Supporting student transition to higher education: what (not) to do

The LLI is working with Schools to devise and develop approaches supporting pre-entry students’ academic transition to university-level study. Our key reference point for this is the Transitions Toolkit. This resource was published some time before the COVID-19 pandemic, but whilst this means a certain level of adaptation is required where the activities themselves are concerned, the principles underpinning these activities remain just as relevant and applicable as ever.


The context-specificity of supporting student learning is such that any generic ‘here’s-what-to-do’ type advice is at best limited and at worst, outright misleading. Instead, here is a brief (and, I should stress, personal) ‘here’s-what-not-to-do’ list – with a few more positive pieces of advice smuggled in, for good measure.


1) Don’t start with what you assume (or even know from experience) students will find challenging or difficult

It would be rather odd if studying in higher education did not present a challenge, particularly for those new to it, and it would hardly be worth bothering with if it didn’t. However, there are numerous problems with making this the basis for our initial conversations with students. First, it’s a somewhat negative and potentially patronising starting point that can risk appearing, whether intentionally or not, to doubt students’ readiness for HE study. Second, it plays into a ‘deficit model’ of student learning, in that it starts with what we assume students will be unable to do. Third, it fails to acknowledge that every incoming student has been ‘successful’ in ways so far demanded of them. We may well observe certain levels of disconnection, even contradiction, between the requirements of pre-university study and those of degree-level, but none of this is of the students’ making; they have done all that has been asked of them to date. Finally, whatever challenges students do eventually encounter will only be properly appreciated once they’re being experienced for real. It’s at these points (e.g. as students are attending lectures for the first time, or navigating reading lists, or having to manage more of their own private study time) that meaningful conversations about how to study more effectively can really start to resonate and feel relevant for students.


2) Don’t ask students to tell you what they imagine/anticipate will be different about HE study

Although there may seem to be entirely good reasons for doing this, it’s an exercise that runs the risk of reproducing many of the problems identified above. Also in my experience, speaking to hundreds of pre-entry stage students over the years, they know well what to tell me when answering this kind of question (thanks, I’m sure, to the insights of teachers, careers advisers, family members et al.) but the words uttered in response can sound pretty hollow and formulaic. It’s all very well to say ‘you’ve got to be more responsible for managing your own time’, or ‘you have to think more critically’, but what does this all really mean absent of practical, concrete experiences? Far better to give students a task to do, question to ponder etc. and use this as a basis for reflection and discussion.


3) Don’t foster misconceptions about ‘independent study’

It’s regrettable that our chosen proxy term for the fact that university learning entails changing often well-established study practices is the deeply misleading phrase, ‘independent study’. No type of studying, whatever the level, is literally independent. Quite the reverse – learning is a profoundly inter-dependent process. (As an aside, having to point out, during a global pandemic, the fundamental inter-dependency of all human social activity, feels bizarre to say the least.)


Nevertheless, it looks like we’re stuck with this unfortunate phrase, so if we must use it then we should at least frame its use so as to disabuse students of any notion that studying in HE is supposed to be an atomised or ‘self-reliant’ affair. Still less should we use the phrase in such a way as it appears we’re pathologising or stigmatising various forms of ‘dependency’ (haven’t forty or so years living with the consequences of neoliberal ideology instructed us of how fallacious, sinister, and above all deeply dishonest, such rhetoric is?). It may be better to compare the kinds of support and structure that tend to characterise pre-university educational settings with those more typical of higher education study, and work from there. This way, we could talk positively about shifting to different types of dependency (e.g. from a dependency on learning from direct teacher-delivered content, as in school for instance, to a greater dependency on other sources of scholarship sourced from outside the classroom) and how students can more successfully manage this shift.


4) Don’t talk about ‘study skills’

I’ve struggled to find a decent analogy for ‘study skills’ talk (by the end of this sentence you may very well conclude, and I may very well concur, that this is a struggle yet to be resolved) but the best I can come up with is that it’s like the health and safety training of academic practice. It’s hard to argue against its relevance, and when pushed most people would probably accept it’s important, but this rarely translates into active enthusiasm or enjoyment. Very few people actively embrace and look forward H&S training even if they privately acknowledge it’s probably ‘good’ for them.


Along with several others in the field of Learning Development, I have my own issues with the very term ‘study skills’ itself and what it often tends to signify about the nature of learning, but that’s not why I raise it here. No, the point is that ‘study skills’ talk often operates at a level of abstraction that makes it disengaging and boring, especially when the focus of such talk is not even what currently is for students, but rather what’s to come. Worse, it’s a phrase that many students may well have already learned to associate with remedial support. In other words, ‘study skills’ are what you need to go and ‘get’ when you’re not able to study as well as others, when you don’t quite make the grade. There are, of course, numerous ways we can devise activities that enable students, through experience and reflection, to learn more effectively within their respective disciplines. The Transitions Toolkit, provides examples of how this can be achieved. As you will see, however, the exercises and activities presented in the toolkit try, wherever possible, to avoid references to abstract or generic ‘study skills’ and instead focus on developing in-context, discipline-specific academic practices.


5) Don’t peddle the snake oil of ‘learning styles’, ‘personality-types’ etc.

Just don’t do this. Ever. This really shouldn’t require any further explanation or justification, and I’m certainly not going to waste time providing such, here.


Those, then, are five broad errors I would caution strongly against. On a more positive note, one way of both overcoming many of the pitfalls outlined above, whilst still addressing what we rightly take to be important when it comes to preparing students for university study, is to enlist the support and input of current students. You may well have observed this yourself in your own teaching contexts, but conversations about how to study better so often come across as far more engaging and compelling when led by the insights and experiences of those who are currently having to do this for themselves. This stands to reason when you think about it, but the still largely untapped expertise of current students is one of those ‘hidden in plain sight’ resources we still often fail to make that much use of. There are numerous ways you can do this and I, along with my LLI colleagues, would be only too happy to discuss these with you.

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Steve Rooney

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5 responses to “Supporting student transition to higher education: what (not) to do”

  1. Lisa Quinn

    Great article Steve, with really helpful, take-home practical suggestions! Thanks!

  2. Matthew Moors

    Hello Steve, love the blog, I feel a bit dim asking this but what are the dangers of “peddling the snake oil of learning styles and personality types”? I am an MA student at Sussex University and have heard both terms used liberally in academia and my previous career in social work. Is the danger that it narrows our understanding of what are effective learning environments?

    best wishes


  3. Matthew Moors

    Many thanks for your thoughtful reply Steve, I really appreciate the time you took to respond to my query it was very helpful.

    All the best


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