For university authorities
If you are a representative of university authorities, here is what research says can and should do to better support diverse students in their transition to higher education:
Widening access is not enough. Each HEI must create conditions for every student to be able to achieve their full potential.
If you want your higher education institution to become inclusive, widening access is not enough. Each HEI must create conditions for every student to be able to achieve their full potential. Consider the needs of all students, as well as those of particular groups of students – not only those who come directly after school, study full time, or live on campus; not only those who have traditionally done well in your programmes.
University authorities must look for structural solutions to foster inclusivity by (1) finding out what diverse students need in order to succeed and (2) adjusting to your diverse students’ needs.
- You need to build in mechanisms to (1) articulate the starting knowledge and skills students need to bring into the first-year courses, (2) identify particular gaps that particular students have in this respect, and (3) provide concrete solutions to support students in bridging such gaps. University authorities should facilitate such mechanisms for all programmes and put in place solutions at the appropriate level. These mechanisms should be adequately resourced and information about them needs to reach students and teachers.
- You need to create channels and safe spaces to get students’ comments about what they perceive as working and not working and what students are struggling within a time-frame that enables responses to these comments and relevant action as required. You need to make sure you also have channels to let students know how their comments were acted on and why certain comments of theirs were not acted upon. Students need to see that you are jointly working to improve student experience, rather than just acting on all student demands irrespectively.
- If relevant for your context, you need to create part-time/more flexible study possibilities for students who need to work more hours to support themselves and their families, as well as students with family or health issues who cannot study full-time.
- If you are not able to only admit those students whom you can actually support in their learning journeys (you do not have entry exams or currently existing exams do not show if students have the starting competences, knowledge or skills needed to succeed in a particular programme), you need to support students who decide early on to withdraw. You need a special team/unit who will help such students find support they need to pursue their current programme, or help such students find a programme that suits them better within your own university, or identify an alternative learning path elsewhere in your education system.
See also: Moore-Cherry et al., 2015
Supporting diverse students through transition should become an essential part of the university culture, of both your institutional values and the lived practice.
- All students are different and the environment needs to be inclusive enough for all students to thrive.
- All those working at university must be aware how easy it is to inadvertently make students feel that they do not belong at university or are not good enough. Universities should ensure students get the message that they are welcome at university and will be supported in their efforts to achieve their full potential.
- Inclusion should be embedded in all aspects of student experience; all those students come in contact with at university, and the university spaces and practices themselves must make students feel that they belong at university.
- 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). Make sure that all those who can support first-year students through transition know about each other’s existence, tasks, and best practices.
- Supporting students cannot be left to individual academics’ initiative, good will or ingenuity either. You need to support those teaching first-year students in their efforts to support students in their transition to higher education.
Recognise the special role those teaching first-year students need to play - make sure that those who teach first-year students are adequately selected, supported and rewarded.
- The first-year of undergraduate programmes is the moment when high-quality learning facilitation is of crucial importance. Lack of such teaching can actually really affect a student’s academic success.
- A special competence profile is required to be a first-year teacher, particularly in terms of pedagogical knowledge and skills.
- Those teaching first-year students need to be empowered and fully supported to take up this special responsibility. Those teaching first-year students often feel as the least important ones and are too conscious of their limitations and what they cannot do; but not of their power to influence students’ lives for better or worse, consciously or unknowingly. Your position gives you an opportunity – and responsibility – to change this.
- Make sure that first-year teachers are supported through timely and targeted continuous professional development measures focused on awareness and concrete tools – and through resources (time & access to specialised knowledge, examples of best practices, etc.)
- Make sure that first-year teachers who do good work in supporting student transition and setting diverse students for success are recognised and rewarded. See what your university can do to make it prestigious to be such a teacher.
- Do not neglect the ‘basics’ – make sure your university has everything in place for academics who teach first-year students to be able to get a good idea of the whole undergraduate programme and of how university is organsied as well. For first-year students these academics are the face of their programme and of the whole university.
Create conditions for transition pedagogy to be developed and put in place by teams of academics teaching first-year students.
- Such pedagogy needs to be put in place in all first-year courses of all undergraduate programmes you have.
- All academics working on the same programme should work as a team, and especially those teaching first-year students.
- First-year teachers need time and opportunities to discuss, develop and put in place courses based on transition pedagogy; as well as CPD facilitators who can support them in this task.
- The basic first steps will be discussions to coordinate the relation between the courses (what students are to learn in each course and how courses are linked to and build on each other), assignment schedules and requirements and student workload distribution more generally.
- For first-year students a coherent first-year experience is of crucial importance. There might well be differences between different courses/different teachers’ approaches or requirements, but these need to be openly acknowledged and explained, rather than presented as the only proper way each.
- Skills and foundational competences that students need to succeed in higher education need to be purposefully developed in first-year courses. First-year courses must give students multiple (but not unintentionally repetitive) opportunities to develop these skills and competences and get feedback on their performance.
- First-year courses must also include activities that help students develop a sense of belonging to university, programme and their student cohort.
- Guide, encourage and support all those who have to join efforts to make this happen.
Facilitate communication and cooperation among all those who are or should be working together for every student to be able to achieve their full potential.
- Such conversations allow to understand and meet student needs better
- Such cooperation can help reduce workload and increase motivation of all those involved
- Focus on promoting best practices of individuals, teams and whole programmes or services. Best practices need to get known and shared. This will motivate and inspire to put further efforts both those whose efforts are thus acknowledged, those who are struggling with a problem that others have already resolved, and those who might not have even noticed the problem yet.
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.
Nowadays, academics teaching first-year students must make courses and learning activities engaging for increasingly diverse student groups. The larger the group and the more diverse students’ backgrounds and starting points, the more challenging this task is. Recognise and reward these extra efforts of those teaching first-year courses at your university.
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, p. 1388-1389]
Focusing more on the teaching and learning aspects, first-year courses must include activities that help students develop a sense of belonging to university, programme and their student cohort. For students to feel they belong it is equally important to be able to develop the key competences needed to succeed in higher education learning: autonomous, independent or self-directed learning; critical thinking; academic writing, etc. These might not be explicitly articulated in programme learning outcomes, but they must be reflected in course learning outcomes - and academics must learn how to help students of diverse starting points build up these competences.
University authorities have a unique position to be able to introduce or further improve student-centred outcomes-based curriculum revision practices and professional development activities that will support programmes, teams of faculty and individual academics in designing and implementing courses that help every student believe they can succeed, regardless of any ‘disadvantages’ they might have at day one compared to an ‘ideal students’, who do not exist anyway.
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.
As university authority, you are in the best position to create conditions for transition pedagogy to be developed and put in place by teams of academics teaching first-year students.
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.
What university authorities can do is create channels and safe spaces to get students’ comments about what works and what not and what students are struggling with in time to act on these comments. You need to make sure you also have channels to let students know how their comments were acted on and why certain of their comments were not acted upon. Students need to see that you are jointly working to improve student experience, rather than just acting on all student demands irrespectively.
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.
Making the foundational rules explicit requires a particular set of competences and time and - let’s be open about it - quite some extra effort. As university authorities’ representative you need to recognise these additional demands academics teaching first-year students need to meet. There is no other way to make your university inclusive and create conditions for all students to reach their full potential.
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.
Academics teaching first-year students need to have access to both formal and informal professional development opportunities (e.g. time to engage with peers in discussions about best practices and challenging issues) tailored for their particular needs. You as a representative of university authorities are in a position to facilitate the development of such communities of practice. Look for actions that you and those you lead can take to encourage such discussions, learning and cooperation.
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 academics communicate with students, course design, programme-level decisions and university policies and practices.
Those who work at the university - regardless of their role - are jointly responsible for helping every student feel welcome and supported towards academic success.
Inclusion should be embedded in all aspects of student experience; all those students come in contact with at university, and the university spaces and practices themselves must make students feel that they belong at university.
What university authorities can do to ensure this happens is to look for structural solutions to foster inclusion by (1) finding out what diverse students need in order to achieve their full potential and (2) adjusting to the diverse students’ needs.
- “universities need to understand the different transition journeys of students to provide an inclusive environment where all students can thrive” (Charalambous, 2020: 1420)
- “there is consensus in the international literature that it is no longer sufficient merely to widen access mechanisms: higher education institutions (HEIs) must create the conditions for all students to succeed.” (Cifuentes Gomez et al., 2022: 2)
- “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)
- “Universities have a responsibility towards students’ education and also with regards to their holistic development, well-being and overall quality of life.” (Knoesen & Naudé, 2018: 269)
For more quotes from research publications demonstrating that Academics have substantial influence on student transition to higher education, and pointing out ways in which Academics have been shown to have such influence see START “Academics can” Compilation of Quotes.
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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