Summer schools, slumps and successes: A journey through critical issues of transition into, through and out of HE

Image by Edward Köhler from Pixabay

As Freshers’ Week takes place at our institutions and we are welcoming a new cohort of students into our programmes, it seems timely to be writing about the topic of transition. This year more than ever, the need to facilitate a smooth transition back into the world of learning seems more pertinent than ever. Students face not just a new step up in terms of their studies but also a re-adjustment back to face-to-face teaching experiences.

When we think of transition and higher education, it is likely that our thoughts are directed to students who are joining the institution for the first time. The development of pre-arrival platforms has proliferated in recent years offering students a way of familiarising themselves with the way things work in their new educational institution and where to find support, before arriving in person. As a member of the SEDA Community of Practice for Transitions, I have been lucky enough to hear about some innovative and impactful practice in this area, from Rebecca Wilson’s Transitions Toolkit at University of St. Andrews to Charmaine Myer’s “Orientate, Apply, Connect” model at University of Sheffield to Victoria Wilson-Crane’s “Pathways preview” to name but a few. Such pre-arrival platforms are invaluable in building confidence in students, particularly so for some groups such as those that may have been out of education for some time or perhaps be the first in their family to attend.

Perhaps one of the most important aspects these pre-arrival platforms can facilitate is what Kantanis (2000) refers to as the “social transition”. Most student worries are focused on the social aspects of joining a higher education institution such as meeting new people and avoiding loneliness (Hughes and Smail, 2015). Fostering a sense of belonging and community often underpins students’ ability to make the transition into HE successfully and this year, this issue may be stronger for those returning from a first year spent online during the COVID-19 pandemic who have had little opportunity to socialise with and get to know their peers. Being actively involved not just in teaching experiences but also in the wider community of the university may take on an added value at this time.

Thinking about the experience of returning students as well as new students highlights the need to view transition as a continuous experience, spanning all years of a degree programme. The “second year slump” (Thompson et al, 2013) for example, is often characterised by apathy and reduced motivation (Pattengale, 2000) even without a pandemic to add to the mix. What do we do to facilitate transition into the second year of study? My guess is not nearly as much as we do to promote transition into the first yet the change this entails and the need to support students through this is no less important.

Similarly, how about final year students? Their transition out of Higher Education will begin to loom large in their thinking this year. How can we best support them with this and how do we make sure we are utilising their experience to help us support those in lower years?

In our SEDA Special “Transitions, into, through and out of Higher Education”, these issues are embraced and explored in a multi-disciplinary collection of good practice case studies. Sasha Anderson explores the experience of students who have completed BTEC qualifications as opposed to A level qualifications as they traverse the transition into HE and Alison Griffin shares the experience of running a summer school for mature students about to embark on their university experience.

Seeing transition as an ongoing journey, Luke Millard, Neil Hollins and Ryan Sharman explore the role of employment on campus in fostering the sense of belonging of students throughout their degree and Aisling Keane encourages us to reconsider the second year slump.

As well as exploring the transition into Higher Education, the transition out at the end of a degree warrants just as much care and attention. Sarah O’Shea and Olivia Groves discuss how first in family students navigate this transition and Christine Smith and colleagues present a case study of how they developed an app that enables the linking of past and present experience. Wendy Ashall and myself hope that this special will help to motivate, encourage and inform transition practices and innovation going forward and with the established Community of Practice now up and running, it is hoped this will be the first of many such publications.

Wendy Garnham, University of Sussex

The Transitions Community of Practice

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Hughes, G and Smail, O. (2015) “Which aspects of university life are most and least helpful in the transition to Higher Education? A qualitative snapshot of student perceptions.” Journal of Further and Higher Education, 39(4), pp.466-480.

Kantanis, T. (2000). “The role of social transition in students’ adjustment to the first year of university.” Journal of Institutional Research, 9 (1), pp.100-110.

Pattengale, J. (2000) “Policies and practices to enhance sophomore success” in L. Schreiner and J. Pattengale (eds) Visible Solutions for Invisible Students: helping sophomores succeed. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for the First Year Experience and Students in Transition: Columbia SC, pp.31-47.

Thompson, S., Milson, C., Zaitseva, E., Stewart, M., Darwet, S. and Yorke, M. (2013) The forgotten year? Tackling the second year slump”, York, UC. The Higher Education Academy

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