For those (re)designing first-year courses

If you are (re)designing a course for first-year students or can revise your course in order to better supports students in transition to Higher Education, here is what research says you can do:

  • “Understanding issues relating to student transition into the higher education context is an important aspect of module design, linking content, delivery, and assessment with a student’s prior educational experience and knowledge bases.” (Barr & Jackson, 2018: 390).
  • “Nelson and colleagues (2006, p. 1) argue that students should be encouraged to become members of a community of learners through a curriculum that engages first-year students as learners and recognises that first-year students have special needs based on the transition experience. Universities need to coordinate the curriculum across academic, administrative and information silos. Building on the need for a holistic approach, Kift, Nelson and Clarke (2010, p. 14) propose a ‘transition pedagogy’ that delivers a holistic first-year // experience by connecting disparate approaches led by curriculum.” (Bowles et al., 2014: 214-215) 
  • “Tate and Swords (2013) highlight in their study of student perceptions that some students are not concerned as much about the transition in terms of subject content in geography, but more about the different skills required to study for a degree. They stress that academics should develop greater awareness of what it is like to study at school (beyond the content of the subject), that academics should develop core links with other stakeholders involved in secondary education, and that efforts to support the transitions should have a broader focus that the subject content but to focus on the skills too.” (Ferreira, 2018: 374).
  • “There is clearly a need for universities to embed community building aspects into the initial curricular, for without it many students will struggle to continue with their studies. This community building aspect appears particularly important in a context of the cultural plurality of higher education settings.” (Pollard & Bamford, 2022: 354)
  • “universities need to understand the different transition journeys of students to provide an inclusive environment where all students can thrive” (Charalambous, 2020: 1420)
  • “a responsive and ‘inclusive model of teaching, learning and assessment’ that could improve the completion rates and the learning outcomes rather than reinforce, as Thomas (2002, 235) has argued, “the social and academic distance between students, and the higher education ‘norm’” (Katartzi & Hayward, 2020: 2377)
  • “Undergraduate learners come to the classroom as a diverse mosaic with different cultures, talents, disciplinary backgrounds, orientations, life-stages, and classroom expectations. Instructors can deliberately design for equity, diversity, and inclusion, including for large first-year classes. Equity, diversity, and inclusion in teaching and learning are frequently discussed on the level of principle and theory, and it is important to translate work for all educators for implementation and practice, including teaching strategies useful to helping across disciplines (Hartwell et al., 2017).” (Super et al., 2021: 3464)
  • “Thomas (2012) reported that in order to nurture ‘belonging’, academic staff are central to this process. Academics can provide opportunities for students to develop peer relationships, engage in meaningful interactions, and link the emergent knowledge and confidence of the students to their aspirations for their future goals. The role of the academic was highly significant for the students in this study.” (Meehan & Howells, 2019: 1386).

Transition is regarded as a process rather than an event, with curriculum as the central thread that integrates approaches to transition through policy, resource and practice across all areas of the institution.” (Bowles et al., 2014: 214-215).

  • “Academic context factors, such as the number and diversity of academic tasks to be performed, accessibility of study materials, and good interaction with professors, together with individual factors, such as the ability to perform tasks and assignments independently, have been identified as key dimensions to successfully adjust to college” (Andrade & Fernandes, 2022: 2 of 9)
  • “Explicit, rigorous and coherent curricula, pedagogies and assessment have long been advocated as a primary and central strategy for supporting students from diverse back-grounds (e.g. Delpit 1995; Lingard et al. 2001).” (Gale & Parker, 2014: 741).
  • Ways in which Teachers teach can affect how learners learn – and how first-year students (learn to) approach learning (See Ribeiro et al., 2019: 10)
  •  “Developing a strong identity as a university learner during first-year university is important because it will encourage students to persist and provide some resilience in the face of future academic challenges.” (Cameron & Rideout, 2022: 680)
  • “first-year students should be helped by faculty and by the educational services at college to understand and metacognitively control their approach to learning” (Ribeiro et al., 2019: 9).

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.

Pay attention to include relevant content and a variety of teaching approaches for helping students to develop intended learning outcomes: understanding and knowledge, application, reflection and transferable skills.   

Study literature of the course should cover fundamental topics of the course and it should have a flexible part as well to allow students to select according to their interest. Make sure that the literature is available to students and includes different types of resources to address different students’ learning strategies.


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).


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.

Tailor a course to meet your students’ different background knowledge and ensure that there is a progression from where students are coming to where you want them to get in higher education.


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. 

Make sure that requirements, especially assessment tasks and criteria, are clearly presented. Relate assignments within the course and between first-year courses. Link it horizontally and vertically to other courses in the study program.


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.

Try to coordinate your course with other courses for first-year students, so as to create a coherent experience for first-year students. Identify the course in the program: horizontal and vertical link.


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. 

 Include as much choice and variety of activities in your course as can be productive for achieving your course learning outcomes while getting the maximum number of diverse students engaged. Let the course reflect inclusiveness.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


  • Andrade, C., & Fernandes, J. L. (2022). Hopes and Fears of First-Year Freshman College Students during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Education Sciences, 12(1), 53.
  • Barr, M., & Jackson, L. H. (2018). Enhancing Delivery and Assessment: A Case Study in Module Redesign for Improved Transition Into Higher Education. Journal of Political Science Education, 14(3), 390–399.
  • Bowles, A., Fisher, R., McPhail, R., Rosenstreich, D., & Dobson, A. (2014). Staying the distance: Students’ perceptions of enablers of transition to higher education. Higher Education Research & Development, 33(2), 212–225.
  • Cameron, R. B., & Rideout, C. A. (2022). ‘It’s been a challenge finding new ways to learn’: First-year students’ perceptions of adapting to learning in a university environment. Studies in Higher Education, 47(3), 668–682.
  • Charalambous, M. (2020). Variation in transition to university of life science students: Exploring the role of academic and social self-efficacy. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 44(10), 1419–1432.
  • Ekornes, S. (2022). The impact of perceived psychosocial environment and academic emotions on higher education students’ intentions to drop out. Higher Education Research & Development, 41(4), 1044–1059.
  • Ferreira, J. (2018). Facilitating the transition: Doing more than bridging the gap between school and university geography. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 42(3), 372–383.
  • Gale, T., & Parker, S. (2014). Navigating change: A typology of student transition in higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 39(5), 734–753.
  • Gill, A. J. G. (2021). Difficulties and support in the transition to higher education for non-traditional students. Research in Post-Compulsory Education, 26(4), 410–441.
  • Katartzi, E., & Hayward, G. (2020). Transitions to higher education: The case of students with vocational background. Studies in Higher Education, 45(12), 2371–2381.
  • Kift, S., & Nelson, K. (2005). Beyond curriculum reform: Embedding the transition experience. Proceedings of the 28th HERDSA Annual Conference, 225–235.
  • Meehan, C., & Howells, K. (2019). In search of the feeling of ‘belonging’ in higher education: Undergraduate students transition into higher education. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 43(10), 1376–1390.
  • Pollard, L., & Bamford, J. (2022). Lost in transition: Student journeys and becoming—Deliberations for a post‐COVID era. The Curriculum Journal, 33(3), 346–361.
  • Ribeiro, L., Rosário, P., Núñez, J. C., Gaeta, M., & Fuentes, S. (2019). First-Year Students Background and Academic Achievement: The Mediating Role of Student Engagement. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 2669.
  • Super, L., Hofmann, A., Leung, C., Ho, M., Harrower, E., Adreak, N., & Rezaie Manesh, Z. (2021). Fostering equity, diversity, and inclusion in large, first‐year classes: Using reflective practice questions to promote universal design for learning in ecology and evolution lessons. Ecology and Evolution, 11(8), 3464–3472.


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