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Case study 23: Transition into Postgraduate Study, University of Greenwich, London

Overview

Recent institutional development of provision for transition has focussed on undergraduate students. University policy on New Arrivals and Transition was endorsed by Academic Council in 2011 for undergraduates. This decision raised questions about our primary focus and about the differences between undergraduate and postgraduate transition. This case study describes an institutional research project around postgraduate transition and outlines some key findings (including: preparedness for study, communication, socialisation, skills and training, and institutional systems). Finally, we share our recommendations for policy and practice ehancement that our institution has accepted. 

Keywords

Transitions, induction, expectations, student support, preparedness for Masters study

Describe, briefly, the activity/initiative/practice

In order to better understand postgraduates’ experiences of transition, we carried out a series of focus groups with students and staff, and individual student interviews. Thirty members of mainly academic and some professional staff took part. Forty-one students took part in focus groups and five were interviewed individually. The focus groups were active, using post-it note activities to explore useful new arrival activities and sources of information; student journey mapping exercises; and staff annotations of postgraduate student lifecycle models. The result was rich, qualitative data that was analysed and formed the basis of recommendations to the institution’s Learning and Quality Committee, resulting in amendment of policy.

What is the background/context to the activity/initiative/practice?

At Greenwich, transition has received considerable attention as we have come to understand how students’ early university experience impacts on success and achievement (Tinto 1993; Yorke & Longden 2008; Cook & Rushton 2009; McInnis 2001). This focus on transition has been targeted (as within the sector more generally) on undergraduate transition; the postgraduate transition experience has been relatively underresearched Scott et al 2011; O’Donnell et al 2009; Tobbell, O’Donnell & Zammit 2010). This might be because Masters students are assumed to be successful university students and that progression to Masters level study involves ‘more of the same’, or ‘taking things to the next level’ (O’Donnell et al 2009, 27). Our experience (and that of our colleagues) was that postgraduate students are challenged by this transition and we set out to investigate whether the well-developed policies and practices that we had in place to support undergraduate students were fit-for-purpose for postgraduate transition;  whether institutionally we needed to amend policy and practice to enhance Masters students’ experiences of transition.

What made/makes it “Master’s” level?

Although it is often assumed that postgraduate students are familiar and comfortable with higher education, our study showed that they share with undergraduate students very similar excitement, apprehension and challenges. This reinforces messages from both staff and students about postgraduates’ need for transitional support before, as well as from, arrival. The flavour of that transitional support, however, will differ between undergraduate and postgraduate students. In terms of transition, Masters level needs seem to be focussed on:

  • preparedness to study at this level – this means clearly stating what is expected and how this differs from undergraduate study; 
  • socialisation – a lack of postgraduate-focussed social activities combined with competing work and family commitments mean that postgraduate socialisation needs to be carefully designed so that students feel they belong;
  • curriculum design and delivery – students wanted to have a well-paced curriculum with more early formative feedback to ensure that they understood what it meant to work at Masters level; they were willing to take on further training and development if they were not hitting the mark;
  • staff roles – academic staff wanted more clarity on what was expected of them in terms of postgraduate support. Training was requested for dealing with and tailoring provision for the diverse cohorts that make up most postgraduate taught programmes.

What challenges were encountered/overcome - in terms of mastersness - and what lessons were learned that would be helpful to others?

A number of challenges were raised during the course of the project. The first is the assumption that students will be well prepared for studying at Masters level; the reality is that some undoubtedly will not be. There need to be processes and procedures in place to support students who are not fully prepared so that they do not flounder. It is important that staff do not expect all students to have the same levels of expertise and skill when they start the programme and that they might have to go back to basics for some aspects of their courses. Postgraduate students’ expectations need to be managed in relation to the level of study, what is required and the notion of ‘scholarship’.

The second challenge relates to international students. Many postgraduate taught programmes recruit heavily from overseas. For students who have not studied in the UK before, transition can be particularly problematic and greatly complicated by cultural and procedural difficulties, which may also result in late arrival. Hence there is a need for ongoing and targeted transition and orientation across the year.

The third issue relates to time, with immense pressure within the UK’s one year Masters programme system to cover lots of content. Yet without sufficient time for induction and socialisation into a programme - ‘time of feeling like a student’, ‘time for processing what was going on’ - the content might well be lost on students.Careful attention needs to be given in curriculum design as well as induction planning to make the best use of the time available, while recognising students’ intellectual and personal capacities.

Finally, the research noted the need to recognise the importance of relationships; to  establish a ‘feeling of togetherness as a group’. This can be achieved through planned socialisation activities,curricular activities and extra-curricula events, and the allocation of a named personal tutor with timetabled meetings to discuss progress, academic work, and future directions, recognising and supporting students’ development and achievement.  It should not be assumed that postgraduates are less in need of such provision. 

It may be that the increasing size of postgraduate classes and the diversity of postgraduate students make it more difficult to meet these challenges, but assumptions about the capabilities and motivation of postgraduate students may lead us to neglect their need to be engaged, supported and encouraged. 

Where to next - in terms of mastersness – if anywhere?

For Greenwich, this project has led to amendments to our New Arrivals and Transition Policy and the Statement of Entitlement for New Students to explicitly include postgraduate students (see http://www2.gre.ac.uk/about/policy  ('Academic' tab).

Our next stage is to explore the impact that the amended Policy and reporting procedures will have on practice institutionally. This change in practice will be supported by staff development workshops, which take an extended view of transition and base discussion of balanced curriculum design for transition on direct examples from students of challenges they face.

Other elements of our institutional context will contribute to changing practice:  a newly restructured academic year will now include a First Week, separated from timetabled teaching, in January as well as in September; a new Personal Tutor Policy including front-loading of tutorial support for both undergraduate and postgraduate taught students; and the new role of an  ‘International Students Compliance & Advice Manager’ to meet some of the needs expressed in our research.

References

  • Cook, A.; & Rushton, B. (2009) How to Recruit and Retain Higher Education Students. A Handbook of Good Practice. Abingdon: Routledge
  • McInnis, C. (2001). Researching the first year experience: where to from here? Higher Education Research and Development, 20:2, 105–114.
  • O’Donnell, V.L.; Tobboll, J.; Lawthom, R.; & Zammit, M. (2009) Transition to postgraduate study: practice, participation, and the widening participation agenda, Active Learning in Higher Education, 10(1), 26-40
  • Scott, D. Evans, C. Hughes, Burke, P.J.; Watson, D.; Walter, C.; Stiasny, M.; Bentham, M.; & Hultly, S. (2011) Facilitating Transitions to Masters- Level Learning:  Improving Formative Assessment and Feedback Processes, York: The Higher Education Academy
  • Tinto, V. (1987) Leaving College: rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press
  • Tobbell, J.; O’Donnell, V.; & Zammit, M. (2010) Exploring the transition to postgraduate study: shifting identities in interaction with communities, practice and participation, British Educational Research Journal, 36:2, 261-278
  • Yorke, M. & Longden, B (2008),The first year experience of higher education in the UK. York: The Higher Education Academy

Contact

Dr Karen Smith,  K.L.Smith@gre.ac.uk, and Dr Sally Alsford, S.E.Alsford@gre.ac.uk, Educational Development Unit, University of Greenwich