when needed.
Working as a team is also important to develop coherency of approach and consistency across different first-year courses/modules. Ultimately, this will also allow all academics to understand how different programme courses are linked and build on each other.
Fluent communication within a community of practice can help coordinate assessment schedules and course/programme requirements and distribute student workload more generally.
Inclusion underpins all elements of the “Academics Can” framework. Widening participation has resulted in increasingly diverse student cohorts and academics play a key role in ensuring that inclusion is actually manifest in university. To feel included, all students need a sense of agency and this can be promoted by ways that academics communicate with students, course design, programme-level decisions and university policies and practices.
Making expectations about your course explicit without assuming any prior knowledge about university life can be particularly important for first-generation and other underrepresented students.
For students to grow academically, they need to know how well they are doing and how they can move forward in their learning. First-year students are particularly unsure of the standards expected, of the time they need to dedicate to learning outside of the classroom and of how best to spend this time. They do not know if they need to change their approaches to learning and how to judge the quality of their own work.
When students are unsure of these things, they ask for feedback more and more. While they do need this feedback, it does not always need to be provided by academics. Academics can use a variety of constructive feedback approaches that put the onus back on the student in the form of self- and peer-assessment supported by rubrics and model answers to be critiqued by students etc.
Giving feedback on their performance and assignments in ways that allows students to build on this feedback for future tasks is key. This can sometimes include not only giving feedback on the content of assessed work, but also helping students understand how their performance is connected to broader skills: e.g. if they have not spent enough time on independent work, if there are language issues that need to be addressed.
Each university has a range of support services in place. They are there to support students in questions that are beyond the scope of the academic’s role. What academics can do is know which services are there and signpost these to students as required.
Creating a supportive learning environment is, in turn, a direct responsibility of academics.
Students are used to the teacher being the main point of contact, and find a complex environment like a university difficult to navigate. You can help them in this transition by providing clear and readily available information about who to address for different situations (library, student services, etc.) and how to contact them.
Research has clearly shown that ‘approachability’ of academics is important for students [e.g. Charalambous, 2020; Ekornes, 2022; Gill, 2021; Kift & Nelson, 2005; Pollard & Bamford, 2022].
Many students drop out because they do not get the help they need when they need it. Too often this happens because students do not ask for help. They might lack awareness/confidence in the way that they can approach academics and they need to be made explicitly aware of the options available to them to communicate with academics.
However, there needs to be a balance between being perceived as approachable and unmanageable workload due to student queries that can be dealt with more efficiently by other means. What can help here is an agreed protocol on a course/programme regarding how students are to contact the academics on the programme. E.g. email etiquette should be made clear and both students and academics should be clearly shown how to use any virtual learning environments properly if they are going to be used as a means of communication.
Welcoming questions, and explaining how they can ask them for your class (in office hours, via email, in individual appointments) can help lower the burden for those students who may feel less secure about their belonging at university.
Many first-year students love their newly gained freedom, but tend to over rely on academics to monitor their learning. This is why part of the academics’ task is to help students learn how to gradually become more autonomous in their learning. Remember that students are still learning how to balance life and academic requirements, which often results in poor time management.
Explicitly discussing learning strategies in class, such as how to make use of their time most effectively or how to read an article, can help students develop learning autonomy.
Academics can support student transition in many ways. Perhaps most importantly, academics can support students on the way towards reaching their full potential. This includes realizing when a particular student may need extra help or on the contrary may need additional challenge. In addition academics may help identify students for whom their potential does align with the choice of programme/course/university made and signpost support for them as required.
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- Van Herpen, S. G. A., Meeuwisse, M., Hofman, W. H. A., & Severiens, S. E. (2020). A head start in higher education: The effect of a transition intervention on interaction, sense of belonging, and academic performance. Studies in Higher Education, 45(4), 862–877. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2019.1572088