The past 18 months has been a roller coaster of a journey for both students and staff in higher education due to the pandemic. We have experienced the most challenging, complex, and difficult period in higher education in living memory, bringing rapid innovation and new ways of thinking in how we deliver and assess learning. However, moving online has been a double-edged sword: digital poverty and online fatigue issues have been experienced by many, but it has also made learning more accessible for others (eg those with disabilities who didn’t thereby have to struggle getting onto campus or those that had caring responsibilities).
It has highlighted the importance of in-person social interaction and practical experience in helping students engage. It brought into sharp focus more than ever the need to effectively bridge student transitions through providing relevant and targeted support throughout the study journey informed by their previous learning experiences.
Over 20 years ago, recognising the need to provide support throughout the study lifecycle, I created my Student Experience Transitions Model, which I first presented in 2004-5, and which resulted in the publication of two edited books.
Last August, Advance HE asked me to produce ‘An exceptional transition in HE’ a guide that looked at issues to address across the different transition stages across all levels of study, including those generated by the pandemic. These are just as applicable now as they were last year.
Covid-19 is not disappearing anytime soon. As we approach the start of the new academic year, we need to create ‘new normal’ rules of engagement in HE to move us forward. So what do we need to think about and what are opportunities for us to embrace?
Diverse student learning experiences
This year, our new and returning student bodies will have experienced very different prior learning experiences to those which have gone previously. As a result, it is essential that we recognise those differences, adapt our learning, teaching, assessment, and support to encompass the new situation, and bridge students’ knowledge and experience gaps. It will be essential to set aside comparisons with previous years, acknowledge the multiple different skills obtained by different cohorts during the pandemic, and adapt our delivery to create a more level playing field.
Depending on type of qualification undertaken prior to entry, undergraduate and postgraduate incoming students, but especially undergraduate ones, have long had divergent and unequal prior learning experiences (Morgan and Direito, 2016; Morgan, 2020). For example, A-Level students have traditionally learnt by taking notes, reading a course textbook, and undertaking assessment by examination whereas for BTEC students, accessing learning has been more diverse, with information accessed from a variety of sources and assessment being a mix of coursework and exams.
However, in 2021, we will experience three broad groups of students entering higher education with very different learning pathways, and the kinds of traditional prior learning experiences formerly seen fundamentally changed due to their pandemic experiences. They are:
- students who studied up to and including 2018-19 but didn’t come to university immediately, who will have had an in-person educational experience and typical qualification experience as mentioned earlier
- students who were in study in 2019-20 and were affected by the sudden March lockdown. This impact included the cancellation of exams, with a significant number of students having their face-to-face teaching cancelled for the rest of the academic year, and their final grades decided after much confusion and last-minute changes to the grading system
- students who experienced a mixed approach of traditional and online learning due to the January-March 2021 lockdown, and a change in the planned assessment, with grades being based only on what they learnt so far and teacher assessment.
For our continuing students, we again have three broad groups. They are:
- students entering their second year of study who will have had limited time on campus (or none) since starting university
- students entering their final year who will have only had nine months of their course spent physically on campus.
- Students unable to undertake required placements in their penultimate years who may not be able to complete this activity as part of their degree.
Things to consider
What worked well
Over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, universities have spent much energy identifying what has worked well (and less well) in the delivery of teaching, support, and assessment within their universities across different disciplines. Advance HE has simultaneously been active in this area by publishing blogs of advice and guidance from different perspectives across the sector, as well as hosting webinars tackling many of the pedagogic issues that have surfaced during these difficult and challenging times. Additionally, Advance HE has been running a project to support the challenge of the 'socially distanced campus'. All the relevant resources are collated here
We know that student (and staff) mental health has been negatively affected (alongside the population in general) during the pandemic. Providing support and information for all on how to ‘stay and be well’ is going to be even more essential as we adjust to our ‘new’ normal environment. Student Minds have created valuable and essential mental health advice for universities to use as well as their Student Space advice service for students. Many students and staff will have been affected by Covid-19 whether through the loss of loved ones or having been seriously ill themselves as a result of the virus, so we need to think accordingly long-term about extending and changing assessment and extenuating circumstance processes as a result of ongoing Covid-19 fallout (eg impact of long Covid).
With all the negative reporting in the press about grade inflation of pre-entry qualifications this year, it will be important to support students’ self-belief to confirm that their decisions to go to university were right and that they fully deserve the results given, although widely criticised in some quarters, in the new context. We need therefore to manage any feelings they might have of imposter syndrome among our new students, which was a concern when last year’s exam results were announced after the sudden cancellation of exams. Re-energising, enthusing and supporting returning students will also be critical in helping them succeed, especially enabling them to reconnect on campus, adapt to in-person learning and undertake co/extra-curricular activities. Importantly, providing time and space for all students and staff to get used to travelling to and spending time on campus and start to feel confident in so doing. Whilst some may feel confident, it may take longer for others for a range of reasons. The University of Exeter’s Disabled and Clinically Ill Network is introducing ‘Give me space’ badges and sunflower lanyards to help manage concerns, a practice which others might wish to emulate.
Engagement and online learning
Data indicates that during the first lockdown current students were highly engaged in online learning. However, it is important to note that a driving factor behind this was that it was the only social/interactive activity that they had.
As the third lockdown lifts in the UK and in-person teaching starts to be introduced again, we cannot make assumptions that students will remain just as engaged with online learning. We have gained invaluable knowledge and evidence around engagement during the pandemic, but it is essential to keep monitoring this and not make assumptions that this will continue. Notwithstanding the negative press headlines, adopting a flexible hybrid model of learning (online and in-person) seems optimum, but this will inevitably vary by discipline and university.
Bridging knowledge and experience gaps
To avoid retention issues being neglected in the next year of study, identifying students’ gaps in knowledge and practical experience is essential to help lay sound foundations for the upcoming level of study. Obtaining this knowledge can be achieved by getting returners to undertake in advance of returning an ‘Academic and Support Continuation’ survey, and for new students a ‘Pre-arrival Academic Questionnaire (PAQ) of the kind I have developed and used extensively. Both should be designed to get students thinking about their prior learning experience, any concerns they may have about the next level of study, what support they think they might use, and what they are eagerly anticipating. This information can underpin university initiatives using real time data. My report entitled ‘Bridging the gap between secondary and tertiary education’ is an example of the findings generated by a pre-arrival academic questionnaire.
Equitable access and mixed economy information
Supporting the learning of all university students will necessitate providing equitable access to information and offering a mixed economy of approaches and resources. Although schools and universities made significant efforts to bridge gaps by providing some disadvantaged students with laptops and Wi-Fi dongles, such provision was far from comprehensive or equitable. Putting in place a robust digital access strategy will be critical in supporting hybrid approaches that reduce reliance on institutional IT/tech lab and on-campus workshop-based equipment, with HEIs instead providing, where possible, informal options concerning where they can choose study (including library, home, coffee shop and so on). Although institutions may be tempted to rely principally on digital materials, it is essential that resources and support are provided to support diverse learning requirements, thereby avoiding potentially inequitable digital access issues.
To support the progression, retention and success of our students, it is essential to:
- identify the prior learning experiences of our students, whether new or returning to inform planning and support
- recognise how pre-university qualifications were achieved and summatively assessed during this period and bridge any gaps in students’ assessment experiences accordingly
- provide targeted and scaffolded support to bridge the skill differences for all students
- avoid a one-size-fits-all approach to learning and support, acknowledging diverse experiences
- avoid overwhelming new and returning students within the first two weeks with excessive information. Returners may feel like new students all over again when they return to campus
- build in an effective introduction (for new students) and reinduction (for returners) across the first semester or term on how to practice being effective students at their new level of study
- think about the 3 Ts of student information: Type of information needed, appropriate Targeting and Timeliness
- at all times, remember the importance of compassion for students and colleagues for whom this episode has been gruelling and challenging, making allowances for honourable exceptions from time to time, while still maintaining standards.
Dr Michelle Morgan is Dean of Students at the University of East London. She is an educational transitions and student experience specialist. Through her consultancy, Higher Expectations, she provides guidance, ideas and advice on improving and delivering a high quality student experience.
Connect Benefits Series: new Transitions webinar - responses from a panel of four experts
Following on from our podcast series, questions can be submitted to a panel of four experts who will explore the top crowd-sourced questions at this webinar on Wednesday 29 September 09:00 - 10:30 BST. Find out more and book your place