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!

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