Several decades worth of research has now established that the transition into university is key for student learning, persistence, success and wellbeing (1-3). The quality of transition can predict student success over the course of a degree. During transition, students are on a journey that can result in integration to their new university and course or disengagement that can lead to withdrawal. As the field has developed, transition has come to be regarded as a socio-psychological process of becoming, in which emotion, social connection, efficacy and wellbeing are key elements (4-5).
Our own qualitative research found that students can experience stress and pressure transitioning to university:
“Obviously uni is hard anyway, don’t get me wrong, but maybe it wasn’t what I was expecting from A-level and college. It was quite a big step up. So that’s what I found most stressful really.” (Nursing student, first year undergraduate)
Tinto’s work over many years identified the need for students to integrate socially and academically into their new university (1). Finding new social networks and meaningful connection to their subject discipline can ameliorate the potential emotional disruption many students experience at the beginning of their university career. Kift’s model of transition pedagogy argues that the curriculum should be explicitly designed for commencing students, based around their prior experiences and existing knowledge and skills (6). This form of scaffolding can support students into their new academic career, ensuring they acquire the skills and understanding they need to be successful.
There are a number of key principles that flow from this into any possible curriculum design.
- Curriculum should be designed with an awareness of the possible emotional and psychological disruption experienced by many students during transition (5, 7). Allowances should be made for the fact that this may disrupt their initial ability to remember new information.
- Curriculum should provide students with opportunities to socially integrate with their peers, particularly in the early weeks of term (8). Not all students will be able to engage with extra-curricular social activities, so informal curricular activity to enhance cohort identity and belonging is key.
- Curriculum should be designed for the knowledge and skills that students do have, rather than the ones we wish they have (6). The acquisition of knowledge requires pre-knowledge – if the curriculum begins too far in advance of students’ current knowledge they will not be able to engage or integrate academically.
- Curriculum should provide early opportunities to assess students’ skills, knowledge and understanding and respond with appropriate support and guidance (9).
- Curriculum should engage students with meaningful aspects of the curriculum at the earliest stage possible – ideally in induction/orientation week rather than waiting until the beginning of ‘formal’ teaching (10).
- Curriculum should include aspects of meta-learning that explicitly supports students to understand how to be successful on their course – this may include psycho-education to support students to develop insight, strategies and behaviours in relation to their own self-management, wellbeing and learning (11).
- Curriculum should support students to recognise their own strengths, the benefits they bring to the classroom and their own self belief that they can be successful and do belong at university.
- As Kift has argued (6), transition must be ‘integrated and implemented through an intentionally designed curriculum by seamless partnerships of academic and professional staff in a whole-of-institution transformation’. As the glue that binds student experience together, the curriculum must be the central vehicle through which all crucial interventions, guidance and information is delivered. This requires whole university collaboration in curriculum design and delivery.
- Transition is a crucial element for student success, persistence and wellbeing.
- Curriculum should be designed with a specific focus on the process through which students must travel during transition.
- The curriculum must be appropriately scaffolded and must explicitly prepare all students for success, no matter their previous experience or learning.
- During transition students need support, via the curriculum, to socially integrate, academically integrate, develop self-belief and manage their wellbeing.
- It is easier to achieve all of this within curriculum design if the design process is genuinely collaborative, involving colleagues from across the university
- Begin meaningful engagement with the curriculum as soon as possible – preferably during induction/orientation e.g., with no stakes tasks that engage students with aspects of their discipline that are interesting, exciting, fun etc.
- Group tasks centred on disciplinary content can provide a focus for conversations and social connections.
- Acknowledge the normality of transition experiences and provide reassurance – if possible, by giving concrete examples of steps students can take to feel more connected and settled in
- Academics and colleagues in Student Services can work together to provide psycho-education and guidance to support students to navigate transition successfully
Tinto V. Establishing conditions for student success. In: Thomas L, Cooper M, Quinn J, editors. Improving Completion Rates Among Disadvantaged Students. Stoke On Trent: Trentham Books Ltd; 2003. p. 1-10.
Fisher S, Hood B. The stress of the transition to university: a longitudinal study of psychological disturbance, absent‐mindedness and vulnerability to homesickness. British journal of psychology. 1987 Nov;78(4):425-41.
Pennington CR, Bates EA, Kaye LK, Bolam LT. Transitioning in higher education: an exploration of psychological and contextual factors affecting student satisfaction. Journal of Further and Higher Education. 2018 Jul 4;42(5):596-607. DOI: 10.1080/0309877X.2017.1302563
Hughes G, Spanner L. The university mental health charter. Leeds: Student Minds. 2019.
Kahu ER, Nelson K. Student engagement in the educational interface: understanding the mechanisms of student success. Higher education research & development. 2018 Jan 2;37(1):58-71. DOI: 10.1080/07294360.2017.1344197
Kift S. A decade of transition pedagogy: A quantum leap in conceptualising the first year experience. HERDSA Review of Higher Education. 2015 Jul;2(1):51-86. Retrieved from http://herdsa.org.au/herdsa-review-higher-education-vol-2/51-86
Bewick B, Koutsopoulou G, Miles J, Slaa E, Barkham M. Changes in undergraduate students’ psychological well‐being as they progress through university. Studies in higher education. 2010 Sep 1;35(6):633-45.
Hughes G, Smail O. Which aspects of university life are most and least helpful in the transition to HE? A qualitative snapshot of student perceptions. Journal of Further and Higher Education. 2015 Jul 4;39(4):466-80.
Watkins C. Learning, Performance and Improvement [Internet]. London: INSI Research Matters; 2010. Available from: http://www.ioe.ac.uk/about/documents/Watkins_10_Lng_Perf_Imp_ev.pdf
Upsher R, Li KW, Hughes G, Byrom B. Curriculum Design and Student Mental Wellbeing –Investigating the Meaningfulness and Relevance of University Course Curricula. In review
Hattie JAC. Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York, NY: Routledge. 2009.