Could encouraging low-stakes failure build up our students and prevent them falling later on?

For most students, studying for a degree is a challenge. The experience for each student will be unique but the challenge of transitioning from the familiar to the unknown is common to all. We expect our students to arrive at university eager to learn and full of enthusiasm for their chosen subject ready to dedicate themselves to their studies and thrive. However, an increasing number arrive capable of little more than surviving the turbulent transition to university life.

As educators we need to stop projecting our personal experiences of studying at university onto today’s students. Instead of asking why our students are less engaged than previous cohorts, reporting that they don’t feel part of their university community or seemingly reluctant to form support groups with their peers, we need to start responding. We need to recognise the effect of their disrupted education during the ongoing pandemic and acknowledge that the future will be volatile too. We need to empathise and ask how we can help develop the skills and capabilities our students need to enable them to successfully transition to university life and to face future challenges. Skills such as coping with complex challenges and future uncertainty that they will need as they transition from learning to becoming. We often focus on protecting our students from failure when a better preparation for the uncertainties of life is to support them as they experience failure. By helping them to gain resilience, increase confidence and manage their fear of failure we start to remove barriers to learning and equip our students with the skills needed to thrive in their studies and beyond.

Tips For Building Student Resilience

  • Create opportunities for students to experience low-stakes failure, e.g. campus-wide scavenger hunts during freshers week or non-assessed practicals/presentations. Post-task reflection activities can make these activities even more effective for building student resilience and encouraging a growth mindset.
  • Engage students in activities which have only limited instructions requiring the students to make decisions about how to accomplish the task, e.g. classic team-building tasks of building a specified object (the tallest tower, widest bridge etc.) using an array of given items or a methodology to follow which lacks timings or quantities. Such opportunities encourage decision-making, groupwork skills and autonomy and if elements that require negotiation and discussion are incorporated, can be effective for building self-efficacy and confidence.
  • Avoid repeating similar tasks, forms of assessment or activities and instead vary the “what” and “how” elements of what the students are asked to do. This encourages development of a variety of skills and experience of dealing with ‘the unknown’.
  • Make use of low-stakes discussion prompts that ask students what they think rather than what they know e.g.
    “How would a successful student prepare for this?”
    “What do you notice about…?” or
    “What tips do you have to help other students in the year ahead?”
    Holding these discussions informal setting where all voices are heard can build self-confidence and a feeling of community amongst the student cohort.

Kelly Edmunds, University of East Anglia, @kellyedmunds

The mapping of graduate attributes into assessment.

It would be difficult to miss the change in the English Higher Education climate as the Office for Students introduces key metrics – or thresholds – to be met and surpassed for programmes to meet the updated Conditions of Registration.  One of these metrics is ‘Graduate Outcomes’, where the requirement is for a graduate to be in ‘highly skilled’ employment 15 months after completion of their programme of study – without allowance for context or career path and where philosophical approaches to education are ignored.  Some universities will be tempted to withdraw programmes that present a risk to achieving these thresholds or might be increasingly risk averse in terms of admissions?  However, at Edge Hill University the aim is to support students to develop and articulate the range of graduate attributes they acquire.  The twofold challenge is therefore to embed the development of graduate attributes into curricula and to ensure that students (and staff) can articulate their experiences.

In 2020/21, Edge Hill University updated the list of graduate attributes that our students should be able to evidence upon completion of their degree.  In 2021/22 this was enhanced by the development of a glossary describing these attributes.  Simultaneously, the Faculty of Education undertook a cross-Faculty project to create a set of baseline assessment criteria.  Reflecting good quality co-production where the ‘destination’ is not foreknown (according to one tongue-in-cheek description) the resultant assessment criteria and supporting documentation was very different than expected at the start of the process – and included the embedding of feedback on graduate attributes development. 

The assessment criteria and supporting documentation is fairly traditional in format, detailing the academic skills of students, such as subject knowledge, use of literature, analysis and evaluation etc.  The supporting documentation for the assessment criteria includes a one-page overview of the QAA Qualification Framework expectations at L4 – L6, incorporating the graduate skills that the QAA itself expects to see, e.g. decision making in complex and unpredictable contexts at L6. 

The significant difference is that we have incorporated graduate attribute development into the new assessment rubric. An excerpt from the L6 criteria is included below. When an assignment is marked, the tutor will provide additional feedback to the student to reflect the extent to which the student has evidenced specified graduate attributes, which the student can then use in their professional portfolio development (required for all programmes) and job applications. Programme Teams agree which graduate attributes will be linked to each module and review what this looks like across the whole programme – it would defeat the object if ‘English proficiency’ was addressed in every module and ‘complex decision making’ was never considered.  Consequently, students see how they are developing skills that are useful for the (graduate) workplace.  In addition, colleagues become more knowledgeable of graduate attributes and more aware of their role in supporting students’ development and preparation for their post-graduation.

Example of L6 criteria for Reflection on Academic & Professional Development (click on the image to see full size)

Helena Knapton, SFHEA, Faculty of Education, Edge Hill University, England.
Twitter: @HKnapton

Helena is the Learning and Teaching Development Lead in the Faculty of Education, Edge Hill University.  She has had a varied background including stockbroking, teaching Business and Economics in a sixth form college, PGCE Business Course Leader before undertaking her current role in 2017. This current role allows her to pursue wider interests in employability and staff development in learning and teaching.  She also owns a gym and is a Reader in the Church of England.

What do the Second-Year Slump and the Covid Slump Have in Common? 

In November 2020, we argued that the ‘second year slump’ in Higher Education (HE) was the consequence of a poorly conceptualised approach to transition pedagogy. We evidenced that at the root of poor performance and lack of motivation in some second-year undergraduate students were differences in HE pedagogy between the first and second year, masking authentic teaching and assessment practices to the detriment of students. Since then, much of the research into student transition through HE has (rightly) focused on the crisis management of campus-based curricula delivered almost exclusively online during the global pandemic. My own work on transition pedagogies continued with a similar question: ‘What are student experiences of online teaching and assessment during the Covid-19 era?’

Currently, literature reports similar findings, highlighting common themes of isolation, attention problems, difficulty achieving learning outcomes and reduced retention rates. Public health ‘stay – at – home’ mandates had serious implications for everyone and worryingly highlight that a high proportion of the UG student cohort are likely to have experienced clinically significant levels of depression and/or anxiety.

However, because of the rapid need to upskill and deliver teaching and assessment remotely, academics are now able to significantly enhance support for students. E The 2021-22 academic year saw many academic staff in campus-based UK universities embrace a blended approach to teaching and assessment, but faculty were hesitant about committing wholeheartedly to remote, open book exams given the potential to participate in actions that potentially gained unfair advantages. Nonetheless, we could see the potential for campus based UG curricula to harness the advantages flexible delivery offers and embraced this unprecedented opportunity to change our pedagogical practice.

But the grey literature has begun to whisper about poor attendance, late and missed deadlines and high failure rates amongst the cohort of students experiencing blended models of teaching. There is unease that the academic performance in the first in-person written exams since COVID are at an unforeseen low. Publicly, newspaper opinion pieces and their comments variously see this because of a lack of motivation and commitment to study, despite increased support. Exasperated staff outline how they have reduced academic standards with lenient grading and flexible deadlines, yet despite this, students still perform poorly in on-campus written exams. Discussion circles around whether this ‘Covid Slump’ is a consequence of calculated grades at A-level and revised admission criteria, or an effect of the stress and turmoil of the Covid-19 era. ‘, The academic community appears to be divided between those colleagues who argue that failure rates reflect half-hearted efforts from a disengaged cohort who should not progress. Opposing this are staff who sympathetically champion students’ experiences of a two year long hastily devised, emergency-directed, atheoretical approach to teaching and assessment during a global crisis. So, what do the Second-Year Slump and the Covid Slump Have in Common? Both challenge the dominant discourse of the ‘approaches to learning framework’ and assumptions that learning is a property of the individual, separate and independent from the environment and assessment as a neutral entity. Instead, rather than pathologising student behaviour and performance, current online pedagogies to support teaching and assessment created early in the Covid era should be re-considered in the current context. If we have not yet committed to an evidence based pedagogical framework to underpin transitions into, through and out of HE what exactly are we basing our blended learning frameworks on?

Aisling Keane is a Reader and Associate Director in the Centre for Biomedical Sciences (Education), Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) and comes from a background in human anatomy and physiology (BSc in Physiology from National University of Ireland, Galway 1998; Ph.D Anatomy 2005),

Her independent research portfolio began as Advisor of Studies in 2007, researching the social and academic factors contributing to low pass marks and high attrition rates in first year students. Over several years, Aisling incorporated a ‘Transition Pedagogy’ into first year programmes in QUB. Outcomes of the Transition Pedagogy have been disseminated in peer-reviewed journals and nationally at conferences. Aisling completed her Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education Teaching in 2007 and was successfully awarded Senior Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy in 2021.

Stemming from a passion to explore the nature of student learning and assessment in Higher Education, Aisling completed a Doctorate in Education (2019). Her current educational research focuses on the social construction of assessment and feedback in student transitions. In 2019, she was awarded the international Kathleen Tattersall New Assessment Researcher Award by the Association for Education Assessment (AEA) – Europe

Help! There’s a cat in the Transition to HE course!

Durham University has a history of offering Transition to HE pre-arrival courses. The first was launched in 2016. Since then, various iterations have supported students, from foundation to postgraduate. We developed our recent pre-arrival course in the Durham Centre for Academic Development (DCAD) where many of the staff involved have a real passion for widening participation and inclusivity. A common thread in all iterations has been our focus on building a sense of belonging.

Re-developing the Transition to Higher Education course, which is a dream job for me, gave me the opportunity to support students starting their university journey. I don’t work alone on this project; I work alongside Dr Malcolm Murray who is just as passionate about working with students and creating opportunities for students as I am. This partnership and this project provided a fantastic opportunity for me to build cross-institution connections, as I worked with colleagues from a variety of departments to ensure the information being given to students aligned with university-wide induction and would support students beyond the initial contact point. You could say that this enabled me to develop a sense of belonging as well.

One of the greatest pleasures of leading the development of this course, has been the opportunity to work with our incredible students. Last year, we hired a wonderful student who had just finished their undergraduate degree. With their input we were able to shift parts of the course from a list of things to do, to a much more conversational series of suggestions that may be useful to think about. One thing we achieved really well, and this came through in the feedback we gathered, was reducing incoming students’ anxiety about starting university. This was a key priority for me. It’s so important to remember where students are at when they start and how nerve wrecking starting university can be.

The priority this year has been to shift the tone of the course, making sure it’s relevant for incoming students. This year we recruited two student developers who have just completed their first year (and the Transition to HE course) and this has made an incredible difference. One of our student developers has put a lot of work into making engaging informational videos. The other has focussed on graphic design, writing content, and making sure the tone is right.

My student developers were really keen and clear that we needed to do more with this course from an inclusivity perspective, so a lot of work has gone into creating choice and different ways of accessing information, including captioned videos, transcripts and downloadable audio files. We have also addressed restrictive linearity and added downloadable summaries after each section. This enables students to dip in and out as they please.

An unexpected hero of Transition to HE has been Freddie Meowcury. We have a legend within DCAD that there is a cat that lives in the building: a cat bowl, toys and collar periodically move around the department… obviously the cat just comes out to play at night. Last year, I introduced the idea that the DCAD cat had been meddling in the Transition to HE course and had scattered pictures of his accomplices around the course. Students had to find how many cats were in the course and submit their answer. We found that students spent twice as long on this activity than they did on completing feedback and we ended up with feedback such as ‘I stayed for the cat’, ‘Fred [the cat] was my favourite accomplice’. One of the students named him Freddie Meowcury and we are in conversation with Freddie to see what his disruptive plans are this year, so watch this space! It’s fun working with a cat, but he has a lot of demands, so if you two are planning a cat-based-partnership make sure you set the terms early on!

There are two big successes of the Durham Transition to HE course. Firstly, it has brought departments together and ensured we deliver much more joined up support for students. This focus has meant that we can make sure there is no misinformation or gaps and that students can find information they need in a way that works for them. The second, and most important, success is having a body of students access the course and hopefully feel more prepared, and less anxious about starting university. We are very fortunate to have incredible students at Durham, and I am proud to be able to work with them on projects such as this.

Author Bio: Hi I’m Rachelle O’Brien. I lead Durham Universities institution wide academic pre-arrival Transition to Higher Education (HE) course (wow, that’s a mouthful!). I started my career working in student support, having come into university as a widening participation student myself. For me, completing a degree was a real catalyst for me wanting to work with other students, especially those in similar positions as me, to show them that if I can do it, anybody can!

SEDA Blog Series Introduction: A year of transition and a chance to reflect

In January 2020, we published a SEDA Special exploring the themes of Transitions into, through and out of Higher Education. SEDA Special 44 contained a range of articles that explored the experiences of diverse student groups, including BTEC, mature, and first-in-family students. Each article, in its own way, highlighted the need for human contact and personal support in the transition process. Suggested solutions included summer schools, placement apps and on-campus job opportunities.

Two years later, the Community of Practice that this spawned is thriving and transition has become an increasing focus for many after lockdowns, grade inflation and issues of isolation and anxiety have had a noticeable impact. It seems timely therefore, to revisit some of the ideas first mentioned in that initial publication. The SEDA Transitions Community of Practice now meets monthly online to share ideas, projects and events that support practitioners to better support students in transition, no matter what stage of their learning journey. One of the unexpected joys of this CoP has been how it has enabled us to keep in contact with the contributing authors and see how their work has developed over the last two years, while also widening the conversation as new members have joined the group.

In a series of blog posts focused on transition, members of the SEDA Community of Practice will be sharing their thoughts and experiences of transition practice more recently. Rachelle O’Brien, Aisling Keane and Helena Knapton will each look through a different lens (transition into, through or out of HE) to give us an opportunity to reflect on changes, developments and considerations to the way we ease the passage of students through a new Higher Education landscape. Kelly Edmunds ends our series with a look to the future and how encouraging low stakes failure can be a way of building resilience.

We start with a blog from Rachelle O’Brien (Senior Digital Learning Designer, Durham Centre for Academic Development), who starts the series with an honest, thought-provoking piece in which she charts how her role in re-developing the Transition to Higher Education course at Durham University not only helped new students as they start their university journey but also helped her to settle into her new post.

Increasingly, transition is recognized not just as a turning point between further and higher education but as a continuous process (Tett, Cree and Cristie, 2016). The need to establish a sense of community and belonging in the initial stages of joining a Higher Education institution is only the first step in a sequence of transitions that students experience during their degree programmes. Transition embraces aspects such as learning to adapt to new approaches to teaching at different levels of their programme,

With this in mind, our second blog post focuses on transition through HE. Aisling Keene (Reader in Education, Queens’ University Belfast) revisits her work on ‘The Second Year Slump’ to assess its commonalities with the impact of COVID on students. She reminds us that learning (and teaching) always takes place in a wider context. Aisling argues that as we return to the ‘new normal’, we need evidence-based pedagogical frameworks to better support students in transition.

How about transition “out” of HE? Helena Knapton (Learning and Teaching Development Lead, Edge Hill University) shares her work mapping graduate attributes into assessment criteria. This work enables markers to provide additional feedback on the extent to which students have evidenced specified graduate attributes in their assessed work. Students can then use this feedback to help them prepare their professional portfolios and job applications.

Finally, Kelly Edminds (University of East Anglia) ends our series with a look to the future. As we build again from experience of low engagement during a pandemic, how can we prepare students for transition across HE, in a way that acknowledges the changing landscape? Rather than shielding students from failure, perhaps, Kelly argues, we should be helping them to manage their fear of failure in a way that builds resilience and confidence.

Each Blog reaffirms, in its own way, the importance of community-building and belonging to both students and faculty, but also the need for practitioners to embrace change as we support our students to navigate it. 

If you wish to join the SEDA Transitions Community of Practice, please get in touch with Wendy Garnham ( or Wendy Ashall (, both at the University of Sussex.  


Tett, L., Cree, V. E., & Christie, H. (2017). From further to higher education: transition as an on-going process. Higher Education73(3), 389-406.