Transitioning to Higher Education

The importance of student success in higher education is incontestable, and improving the student experience is a particularly high priority for the majority of institutes of higher education. Student induction is a strategically important aspect of their experience and a significant time in orienting students to the demands of higher education.

Findings suggest a highly complex phenomenon associated with the transition from second-level education to third level, or indeed from work to higher education, with various themes identified across institutions and students. The nature and dynamics of the process vary according to the student’s social, family, and educational background; personality; educational and occupational orientations and aspirations; the nature and mission of the institution being attended; peers, academic and staff members encountered; the purpose and nature of those encounters; and the interactions of all of these variables. The process is highly interrelated. It may be described as a web-like series of family interpersonal, academic, and organizational elements that shape student learning and persistence (Terenzini, 1994). For many students their first day attending HE, represents the first day of leaving the family home for a sustained length of time and gaining an independence that is vital for their own personal development (Moore, 2005). University/college life is an invaluable educator, which stands to the graduate in future years.

For a variety of reasons, students enter higher education with a set of false impressions about what to expect. University life is very different across institutions and widening access creates additional difficulties. An increasing number of students are first-generation college attendees, whose demographic characteristics place them at risk for continued academic success (Horn, 1998). It is not unusual for entrants to be unaware of the differences between school and university/college campus or the role Higher Education Institutions (HEI’s) assume. Students often import a model of support and guidance based on second-level education, where numbers are smaller, study more structured, where fewer teaching staff are involved and class groups are small enough for everyone to know everyone else. Some students arrive at higher education unaware of the amount of pastoral care and study support available or necessary. They often expect a second-level school atmosphere, where staff takes responsibility for their learning and attendance.

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The First Year Induction Process

First year induction can be viewed, as a settling-in period, where students acclimatise to what, for many, is a very alien environment and where students are practically and actively assisted with the transition. With regard to the wide range of students entering higher education, the diversity of backgrounds, attitudes and skills, induction is a time to identify mismatches between previous experience and what is required on the course. Expectations, myths and attitudes also need to be addressed if students are to succeed, and students ‘at-risk’ and student concerns identified.

The traditional approach to student induction, of having an introductory week or few days for first year students on campus, though very important, cannot alone meet the needs of today’s student. Higher education is seeing a move away from student induction of the past where students queued to enrol, joined the library and gathered for an afternoon of short speeches by university/college personnel. This approach quite often leaves students more confused and anxious then they were previously. More recently is has become apparent that along with an ‘Orientation Week’ the entire first semester or even the first year is part of the induction process and student orientation.

It is generally believed there are five stages to be addressed in a HEI induction program, integrated and rolled-out during Orientation Week and first semester:

  1. Settling In
  2. Registration and Enrolment
  3. Social Orientation
  4. Orientation to the Institution
  5. Orientation to the Course and Academic Study

Student induction needs to be well planned out and thorough, administration and information-giving needs to be treated with sensitivity, much of which is unavoidable. The structure and schedule of Orientation Week needs to carefully determined however. Does it all need to be done at the same time and should it be all compressed into the first day or two? Could some of the information be sent to the students prior to arrival at the HEI? Can some of the information wait until week two or three of the semester? How can we be certain that the really important elements are read and understood by the first year student? Perhaps the real challenge is to try to include all the necessary administration and information without it becoming oppressive and seeming to replace learning as the primary aim of higher education in what the student first experiences.

Equally important to note, and to instill in students is that high quality learning outcomes in higher education are those which come from deep approaches to learning and these high quality learning outcomes are not easily or consistently attained through surface learning. The issues of self-management and self-motivation are related to approach and conception of learning at HE and working independently under these conditions is difficult, though rewarding and inherently interesting.

When we stand back from the individual student, we can appreciate that certain circumstances are likely to encourage student success and others to discourage it. A major focus is how institutions of higher education can increase the probability of student success and actions such as creating a sense of belonging, employing pedagogic practices that promote engagement, and providing accessible and helpful student support services assist. Some of these matters are primarily under institutional control, whereas others are for students to take in hand. Institutes of Higher Education cannot guarantee students’ success, since a great deal depends on the students’ own commitment and determination, but they can, through creating the environment and culture contribute to increasing the odds in favour of success.

 

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References:

Horn, L. J. (1998). Stopouts or Stayouts? Undergraduates who leave college in their first year. Washington, DC, National Center for Educational Statistics.
Moore, S., and Murphy, M. (2005). How To Be A Student, Open University Press.
Terenzini, P. T., Rendon, L.I., Upcraft, M.L., Billar, S.B., Allison, K.W., Gregg, P.L., and Jalomo, R. (1994). “The Transition to College: Diverse Students, Diverse Stories.” Research in Higher Education 35(1): pp.57-73.

 

 

 

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