Student transition

A university education has the potential to bring about profound changes within the individual learner. There is quite extensive literature, particularly from the USA – see Pascarella and Terenzini (2005) – which suggests a university education is a more powerful transformative experience than simply aging a few years. But, of course, this process is not problem-free. Most students at NTU do succeed: they graduate, by and large with the grades they were aiming for, having had a great personal experience. However, a small number fail to graduate, or only do so after several attempts and achieve less than their potential. There is also a risk that students will graduate, but without particularly engaging in the academic discourse, instead using their time at university as a route to employment only.

It is with these thoughts in mind that staff members at NTU have become increasingly interested in the issues of student transition.

What is student transition?
Johnston (2010) describes transition as:

  • the student experience of change involved in joining the University
  • the programmes of academic and other activities, which the University provides to support and enhance student transition.

Broadly, the problems with transitions can be categorised as follows.

Starting point
The post-16 curriculum studied by new students, particularly A-levels, is very different to the one that most lecturers experienced. While the debate rages about whether or not modern A-levels are conceptually easier, they are often assessed in smaller elements, with more short-answer questions and more hints as to the areas of knowledge being assessed. Students are also able to strategically resubmit assignments to improve grades. 

Research by Foster, Bell and Salzano (2008) found that A-level students reported having close and friendly relationships with tutors in relatively small groups, but in many respects they are less well-prepared for the independent study required in higher education when compared to previous generations. We would like to stress that this is not a widening participation problem per se, but a potential problem faced by all students.

Coping with a new environment
For most students, the first year at university will be spent studying in larger groups than they are used to, requiring some new learning approaches. Their fellow students' ages and backgrounds are likely to be more diverse too. There are also further transitions in later years for them to encounter.

Engaging with the learning process, not just the outcome
The government sells higher education as a means to a better career and students face high levels of debt when they graduate. It's therefore understandable that students will concentrate on the outcome of higher education (i.e. the piece of paper). While most students do by the final year thoroughly enjoy their subject, some of the intrinsic values of scholarship can be harder to inculcate when students see higher education as a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Further information