Evaluating Systematic Transition to Higher Education

By Becka Currant and Christine Keenan

Aim of the research

The aim of this research note is to inform the sector of work that has been undertaken as a result of funding received from the Higher Education Academy (HEA) e-learning Research Observatory strand during 2007–08.

Funding was received by the Universities of Bradford and Bournemouth in order to evaluate the effectiveness of online transitions materials made available to students prior to arrival. These materials aim to support students in managing the transition from pre-HE-level study to University-level study.

Our research for this project has focussed on identifying what students felt about the materials—were they helpful, informative and useful? Did they help to increase individual levels of confidence and motivation? Did they enhance both social and academic integration? We are also interested to identify how individuals feel about the process of transition and what their expectations are of University prior to arrival.


Much of the literature around first-year experience agrees that early social and academic integration is key to whether a student decides to stay, or to leave (Tinto, 1993; Harvey et al., 2006; Keenan, 2008). We also acknowledge that there are instances when a student can make a legitimate life decision to leave, this often being the first adult decision they have made on their own behalf (Quinn, Thomas et al., 2005). However, the premise of this research project is that if a student makes a decision to leave based on something ‘the institution does to them’, then we argue that the institution needs to expect to bear at least part of the ‘burden of adjustment’ (Keenan, 2006).

The transition to University is an interesting phase in the student lifecycle (Layer, Srivastava et al., 2002). At this point, everything is new and adjustments have to be made in terms of self-identity and self-reliance. New social routines and experiences are explored. In an era of widening participation, many incoming students lack the necessary cultural capital that may have previously cushioned integration into an academic environment. It is particularly interesting to talk to students during this phase because they have not yet become familiarised and inducted into university processes and practices. Their subjective point of view at this stage tends therefore to reveal their experience in their own terms. Discussions and other forms of feedback with students, particularly with those from non-traditional backgrounds, has identified this as a sense of ‘different-ness’ they sometimes feel when compared with more traditional students. One mature undergraduate commented on how she had felt ‘different and detached’ from the other students. One international student commented on the first few days being ‘scary, daunting and made me want to go home again’. Another student, when asked how she was settling into University remarked ‘Uni’s OK once you get used to the bizarreness of it’. Further discussion with this student revealed that she was learning to play the game, enter the field, indeed in Bourdieun terms she was adjusting to the habitus of the institution (Noble and Watkins, 2003).

Bourdieu offers an insight into ‘symbolic structures…considering their relationship to the cognitive structures of the individual and of society’ (Everett, 2002). Everett expands this to include the discourse and artefacts of the social group under scrutiny. Bufton (2003) applies this to what she refers to as the ‘lifeworld’ of university students, when ‘social class is shown to bring together students’ accounts of their multi-faceted sense that “University is not for the likes of us”—encompassing issues of identity, sociality and spatio-temporal dislocation.’

The bizarreness for our student was located in the discourse, the practices, the established routines, the relationships, the size and power of the place, as she expressed it. The manner in which she took on her share of the burden of adjustment as revealed in the interview, was partly something to do with her own personal qualities; being friendly, socially comfortable, and having enough self confidence to see her through this phase. It was also partly to do with the importance of her friendship group, many of which were housemates in halls of residence who provided a mutual support network. Her adjustment to our habitus was in accepting what was bizarre and getting on with it.

However, how individual students develop their unique relationship with our habitus is unpredictable and we know that many students consider leaving in this early phase. Interviews with students over the years has identified that when their induction experience was poor or weak, the negative feelings and impression lasted for a very long time. This negative feeling is also very powerful and can sometimes override any positive feelings that the student may have about the University or course and lead to a withdrawal from study.

An assumption underlying this current research project therefore is that students, whatever their educational or social background, will benefit from phased induction that provides supported guidance and introduction to university life and which begins before they arrive at University. This is particularly important in order to avoid the ‘information overload’ effect often experienced during the induction phase. The intention is to turn the induction experience from a passive, potentially negative experience, to one that is contextualised, meaningful and relevant to the students. This enables ownership to be taken of the process and means that students can develop their social and collaborative learning practices effectively with appropriate support from the institution.

The Universities of Bradford and Bournemouth have developed on-line pre-induction learning resources that are explicitly designed to provide:

  • a welcome and introduction to the University, faculty and course
  • information about a range of topics, including study skills, introduction to personal development planning and student support services, that students can absorb at their own pace prior to induction week
  • an introduction to course-specific information, including provision of learning activities specific to the course the student is attending which can be engaged with prior to induction week. These activities are then worked on collaboratively with other students during induction week, with debriefing and feedback built in
  • an online ‘About You’ survey that invites reflection on a number of issues to do with starting at university, including expression of expectations, and space to ask ‘burning questions’

The process of engagement in the materials is illustrated below in Figure 1.


Figure 1 Cycle of student engagement in online materials

The resources also provide an opportunity to begin demystifying some of the practices, jargon and discourse of university life by providing clear explanations. This initiation into the codified structures of the University is critical in helping students to acclimatise more effectively into the institution’s culture. An example of this is to provide information about what the induction week will contain, introduction to study, and development of collaborative learning activities, with functional information, for example, room numbers and locations described in terms a new student can understand, and not the often meaningless jargon of coded building names and difficult-to-work-out room numbering systems!

The aims of our resources are to:

  • improve an individual’s confidence about starting at university
  • allow students to reflect on their expectations of coming to university and think about the implications of their expectations and the impact that these might have on their wider lives
  • develop increased confidence that they can then apply to their studies
  • provide resources that will lead to a meaningful, enhanced and richer induction experience and empower individuals to engage effectively with their early university careers

Overview of provision—‘Develop Me!’ at the University of Bradford

Develop Me! is an umbrella term for a number of different activities all designed to support students effectively during their time at University. The activities help students manage the transition into and initial engagement with Higher Education–level studies, develop their skills and confidence and ultimately succeed at University.

The Develop Me! Activities are composed of four different strands (outlined below):

Social networking


Online discussion forums in Ning (http://developme.ning.com). Our social network has been established to help students meet each other prior to arrival. Generic University and Student Union information is added to the site on a regular basis. An events calendar provides up-to-date information about events on and off campus. The most important feature of the site is the ability for students to meet other students at the University in a safe environment where, unlike other social networks such as FaceBook, everyone is part of the same community

Developing competence and confidence

evaluating_systematic_transition03 evaluating_systematic_transition04

Self-study materials and learning materials are housed in the Develop Me! website. These include:

  • online learning materials
  • Study guides and booklets
  • Materials from LDU workshops

Understanding skills


Our SaPRA (Skills and Personal Reflective Activity) tool was developed in house and supports student self-reflection and action planning. Completing SaPRA enables students to reflect on their prior learning experiences and to think about how they will adjust to being at university. Students are asked to rate their levels of confidence on a scale of 1 of 5 in different skill areas (e.g., academic reading and writing, numeracy, IT and group-working skills). The outcomes of SaPRA feed into an action planning and evidence reviewing activity that kick starts the personal development planning (PDP) process. Tutors are given an anonymous overview of a cohort’s responses in order to identify any additional areas that need supporting.

Identifying and managing expectations


Extensive work has been initiated in addressing expectations from students. Two major questionnaires are conducted annually. The first, completed prior to arrival, asks students what their expectations of University are. This allows the University to understand the overall expectations of the new intake and make any appropriate adjustments as necessary. This work is followed up by the First-Year Experience (FYE) Questionnaire which is held twice during the first year allowing data to be tracked and managed effectively. The results of these questionnaires feed into policy changes at Institutional level.

Overview of provision—Stepping Stones 2HE at Bournemouth University

SS2HE provides an introduction to university life with links to information about study skills, personal development planning and other useful information. It also comprises an About You survey and course-specific materials, all of which are designed to engage, excite and inspire involvement with the course students are coming to and the wider university.

Both institutions have carried out their own evaluations into the efficacy of these resources. Bournemouth University has six years of qualitative and quantitative data that demonstrates the usefulness of this approach and its impact on retention and attainment of students.

However, our current project funding has enabled us to carry out a much more systematic evaluation in terms of analysing any improvement in confidence building and a sense of being better prepared. A summary of these findings will be discussed later in this paper.


Our methodology has used a phenomenological approach focusing on eliciting the student voice. We have achieved this through the use of a mixed-methods approach incorporating the following methods:

  • online questionnaires
  • nominal group technique
  • individual interviews
  • focus groups

Our sample population has covered a broad range of different student groups. At Bournemouth University, for example, the population surveyed for this current project includes computing, technology, engineering and nursing students (circa 1,000 students). At the University of Bradford the whole first-year cohort was surveyed (circa 3,000 students). The same reflects the demographics at both institutions, a mix of first-generation entry students, mature students, students from widening participation backgrounds, commuter students, and, black minority ethnic students.

The demographic populations of both institutions are very diverse, which provides richness for this research. Our assumption is that all students, whatever their cultural, educational or social background, will benefit from access to these resources. Our hypothesis, being tested in this current large-scale survey undertaken within both institutions, is that the resources will demonstrate improved self-confidence and improved motivation whilst students are making the transition into HE.

Preliminary findings and implications

Our findings indicate that students need and value early interventions that are designed to support their initial engagement with the university. We have found that the online transition support materials enable students to feel more comfortable about their initial engagements with the institution and give a large organisation a friendly face that makes it more approachable and human. Feedback obtained from students demonstrates how they value ‘having someone care about me’ and how it ‘helps to know there is someone who can help me if I need it’. Other students have reported:

  • ‘The forums are great as you can meet other people before beginning University. It makes you feel less nervous.’
  • ‘[I like] being able to meet and talk to people before starting’
  • ‘You’ve got his huge edifice which is a University, but what you need is a human face on it.’
  • ‘Thanks for the warm welcome note, it gave me a great first impression about the university of Bradford’
  • ‘I’ve used Facebook before, and I’ve used MySpace before that but found Facebook much easier to use because it’s much simpler. Where I was the computers weren’t so good, so it was very important to have something simple and easy to load up. The Develop Me! website was somewhere between the two in terms of complexity, I found it quite easy to use’
  • ‘I knew their faces, so I was happy to approach them, and they recognised me as well.’
  • ‘Most of the things that related to the serious aspect of University I found on the University of Bradford website.’
  • ‘It was good to be able to find out about things any time of day.’

In addition feedback from staff has also been excellent, with staff commenting:

  • ‘This [Develop Me!] is great. I am so pleased that you have set this up and it’s an easy way for me to talk to the new students and get to know them better’
  • ‘They did seem a lot more self-reliant with getting themselves registered and getting going with things.’
  • ‘I thought I was too old to do all this [social networking] but it’s not as hard as you think and the students obviously seem to benefit from it’

Although a full analysis of the large-scale survey will not be complete until autumn 2008, early findings indicate:

  • engagement with the resource helped to develop confidence about starting at university
  • confidence development tended to extend to the second term
  • students felt more comfortable about starting at the university and felt part of the community
  • learning activities settled nerves and allowed students to feel more confident about ‘what they already know’
  • the introduction to university life provided by the resources answered many of the questions that concerned students
  • students expressed their expectations of themselves coming to the university and of the university which has provided invaluable further data for analysis

Concluding remarks

Implementing our model of pre-entry support does not require extensive capital investment. It does, however, require the commitment of both the institution and individual staff to ensure appropriate materials are made available in a format that meets student needs. However, the benefits to individual students appear to be significant. The full findings of this current year-long evaluation of our approach will be published as part of the Higher Education Academy e-learning observatory funding. We propose that the burden of adjustment in the transition phase is a shared responsibility and that the way in which both the institution and the individual student approach this makes an enormous contribution to the well-being of both parties. We believe that our model of supporting students in the transition phase into HE develops the confidence that students need to provide the foundations for strong academic and social integration that is crucial at this stage in their HE experience.

Contact details

Becka Currant
Learner Development Unit
University of Bradford
BD7 1DP, 01274 236821
E-mail: r.currant@bradford.ac.uk

Christine Keenan
Learning and Teaching Fellow
University of Bournemouth



Becka Currant is Head of Learner Development and Student Engagement at the University of Bradford, which includes managing the Learner Development Unit. She is also responsible for coordinating induction and transition activities across the University. Becka was awarded the Baroness Lockwood Award for Distinguished Teaching in 2007 in recognition of her impact on the University’s approach to supporting students during initial transition and engagement.

Christine Keenan has a learning and teaching role in an engineering-based School at Bournemouth University, which includes working with both staff and students. She also has teaching responsibilities ranging from first-year undergraduate to postgraduate level. Christine was awarded a Bournemouth University Learning and Teaching fellowship in 2004 in order to continue the development of Stepping Stones 2HE, a resource designed to improve confidence in the transition to Higher Education.


Bufton, S. (2003), ‘The Lifeworld of the University Student: Habitus and Social Class’, Journal of Phenomenological Psychology, vol. 34, no. 2, pp. 207–34.

Everett, J. (2002). ‘Organizational Research and the Praxeology of Pierre Bourdieu’, Organisational Research Methods, vol. 5, no. 1, pp. 56–80.

Harvey, L., Drew,S. and Smith, M. (2006), The first year experience, a review of the literature for the Higher Education Academy. [online] Retrieved 1 December 2008 from http://www.heacademy.ac.uk

Keenan, C. (2006), Role of Habitus in student transition, Presentation to LearnHigher Research Symposium, Liverpool Hope University.

Keenan, C. (2008), ‘Students getting down to work before they start at University’, in G. Crosling, L. Thomas and M. Heagney (Eds) Improving Student Retention in Higher Education: The Role of Learning and Teaching, Oxon: Routledge.

Layer, G. Srivastava, A. Thomas, L. and Yorke, M. (2002) Student success: building for change. [online] Retrieved 1 December 2008 from http://aoa.ico3.com/resources/files/student%20success%20building%20for%20change.doc.

Noble, G. and Watkins, M. (2003), ‘So, how did Bourdieu learn to play tennis? Habitus, consciousness and habituation’, Cultural Studies, vol. 17, no. 3/4, pp. 520–39.

Quinn, J., Thomas et al. (2005), From life crisis to lifelong learning: Rethinking working-class ‘drop out’ from higher education, Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Tinto, V. (1993), Leaving College: Rethinking the Causes and Cures of Student Attrition. (2nd ed) Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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