For those in charge of an undergraduate programme
If you are coordinating an undergraduate programme, here is what research says you can do in order to make sure diverse students on your programme are better supported in their transition to higher education:
Target areas of transition pedagogy so that there are baseline expectations of all staff in this regard. Build on this incrementally by supporting staff in building a diverse teaching and assessment toolkit in collaboration with relevant University staff as required.
- “Nelson and colleagues (2006, p. 1) argue that […] first-year students have special needs based on the transition experience” (Bowles et al., 2014: 214)
- “University education (in the first-year and beyond) proceeds on the assumption that students have already developed the skills needed to succeed as a learner, or that they will develop them naturally as they progress through their courses. However, many first-year students appear to struggle a great deal with adapting to the demands of being an independent learner in a university context.” (Cameron & Rideout, 2022: 669)
- Tate and Swords (2013) found that “some students are not concerned as much about the transition in terms of subject content […] but more about the different skills required to study for a degree.” (Ferreira, 2018: 374). Programme coordinators can develop greater awareness of these concerns amongst academics on their programmes and support academics to include approaches in their modules to address these concerns as a complementary measure to other university supports for first year students.
- Programme coordinators can work with academics on their programmes in gleaning and understanding of the different transition journeys of students and its importance in providing an inclusive environment where all students can thrive (See: Charalambous, 2020: 1420).
- “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)
- Programme coordinators of first-year programmes “should develop core links with other stakeholders involved in secondary education” and “efforts to support the transitions should have a broader focus than the subject content but to focus on the skills too” (Ferreira, 2018, p. 374).
Programme coordinators can audit students for areas of support needed and provide time and space for life-skills based tutorials and workshops as required and appropriate provide exemplar artifacts of learning for students (See www.educonnect.ie).
Organise robust annual induction programmes for both staff and students where there is an overview of University and programme protocols and support, and invite/include relevant University staff as required.
- “The basic norms of being a university student need to be clearly explained and continually reinforced early in the first semester” (Gibney et al., 2011: 363-364). Programme coordinators can clearly communicate expectations throughout the curriculum (See: Pownall et al., 2022: 6) and they can provide support in helping students to navigate the “unspoken rules” of academia taking note not to assume prior knowledge about university life and paying particular attention to the notion that students will not have received as much pre university knowledge in their transition to university (Ibid: 10).
- Supporting students must not be delegated to support services only. It has been shown by research that transition policies that do not include core academic delivery are rarely effective (e.g. Pollard & Bamford, 2022). “University support systems and the personalised, systematic help offered by academic staff are perceived of utmost significance for remaining in HE and not dropping out”(Katartzi & Hayward, 2020: 2377). Programme coordinators can provide a “one-stop-shop” for programme information for both staff and students whereby students can see the range of supports offered by academic and support staff alike (See, for example: www.educonnect.ie)
- Programme coordinators can highlight the “need to know”/ “emergency” information at initial induction and where students can find information as required throughout the course/programme and ensure that there is transparency, accuracy and consistency of information about the programme and its place within the wider university. This can be aided by resources such as a checklist of expectations for students that is fair and explicit.
- Programme coordinators can develop partnerships with services and persons who can support students, like student services, study centres, other faculties (see: Lawrence, 2002:. 7) to ensure that students understand the different roles of the programme/university staff and to ensure that the relevant communication protocols for each are very clear.
- Programme coordinators can communicate outcomes of the relevant courses and purpose within an overarching programme and/or career pathway as relevant.
Encourage and enable student voice on the programme while also fostering a sense of responsibilities and rights of both students, staff.
- “It needs to be acknowledged that students and lecturers have joint responsibility for student success: a first stage in accepting such responsibility would be to gain a better understanding of the complex processes that seem to influence students’ academic success.” (Hassel & Ridout, 2018: 12). Furthermore, “the building of trusting and respectful relationships is key to student success and belonging” (Meehan & Howells, 2019: 1388-1389). A study by Gill (2021: 429) found that “developing relationships between academic staff and students in the early stages of their course” was something that helped support their transition to university.
- “Being valued by academic staff and the institution itself has had a profound impact on the students, supporting their transition to higher education” (Gill, 2021: 426). Programme coordinators can set up a formal student rep system and organise regular meetings and ensure a two-way system of communication that is clear and respectful that is about best practice and not only for problem reporting.
- “Positive interactions with university faculty and staff can provide valuable information, instill a sense of belonging in college, and foster students’ career identities” (Hagler et al., 2021: 3).
- “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.” (Meehan & Howells, 2019: 1386). Programme coordinators can review module content and facilitation on a regular basis taking on board the views of staff, students, external examiners and potential employers.
Liaise with senior management to select the appropriate staff for working with first year students as their role is crucial in student retention and development.
- “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: 215)
- Collaborate with academics on the programme to build a culture of trust and collegiality – create a community of practice for the programme where there is a democratic and collegial approach to the running for the programme.
- Create time and space within the programme structure for the sharing of good practice so that there is “joined up” thinking across the modules on the programme.
- Harness the internal expertise of the team and provide opportunities to inject new perspectives from external sources as required.
- Create awareness of the support within the University for teaching, learning and assessment.
- Create an online space for sharing or resources approaches across the programme.
- Set up clear academic advising and pastoral care structures for the programme that is supportive of all students.
- Schedule the activities and assessment for the programme in a holistic and coordinated manner to avoid bottlenecks in exams or assignment submission and grading.
See also: Lawrence, 2002: 7
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.
Programme coordinators can liaise with academic staff regarding course content and teaching approaches and can provide opportunities for professional learning and sharing or good practice.
Student engagement in lectures will be enhanced by engaging course content, facilitation and a variety of teaching approaches and by academics showing that they care.
Programme coordinators can ensure where possible that modules where there are large groups are supported by smaller group tutorials where students can get to know each other and develop more personal relationships where possible.
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 & Howell, 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.
Programme coordinators can build capacity in the academic team that will be working on the programme by fostering a community of practice to share knowledge and good practice. They could facilitate links between academics who teach first-year undergraduates and their feeder schools. In addition, they could create awareness of where first-year students are coming from by building some formal professional development regarding the transition from secondary to third level education. This will enable academics involved on the programme to design module content that aligns with where students are at in their learning. Programme coordinators need to ensure that all academics involved in the programme are aware of any additional needs of students by linking in with relevant student supports in the University. Programme coordinators also need to ensure that relevant academic staff are supported in transition pedagogy where appropriate:
- New lexicon/academic language for students
- New forms of assessment
- New ways of working for students – more self-directed learning
- Helping students manage their time
- Helping students learn the protocols for referencing etc.
- Navigating virtual learning environments
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.
Programme coordinators can liaise with module coordinators to build in opportunities for dialogue into modules both inside and outside tutorials/lectures.
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.
Programme coordinators can ensure that information is prepared and made available to students and staff with the rules of the programme clearly explained within the wider context of the university. Relevant links to all institution protocols can be included in an online repository/location for ease of access throughout the academic year. This should be a live document that can be referred to as required by academic staff and students alike and should be updated as required. Programme coordinators can communicate and reinforce the message to students that they consult the relevant repository of information as the first port of call before emailing individual lecturers with queries.
This will help students because it will make visible and clear the expectations of the programme and will avoid any information vacuums caused by false assumptions of students prior knowledge.
Programme coordinators can facilitate an agreed protocol on a programme regarding how students are to contact the academics on the programme. Clear 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.
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.
Programme coordinators could build community by organising space and time for formal and informal meetings of academic staff and students. This can be supported by organising events for staff and students shows them that you care (i.e.organising even simple things like coffee mornings have an impact).
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.
Programme coordinators can create awareness that students have diverse actual starting points in their learning and therefore it is helpful for academics to differentiate their content and approaches as required and programme directors can organise additional support for students and academics as required.
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.
- Universities need to understand the different transition journeys of students to provide an inclusive environment where all students can thrive (Charalambous, 2020: 1420)
- develop partnerships with services and persons who can support students, like Student Services, study centres, other faculties (Lawrence, 2002: 7)
- help students overcome their fear of asking questions, approaching faculty members, asking for help (Charalambous, 2020)
- help students feel engaged – “A good relationship with teachers has been found to be particularly important for some at-risk students to feel engaged (Croninger and Lee 2001; Drewry, Burge, and Driscoll 2010)” (Elffers, 2012: 46)
- ‘adjust’ “levels of support” as students learn to learn more independently (see: Wos & Cross (n.d.))
- it needs to be acknowledged that students and lecturers have joint responsibility for student success: a first stage in accepting such responsibility would be to gain a better understanding of the complex processes that seem to influence students’ academic success.” (Hassel & Ridout, 2018: 12)
- If students feel valued by academics, they feel more connected to the university (Gill, 2021)
- Recommendation 4: Provide support in helping students to navigate the “unspoken rules” of academia and avoid assuming prior knowledge about university life, paying particular attention to the notion that students will not have received as much pre university knowledge in their transition to university.” (Pownall et al., 2022: 10)
- Recommendation 1: Clearly communicate expectations throughout the curriculum, with an emphasis on supported formative assessments, work in partnership with students, and champion flexibility.” (Pownall et al., 2022: 6)
- “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)
- 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)
- it needs to be acknowledged that students and lecturers have joint responsibility for student success: a first stage in accepting such responsibility would be to gain a better understanding of the complex processes that seem to influence students’ academic success. (Hassel & Ridout, 2018: 12)
- 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. https://doi.org/10.1080/15512169.2017.1415812
- 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. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2013.832157
- 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. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2020.1783525
- 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. https://doi.org/10.1080/0309877X.2019.1690642
- Cifuentes Gomez, G., Guzmán, P., & Santelices, M. V. (2022). Transitioning to higher education: Students’ expectations and realities. Educational Research, 64(4), 424–439. https://doi.org/10.1080/00131881.2022.2087712
- 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. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2021.1882404
- Elffers, L. (2012). One foot out the school door? Interpreting the risk for dropout upon the transition to post-secondary vocational education. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 33(1), 41–61. https://doi.org/10.1080/01425692.2012.632866
- 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. https://doi.org/10.1080/03098265.2018.1437397
- Gibney, A., Moore, N., Murphy, F., & O’Sullivan, S. (2011). The first semester of university life; ‘will I be able to manage it at all?’ Higher Education, 62(3), 351–366. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-010-9392-9
- 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. https://doi.org/10.1080/13596748.2021.1980661
- Hagler, M. A., Christensen, K. M., & Rhodes, J. E. (2021). A Longitudinal Investigation of First-Generation College Students’ Mentoring Relationships During Their Transition to Higher Education. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 152102512110227. https://doi.org/10.1177/15210251211022741
- Hassel, S., & Ridout, N. (2018). An Investigation of First-Year Students’ and Lecturers’ Expectations of University Education. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 2218. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.02218
- Katartzi, E., & Hayward, G. (2020). Transitions to higher education: The case of students with vocational background. Studies in Higher Education, 45(12), 2371–2381. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2019.1610866
- Kift, S., & Nelson, K. (2005). Beyond curriculum reform: Embedding the transition experience. Proceedings of the 28th HERDSA Annual Conference, 225–235.
- Knoesen, R., & Naudé, L. (2018). Experiences of flourishing and languishing during the first year at university. Journal of Mental Health, 27(3), 269–278. https://doi.org/10.1080/09638237.2017.1370635
- Lawrence, J. (2002, July). The ‘deficit-discourse’ shift: University teachers and their role in helping first year students persevere and succeed in the new university culture. 6th Pacific Rim First Year in Higher Education Conference: Changing Agendas ‘Te Ao Hurihuri’, Christchurch, New Zealand.
- 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. https://doi.org/10.1080/0309877X.2018.1490702
- Moore-Cherry, N., Quin, S., & Burroughs, E. (n.d.). Why Students Leave: Findings From Qualitative Research Into Student Non-completion In Higher Education In Ireland (Focused Research Report No. 4). National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.
- 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. https://doi.org/10.1002/curj.132
- Pownall, M., Harris, R., & Blundell-Birtill, P. (2022). Supporting students during the transition to university in COVID-19: Five key considerations and recommendations for educators. Psychology Learning & Teaching, 21(1), 3–18. https://doi.org/10.1177/14757257211032486
- 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. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02669
- Wos, A., & Cross, C. (n.d.). The criticality of blended communities in empowering learner transition in Higher Education. Institute for Curriculum Enhancement, Lancaster University. https://www.lancaster.ac.uk/media/lancaster-university/content-assets/documents/institute-for-curriculum-enhancement/WosCrossICEFellowshipNarrative.pdf