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Issues associated with transition

The First Year Experience Theme booklet Transition to and during the first year provided a literature review and commentary on what were described as Key generic issues associated with transition to higher education. These are: transition and integration; the principal forms of transition; the changing nature of the university experience; academic transition: adapting to the university experience; personal and social transition; geographic and administrative transition and the student perspective on transition.

The booklet further emphasised the need to recognise diversity in approaching transition. It suggested that the learner profile was an important consideration, given increasing student heterogeneity and that consideration had to be paid to the transition of different learner groups, such as working-class, first generation and mature learners.

On the other hand, grouping students together carries the risk of generalisation and single-solution strategy which may lead to stereotyping.  Institutional strategies should be aimed at all first-year students and not just those who fall into what might be termed 'at risk' categories. At Glasgow Caledonian University, a Transition and Progression Framework has been introduced, building on the lessons from The First Year Enhancement Theme. A two-tier approach (top-down and bottom-up) was adopted to encourage staff and student participation and to support an all-encompassing strategy combining student support, learning, teaching, assessment, and employability to encourage an increasingly diverse student population to become successful graduates for the twenty-first century.

The top-down approach was based on partnership agreements to maintain and enhance partnership working and to support staff with the implementation of the Framework. The agreements allow partners to identify key priority areas, ways of communication, and participation in school activities, together with expert academics who provide advice and support on ways of addressing transition, progression and retention issues.

Mini Communities of Practice (Mini CoPs) offer a bottom-up opportunity for staff and students to engage with each other across the University, provide a vehicle for development work and the sharing of practice. Mini CoPs cover a wide range of topics, such as feedback,  the student perspective, developing the independent learner, engagement with secondary schools, and supporting transition through curriculum alignment. Pedagogic change is also considered necessary, and to that end partnership agreements have been drawn up between academic schools, Learner Support and the Students' Association.

Another example, entitled Supporting Students - The Missing Links? which describes attending to the needs of at-risk students, this time from Edinburgh Napier University.

The impact of different modes of learning on transition was considered by The First Year Experience Theme. These modes are: module-based programmes, which carry the danger of emphasising summative assessment tasks at the expense of formative ones; workplace learning, where students sometimes become disorientated by being both a 'worker' and a 'student'; work-based learning, which imposes particular stresses by emphasising the need to become 'reflective', but in a physical context that may be far removed from the university campus; technology-enhanced learning, which may make false assumptions about young people and their awareness of and comfort with technology and distance learning online programmes which, research has shown, require a blended approach to learning and teaching.

The effect of 'subject' on successful or less successful transition was examined in a number of ways: through interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary programmes, which provide a greater challenge of adapting to academic discourse and expectations than single disciplinary ones; different starting points of students within a subject, often requiring a 'lowest common denominator approach' to teaching, leaving some students feeling dissatisfied academically; differing levels of mathematical skills, which affect certain subjects in particular; differences in learning and teaching approaches between schools and universities; and the institutions themselves, whether they are pre or post-1992.

The booklet on Personal development planning in the first year suggested that PDP in the first year has an important role in easing transition.  It can be a means of enabling students to gain an awareness of their own development as learners, reflect on the progress of that development, and make plans and decisions which forward their development in the direction they feel is right for them. The booklet also includes more specific recommendations regarding the development of PDPs in the context of transition. Ways of delivering PDPs, and especially electronic versions are discussed, along with recommendations for practice in the area of e-PDPs.

A further, and perhaps more fundamental argument proposed by the authors of the PDP report, is that the shift towards a constructivist approach to learning implies a concomitant move towards self-reflection and reflective writing on the part of students. The place for such writing would naturally fall within a PD Portfolio, but then issues arise with assessment: would students do it if it were not assessed; but on the other hand, if it were assessed would the writing be genuinely reflective or instead be 'what the student thought the assessor would like to see', and so on? Read more about the issues of pedagogy and assessment.

The report goes on to state that there is evidence to show that PDP is more firmly embedded in vocational degrees than non-vocational ones, where students are encouraged to think of themselves as 'professionals in training'. Paradoxically, employability is less of a focus in some non-vocational degrees, leading to engagement issues with PDP for both students and staff.

It is interesting to note that when students were asked about how the first year might be improved, as part of the Student expectations, experiences and reflections on the first year practice-focused project, their reaction was that it was as much their responsibility as that of the staff and the institution itself.

As part of the G21C Enhancement Theme, the University of the Highlands and Islands described a longitudinal induction for an online degree programme. The induction is designed to complement institutional resources and traditional face-to-face pre-course induction. It uses the institutional virtual learning environment (VLE) to extend the process to avoid information overload and to provide timely provision of information as well as additional support at identified 'hotspots' of anxiety. It aims to support the development of progressive study skills and it is designed to equip students with the skills, learning behaviours and the confidence to be successful in their studies.