‘Transition’ is now widely used as a shorthand for a bunch of issues to do with the process of moving from school or college to university. Even where (as is increasingly the case) students remain in their home communities, often with the same paid jobs and occupying the same social world, the shift into Higher Education involves a degree of social and intellectual uprooting. After the fairly intensive experience of A-level and the sense that tutors know you well, moving into a scattered timetable of some 8 – 10 contact hours a week, and being expected to manage your own study is widely experienced as a shock. Becoming a university student was difficult even before the days of widening access. Universities have their own languages, their subtle and not so subtle lexicons of superiority and failure. But in recent years, conscious that the problem of retention is most acute in the first year, they are generally concerned to help students through this transition. In any case, we owe it our students not to leave them all at sea at this vulnerable moment. The object of this page is to outline some of the implications for the English subjects of recent work on ‘transition’.

Transitions (at both end of the degree process) and the first year experience are the subject of a sequence of Subject Centre reports See publications in this area).

The general theme here is that departments must think holistically about the learner narrative that leads from school Year 12 through to University Level 2. We need to think holistically both about that process and about connecting up the elements of provision. New students are in a sense strangers in a foreign land, and as such should be hospitably welcomed. The changing forms of student engagement with education mean that we cannot any longer simply stage an experience based on what we believe they ought to know – let alone on our own previous experience as students. Planning a first year requires us to think in a connected way about

Understanding students’ school experience (including their writing experience)

  • The curriculum (what are the appropriate knowledges and skills at this point?)
  • Academic literacy (skills: integrated or added?)
  • The nature and availability of personal tutorial systems
  • Collaboration and joint planning with other university bodies and ‘non-academic’ staff (Counsellors, Librarians, Careers, IT people)
  • Setting and giving appropriate feedback on formative assessment
  • Putting in work on self-managed learning (e.g. setting up self-help reading groups).

All these have implications for the nature of induction, for teaching styles and formats, for the pacing of assessment. Studies also suggest the value of having named colleagues who are advocates for the first year.

Extending hospitality and an active welcome towards newcomers to the discipline need not imply what some people call ‘spoon feeding’: we need to hold on to a belief that responsibility for their own learning rests with students. But it does imply – as many universities and departments already know – that we cannot afford to operate on a simply ‘take it or leave it’ – or ‘sink or swim’ – principle, and that a partnership in learning can best be negotiated at an early stage.

References

  • Smith, Keverne ‘School to University: an investigation into the experience of first year students of English at British universities’.Arts and Humanities in Higher Education3.1 81 – 93.
  • Hodgson A. and Spours K.,Beyond A-levels: Curriculum 2000 and the Reform of 14 – 19 Qualifications(2003)