The inbetweeners: supporting students in their transition to University study

Despite the fact that first-year students face significant challenges in adjusting to University study, in the UK we know little about the transition from school/college into University. We need to rethink the way in which students are supported from the start of their degrees.

Do students repeatedly make the same mistakes in assignments? Are you fed up marking the same old answers? How frustrated are you with students lack of reading? Are your feedback comments emphasising the negative rather than the positive?

If, as readers of this blog, you have answered yes to any (or all) of these questions, then read on. What are you going to do about it?

The reality for many academics is that they often face the same sort of questions (and problems) from students year-on-year. This can be a very frustrating and demoralising experience, when students do not seem to ‘get it’. Yet, for students, concerns over their progress and learning are a far more problematic affair as it can mean that by the time they leave University they still have key gaps in their learning and understanding. The issue is that students often make the same sort of mistakes and yet at the same time the main focus on understanding student learning has, at least within the UK system, been targeted at the level of the final-year through the National Student Survey (NSS).

To address these issues it is important to focus more energy on finding out about the transition experiences of first-year student. This is important on a number of fronts. First, there has been a considerable expansion in the student population and it cannot be taken for granted (if it ever was) that students come to University with the necessary skills (academic and social) to prepare them for University-level education. Second, while there has been a focus on providing students with a transition experience, for the most part this has often been more of a tokenistic approach that in most Universities is not embedded throughout the first-year. Third, students increasingly live complex and busy lives, juggling their academic workload with part- (often full) time jobs.

The upshot of this is that traditional approaches to structuring the academic calendar across all years of a degree programme in a similar manner need to be reconsidered. If the goal is to create an independently thinking and creative student in their final year, then surely it is necessary to provide an appropriate structure of support to enable students to reach this goal? Yet a pilot study that I have undertaken highlights that first-year students do not feel comfortable with being able to navigate around the academic discourse and the environment of higher education, often finding themselves in what has come to be known as a ‘betwixt’ space between their University and personal lives. They are, in the words of the TV and film series, ‘inbetweeners’. In essence, it is an issue of non-belonging. One way of addressing this challenge is to restructure the level of academic support provided through a process of scaffolding, whereby greater levels of support (especially teaching contact hours) are provided to students in their first-year through a process of scaffolding their education which provides them with the support to enable them to become successful independent learners.

The article, “Understanding first-year students’ transition to university: A pilot study with implications for student engagement, assessment, and feedback“, is part of Politics’ focus on Learning and Teaching in Politics and International Studies. Read more recent Politics blogs on Learning and Teaching here.

Alasdair Blair

Alasdair Blair

Alasdair Blair is the Jean Monnet Professor of International Relations De Montfort University.

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