The current cohort of school and college leavers have missed out on all the traditional rite of passage experiences: eighteenth birthday parties, proms, romantic relationships, end of school celebrations – even the ritual post-school frappucino has been cancelled.
And few will have had the opportunity to visit the universities they have applied to this year, relying instead on marketing videos, virtual events, and the information they can glean from social media. Some may be making choices based on having once gone to the town or city where the university is located.
“At Q&A events with current students the questions they ask betray a limited understanding of university life,” says Kate Spencer Ellis, head of sixth form at Forest School in Walthamstow. “Accommodation is the only bit of university life they can imagine, partly because all they have seen of university experience this year is pictures of sad students locked in halls with inadequate food. I have to pretend I have questions so they can hear the answers to things they really need to know. They keep saying, ‘I just want to know the vibe, miss’ – and I can’t tell them.”
With schooling disrupted and exams cancelled, subject knowledge is likely to be patchy even among applicants with high potential to succeed in higher education. And the pandemic will have taken its toll on young people’s mental health, confidence and openness to new experiences.
“Students have lived with uncertainty for more than a year – they have a fragile and cynical relationship with institutions,” says Kate. “Their experience over the last 18 months has consistently been that big institutions – including government – have let them down. They’re quite distrustful, and they expect to be consulted and they expect decisions to be transparent. You have to work super hard to communicate with them.”
Transition into university will be especially challenging for this cohort of school leavers, but students of all ages and backgrounds are likely to need extra support this year. “People have forgotten how to socialise,” says Salma Hussain, SU president at King’s College London, where the students’ union is keen to see more in-person social activity organised ahead of the September start.
“Financial stability affects academic achievement – there could have been loss of parental income during the pandemic, or bereavement, and reduction in part-time work. Some people may have spent the last year on furlough, or have lost their jobs and be returning to education. International students will need greater flexibility, and some may not yet be comfortable about travelling, or coming into student accommodation.”
Early weeks are crucial
Helen Higson, professor of higher education learning and management at Aston University, says that some current first years are feeling cheated of their full first year university experience. “They’re very much feeling that they haven’t had a freshers’ week, they haven’t had that really important thing which is about challenge and talking and meeting different people. They are saying, ‘I hope at the beginning of our second year you’re going to give us the same sort of tailored experience that you would have done for freshers in the first place.’ I think there’s a case for doing this for each cohort of students coming back.”
Helen’s thinking on transition is heavily informed by research analysing learning analytics data at Aston which found that engagement with learning activities in the first three weeks of term is a reliable predictor of future achievement. Students who started out with high engagement, but then decreased, were more likely to achieve higher marks than those who started with lower engagement that subsequently increased.
“Lots of research suggests that induction should be a year long or continue over a longer period of time – and we still think that’s important – but our research was stark: you can get students to start doing activities but they will never catch up. You need to look at social capital that students come to university with – that’s often around expectations and lack of expectations,” says Helen.
The implications of the Aston research are that the more universities know about their students on arrival – for example through tracking engagement with virtual summer induction activity or use of self-administered diagnostic tools – the more likely it is that they can help that student engage in those first crucial weeks. And the quicker those students who aren’t engaging in the early weeks can be identified and targeted for contact and a conversation.
As universities plan for transition support, getting to know students and understanding their previous experience, and building the right mix of academic and pastoral input has never been more important. The hope is that students experience the transition as relatively seamless, with the various parts of the university responsible for shaping that experience coordinated with each other.
“Students think you’re all joined up and talking to each other, so you need to make sure you are as joined up as possible – personal tutors, support staff in key roles, libraries, course teams – student can come into the system from wherever and end up in right place to maximise their learning and get support they need,” says Helen.
With secondary schooling so disrupted many students will not have had the opportunity to plan their transition. “As our time has been cut due to Covid the pastoral programme has had to be adapted and often topics condensed or missed out. As a result students may need more on basic skills such as student finance, getting to know or using the structures at university, or financial support,” says Kasia Davies, director of sixth form at Fulford School in York.
“Talking to former students you can tell there’s a real disparity between universities’ approach to pastoral care – some are very organised but others you can tell it’s a sink or swim culture,” says Kate. “I’ve put together a transition guide this year which I’ll use in future – things like independent learning, student finance, time management, surviving freshers, what to do if you hate your housemates, student safety, how to find a faith community, student rights and accommodation, healthy relationships, supporting a friend who is in an abusive relationship – universities are also very variable on what is made public to support transition.”
“Do not underestimate the emotional impact this has all had on our students. Anxiety and stress has manifested itself in unexpected ways, with eating disorders being prevalent. Get to know your students as much as possible and as quickly as possible otherwise these signs may be missed,” suggests Kasia.
“Learning self-advocacy is a really big part of transition,” says Kate. “Realising they are going into a world where their head of sixth form won’t track them down if they don’t do something. We’d love to be confident that consideration has been given that this generation has never ever learned through lectures, and how little they’ve been examined. They probably haven’t had to lead any kind of academic enquiry themselves, or had to give a high-stakes presentation. This isn’t solely about Covid – it’s the way A level assessment frames their understanding of what they’re doing.”
Not all the available support needs to come directly from university staff – universities and students’ unions are also listening to students and engaging them in building solutions. Salma is keen to build up the university’s peer support offer as part of the transition experience, with students leading workshops on topics such as thriving in university, study skills, or support for postgraduates on thesis preparation in a different learning environment. “The person who leads the workshop benefits,” she says, “But it also helps build a feeling of student community, and empowers students to tackle issues together.”
Helen highlights the value of building opportunities for engagement in learning activities as early as possible. “We’ve often spent a lot of time giving students information they can use in a slightly passive way when actually what our research is saying is you have to have proper engagement during that time and you have to check that students are engaging and that it’s landing.”
Richard Gascoigne, founder and chief executive of Solutionpath, says, “Transition is a critical time that requires investment from students and their universities. In light of the challenges of the last year, students will require support up front, and on an ongoing basis. Engagement analytics offer universities a precise and personalised method of providing universal support for all students, which enriches those important first weeks as they build their sense of belonging.”
“When students aren’t engaging in the majority of cases it’s because they are ill or have some reason why they’ve not engaged, but they haven’t told us,” says Helen. “Before we had learning analytics we would have waited much longer before finding out they were ill or depressed. Now we’re picking them up much earlier.”
This article is published in association with Solutionpath. On Thursday 13 May Solutionpath will host the StREAM community conference exploring the role of student engagement analytics in the evolving digital landscape. Find out more and get your free ticket here.