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The nature and purposes of the first year

The nature and purposes of the first year were part of a sector-wide discussion, which formed part of the First Year Experience Enhancement Theme. The resulting document offers examples of specific work undertaken in Scottish HEIs; by the Higher Education Academy; in EnglandHong KongAustralia and the USA.

More recently, James Moir contributed three papers for the G21C Enhancement Theme: First and foremost: Learner autonomy in the first yearFirst things first: the first year in Scottish Higher Education, and The First Year: Back to the Future

Key messages that emerged from the data collection and analysis for The nature and purposes of the first year included the following:

  • Context is important, possibly vital. On several occasions institutional contacts observed that one size does not fit all - and, by implication, should not be expected to. Detailed differences and nuances matter to institutions, and to their respective academic and support constituencies. This does not mean that similarities do not exist or that generalisations cannot be drawn, but it suggests that allowances must always be made for distinctive dimensions and features. 
  • Usage and interpretation of terminology, and strategic and operational responses differ across and within systems. In other words, it can be dangerous to presume over-precise commonality of interpretations, definitions and understandings. Frequently, fuller understanding requires careful and close contextualisation.
  • In Scotland and in many other HE systems, notwithstanding a long heritage of initiatives, there is currently considerable interest in more fully understanding and enhancing students' experiences of the first year.
  • In aggregate, the material reported by Scottish HEIs demonstrated a substantial range of activities, initiatives, debates and strategies. The most common topics included enhancement to induction, orientation, strategies for engagement, the implementation of personal professional development for students, enhanced provision of peer support and better systems for monitoring students. All these topics echoed national and often international trends and developments. Some demonstrated adoption and adaptation of initiatives from other Scottish HEIs or from institutions outside Scotland.
  • Nevertheless, there were suggestions that champions, managers and practitioners approached adoption cautiously, reflecting carefully on the apparent appropriateness for their needs and situation.
  • The prevalent tenor of discussions and feedback from Scottish HEIs was that attention was being given to various dimensions of engagement and empowerment. All institutions viewed engagement and empowerment as core dimensions for a successful student experience, even though the specific manifestations varied. Some institutions were discussing ways of motivating students to achieve higher levels of attainment. It was likely that all institutions were focusing on cultivating effective approaches to academic work and learning and building an attachment to, and understanding of, students' chosen major field or fields of study.
  • Many initiatives aimed to enhance effective transition and the development of key academic skills for survival and growth. However, the balance between survival and growth varied among institutions, apparently related to the extent to which retention was perceived as a pressing issue. 
  • Art schools in Scotland have arranged meetings to share experiences and progress common interests. Other groups of Scottish HEIs might usefully adopt this initiative.
  • The literature has tended to focus on concepts, topics, issues and policies or on institutional strategies and initiatives. By contrast, only a limited amount of discipline-specific material is widely available. For this reason, illustrative examples from the work of the HEA Subject Centres may be of particular use at various scales. This project did not investigate the availability of materials produced by professional bodies and associations, although it is known that at least some exist, such as the PDP materials that the Royal Society of Chemistry has produced for use by undergraduate chemistry students.

Modified source: The nature and purposes of the first year

Read more about the suggestions from students on the ways the first year might be improved, including a fascinating discussion on what they see as 'engaging' and 'empowering''.

In Whose course is it anyway? Giving first year students a voice in curriculum design, Amanda Corrigan of Strathclyde describes Me as a Learner (MaaL), a project that gives training teachers the opportunity to help design their curriculum. They then applied the skills they had learnt into a work situation.  The presentation offers some feedback on what they thought the process had given to them as learners.

Forging a link with Research-Teaching Linkages and the First Year Themes is provided and it is suggested that synergies have been identified between the two in terms of attempting to achieve:

  • An emphasis on success
  • Engagement (not just retention)
  • Empowerment
  • 'Personalisation'
  • The influence of peers
  • Students act as co-creators of their own learning experience
  • A desire to be challenged
  • Ways of overcoming isolation and boredom factors
  • Promotion of research skills for later professional roles
  • A higher status for first-year teaching
  • Making large classes feel smaller.