The transition to university
The University Mental Health Charter reports there is now decades of evidence demonstrating that the transition into university and the first-year experience are hugely significant for student success, confidence, belonging and wellbeing. (Hughes, G. & Spanner, L. (2019)
Support is needed on both sides of the transition bridge to enable students to adjust to university and develop learner identity and autonomy (Briggs et al 2012). ‘Exploring Transition: the experiences of students at Newcastle University in their first year’ (Clarke J, Hall I. 2010) examined the views of students, the overarching themes being that those that were able to transition to university without any issues had been raised with the aspirations and influences to go to university at an early age, in comparison to those that weren’t. Raising aspirations at an early age is an important part of increasing academic confidence. The study also highlighted the importance of clear and coherent transition programmes being offered to students.
An example of this would be, The Newcastle University PARTNERS programme, involving 111 partner schools and colleges, which offers activities for primary, secondary, and further education college students. A clear message in this study was the need for designated staff in both schools and colleges who are responsible for the higher education transition.
The impact of current approaches to teaching and learning
It has been suggested that both schools and colleges are teaching students in a way that fails to encourage independent learning. Instead, they are being taught in a way that generates the grades required by the current curriculum (an approach sometimes described as spoon-feeding or teaching to the test) rather than allowing teachers the freedom to teach in a way that encourages critical thinking and independent learning. As one study identifies, “In the context of assessment, spoon-feeding may involve explicitly telling students what they need to do for an assignment, and how to meet the assessment criteria, without leaving it up to them to ascertain this for themselves.”
This may make the transition to independent learning at university more challenging and thereby also increase the risk of mental distress.
What can be done to enhance the transition?
A recurrent theme in studies on this is that educational institutions would benefit from introducing 'scaffolding' as a way of ensuring a smoother transition for students from college to university. Scaffolding refers to the supportive structure provided by skilled others, in this case teachers, which aids students in their learning. The objective is the gradual transfer of responsibility from the teacher to the student step by step, the teacher responding flexibly to students’ responses rather than following a predetermined teaching path (Meyer et al., 2010). For this to be successfully implemented, there needs to be clear communication between schools, colleges, and universities on what part they play in this transition, and where they need to pick up from in terms of student learning needs.
A 2014 study also highlights the importance of ‘Scaffolding’ by providing high levels of guidance at the start of the first year at university that gradually reduces as the students gain experience (Beaumont et al, 2014).
Issues that may reduce opportunities for independent thinking and autonomous learning in schools and colleges
Schools/colleges/teachers are under pressure from inspectors and parents to achieve high grades. As indicated earlier, this increases the risk of spoon-feeding or ‘teaching to the test,’
Class sizes may prevent teachers from teaching in a way that develops independent learning skills. The National Educational Union argues, “The real-terms funding crisis has had catastrophic effects”, including a direct impact on class size with an increase in class sizes year on year and even a reduction in teaching assistant posts. With a rise in 474 constituencies in the England since 2010. For example, secondary school classes with 36 plus pupils have risen by 258% from 2010 to 2019. Teachers have nominated a reduction in class sizes as top priority for the next government, regardless of who is elected.
GCSEs are arguably no longer fit for purpose, as they appear designed for information regurgitation and so encourage spoon-feeding. The Learning and Work Institute reports there have been calls for GCSE’s to be scrapped, with the rise to education participation age to 18 having rendering them redundant. The study suggests that there is a need for the whole system to be reformed rather than just the qualification alone. The government hopes that the introduction of the new ‘T-Levels’ will better prepare students between 14-19 years.
A study conducted by the Social Research Institute explored the views of 71 teaching staff in HEIs across England and Wales. The consensus of most of the interviewees was that A levels failed to provide first year undergraduate students with the independent learning skills that a successful undergraduate requires. (Higton et al., 2012).
There is some research that suggests that some schools and colleges have developed their curriculum and specific learning activities around independent learning, but that this is predominantly schools and colleges in the independent sector. For example, both Swanmore College and Wellington College have different resources and specific independent learning tasks in place that are aimed to learn, embed, and practice these skills, as well as the involvement of parents and previous students as peer support.
Conversely state schools appear to have increasingly adapted their teaching approach to ‘spoon feeding’ to achieve the exam grades they require. This may help explain the increase in national A Level pass rates over the years (from 68.2% in 1982 to over 99% in 2021) - but potentially at the expense of independent learning opportunities.
Another study found that if an assessment criterion was unclear then non-traditional students, who weren’t from middle class backgrounds, struggled and would not question the criteria (Balloo et al., 2018). The importance of transparency in assessment criterion is important for student ‘self-regulation’ and ownership of their work.
What can be done to improve the student experience and enhance independent learning?
A study commissioned by the Higher Education Academy, explored the views of both academic staff and students in determining what were the most effective practices in the inception, design, quality assurance and enhancement of directed independent learning, with a second tier exploring how best to communicate and promote effective directed independent learning to different stakeholders, including students and teachers as well as parents, curriculum designers and other educational staff. This study found that for ‘Directed independent learning’ (DIL) to be effective, there needs to be a clear structure and ongoing support for students, especially when making the transition from learning at level three to higher education. Development of capacity is also necessary to assist students to learn differently, rather than to study harder. Students require reassurance through support, guidance, and feedback that they are doing the right thing. Students need to be motivated to engage in DIL, by understanding the benefits of independent learning, particularly the value in relation to future career paths.
How is this affecting students in the long term?
A 2018 study looked at first year university students and their experiences on entering university and the challenges they were facing. The study was conducted with 126 students-as-researchers from 16 institutes in the U.K.
The study was led by the students and had no overarching theme to begin with. Findings from the study suggested that students were not being challenged enough in their prior learning, which was affecting their ability to adapt to the next stage of learning when entering their first year at university. Therefore, it has been recommended that appropriately challenging and interesting tasks need to be integrated into teaching so that students spend more time engaging in high quality independent learning, which would also be enhanced by some form of peer support. (Hockings et al., 2018).
What can be done to promote independent learning in schools and colleges?
The evidence reviewed so far suggests the value of following:
- Raising aspirations at an early age.
- Instilling academic confidence into students.
- Making available case studies of schools who have successfully encouraged independent learning.
- Reviewing whether GCSE’s are still needed and/or how they can be updated to encourage more independent learning.
- Designated staff in schools and colleges with a responsibility for the higher education transition.
- Better implementation of the ‘Scaffolding’ process from college to university, including better communication between schools/colleges and universities to enhance the transition period.
The implications for student mental health
It has been reported that the mental health of an increasing number of students has been fragile, and that this may be due in part to lack of readiness on entry to university.
A study by Worsley et al, 2021, identified how academic underperformance in turn can affect students’ mental health; with one bad performance potentially affecting overall academic achievement and creating a cycle where the student is unable to catch up.
If schools and colleges in the U.K are making the transition to university more difficult by spoon-feeding students, with possible knock-on effects for their mental health, what can be done to reverse this trend? I am happy for any further suggestions.
Tracy Scott August 2022.
Hughes, G. & Spanner, L. (2019). The University Mental Health Charter. Leeds: Student Minds https://www.studentminds.org.uk/uploads/3/7/8/4/3784584/191208_umhc_artwork.pdf
Briggs, A., Clark, J., & Hall, I. (2012). Building bridges: understanding student transition to university. Quality In Higher Education, 18(1), 3-21. https://doi.org/10.1080/13538322.2011.614468
Clark J, Hall I (2010). Exploring Transition: The experiences of students at Newcastle University in their first year. Newcastle University Research Centre for Teaching and Learning. https://eprints.ncl.ac.uk/file_store/production/166707/CC998B26-F635-4114-823E-5937343A861E.pdf
Meyer, B., Haywood, N., Sachdev, D., & Faraday, S. (2008). What is independent learning and what are the benefits for students?. Curee.co.uk. Retrieved 10 August 2022, from http://www.curee.co.uk/files/publication/%5Bsite-timestamp%5D/Whatisindependentlearningandwhatarethebenefits.pdf.
Beaumont C, Moscrop C, Canning S (2014). Easing the transition from school to HE: scaffolding the development of self-regulated learning through a dialogic approach to feedback. Journal of Further and Higher Education. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0309877X.2014.953460?journalCode=cjfh20
Rising class sizes. NEU. (2022). Retrieved 9 August 2022, from https://neu.org.uk/press-releases/rising-class-sizes
Evens, S. (2019). FIT FOR PURPOSE? EDUCATION AND EMPLOYMENT SUPPORT FOR YOUNG PEOPLE. Base-uk.org. Retrieved 9 August 2022, from https://www.base-uk.org/sites/default/files/knowledgebase/Youth-Commission-report-5-Fit-for-Purpose-Education-and-Employment-Support-for-Young-People.pdf
Independent Learning - Swanmore College. Swanmore College. (2022). Retrieved 30 July 2022, from https://swanmore-school.co.uk/independent-learning/
Independent learning. Learning.wellingtoncollege.org.uk. (2022). Retrieved 30 July 2022, from https://learning.wellingtoncollege.org.uk/tag/independent-learning/
Balloo K, Evans C, Hughes A et al (2018). Transparency isn’t Spoonfeeding: How a Transformative Approach to the use of Explicit Assessment Criteria can support Student-Self-Regulation. Frontiers in Education.
Higton, J., Noble, J., Pope, S., Boal, N., Ginnis, S., Donaldson, R., & Greevy, H. (2012). Fit for Purpose? The view of the higher education sector, teachers and employers on the suitability of A levels. Retrieved 9 August 2022, from https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.477.1267&rep=rep1&type=pdf
Hockings, C., Thomas, L., Ottaway, J., & Jones, R. (2017). Independent learning – what we do when you’re not there. Teaching In Higher Education, 23(2), 145-161. https://doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2017.1332031
Worsley, J., Harrison, P., & Corcoran, R. (2021). Bridging the Gap: Exploring the Unique Transition From Home, School or College Into University. Frontiers In Public Health, 9. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpubh.2021.634285