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In at the deep end: why universities need to rethink student readiness

Jim Dickinson argues that university initiatives intended to inform and prepare students for higher education are trying to do too much, too soon
This article is more than 4 years old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Back in the mid nineties, in the heady days of Britpop, I was dropped off by my parents at the University of the West of England at 2.15pm on a Sunday afternoon.

Less than twenty hours later, I was in my first lecture, recovering from my first “Tequila Karaoke” night. Less than two weeks later, I was on my first field trip, interacting with people that were not really like me. And less than a month later, I was set my first piece of academic work, with no idea of how to navigate its baffling new demands.

Get ready for uni

In the folklore, “getting in” to university suggests a level of readiness. You have the grades – and by association the cultural and social capital – to cope with the deep end of the higher education swimming pool. Press stories written by people who got those grades and had that capital use words like “survival” to describe that first day, week, year or even entire higher education experience, with endless tips on “coping” and “getting through”. Secretly, it’s an assumed sorting process: if you can survive it all, you’ll thrive in our cut-throat, demanding real world.

But it’s not at all clear to me that this model of survive-to-thrive is wise, or works, or isn’t at the very least hugely wasteful of student talent. In the early eighties, my parents dropped me off at our local swimming pool, and I was pushed into the deep end of Walsall swimming baths. I panicked, scrambled out, developed a teenage penchant for fake verucas and stomach upsets, and I still can’t really swim.

On the competency staircase, we know that the step of “conscious incompetence” is a dangerous one. Handled badly, we’ll fall of the staircase and convince ourselves that this skill isn’t for us. Handled well, we’ll be nurtured through the discomfort and go on to be the best that we can at swimming, or driving, or being a student on a higher education course. It’s not weird to assume that institutions of education would believe in nurture rather than nature, is it?

Ready steady go

In the last decade, there’s been a slew of evidence suggesting that students really aren’t prepared and ready when they arrive. They are more socially diverse, and more varied in their educational backgrounds. They are more often now recruited on the basis of potential than achievement, suggesting that we need to help them convert that potential into our frameworks of achievement. The environments they enrol into are much more complex than before – they’re bigger, more impersonal, more expensive and more demanding. They might get a campus tour, or a timetable, or a library induction – but navigation is about confidence as much as it’s about maps.

The go-to solution for almost all of these issues has been about finding solutions that can be deployed before a course starts. International students commonly arrive earlier. Summer schools are developed for those that are first in the family to access higher education. And there’s an endless stream of online interventions – on everything from sexual consent to academic integrity – hurled at students trying to enjoy a few weeks off in August before they start shopping for a new duvet.

Some initiatives take place right at the start. On some campuses, welcome weeks are now so packed full of well-meaning induction and orientation activity that they’re even more overwhelming than singing “Footloose” on five shots of tequila. The message it sends is simple – you have a seven day mission to get some friends, learn about diversity, navigate the journals and buy the books. And then you’ll be “ready”.

Star spangled options

In 1888 Boston College in the United States offered its first Freshman Orientation course. Reed College, Oregon was the first to offer a course for credit. In 1970, the University of South Carolina created a new course designed to “bond students to the institution”. Across the United States, universities require or recommend new student modules – often a semester long and composed of everything from campus tours to group work, diversity classes and consent education. Real time and space is made for nurture – for students to find, and discover, and make connections – to learn about and navigate the complexity and build both bonding and bridging social capital that the studies say they need to survive and thrive.

There are of course plenty of attempts here at reframing the first year as formative, with all sorts of great initiatives from both UK and European on display at events like this– some of which we’ve looked at on Wonkhe before. But they’re often piecemeal, or poorly funded, or subject specific, or hobbyist in nature. They rub up against the hamster wheels of the four module, two term traditions that have all grown up in a different era – luxury extras that few of us dare make into official parts of the curriculum or academic year.

We’re now putting so much into getting students “ready” before it all starts that these initiatives,  designed to stop university life being overwhelming – become overwhelming in and of themselves. We need a step change – big chunks of that first year time and budget need to go to make room for the armbands that inexperienced higher education swimmers need to realise their potential. Every issue that emerges – student conduct, essay mills, harassment, edtech, study skills, online hate crime, consent, mental health, independent study, finding work, joining in – they all point to a need to find real space and capacity to develop understanding.

And before we start developing deficit models or harping on about foundation years, initiatives need to be for all students. Because white, middle class, fifth-in-the-family campus-based “traditional” students need to learn how to work with and appreciate others, just as much as those students without the existing social capital need to learn about how to be what some of us still think of as a “model” (or even “normal”) student. The only thing worse than a student who doesn’t feel ready is one that does but really isn’t.

8 responses to “In at the deep end: why universities need to rethink student readiness

  1. Thanks. A useful piece for me as my daughter is starting university in a week, after a gap year. To note that university accommodation charges the same rent for the early arrivals, so I’m sure there are commercial incentives as well given no teaching happens until October. Plus of course the general issue of boosting retention rates. I made some of my closest friends for the next few years at university so it can be literally a life-changing experience, but I agree that universities shouldn’t step in as quasi parents when dealing with legal adults. Which refers to whole parent financing issue blogged by myself and Caroline Chipperfield on this website a few months back.

  2. Thanks Jim a good piece and very timely as several of us are thinking about a much wider, deeper and longer prep for our students, bombarding them in the last few weeks before they arrive, as you say, does not prove that effective. Of course this all ties in with the admission process and how institutions accept students. You can’t do more preparation if the students are not confirmed until mid August. If we can re-think that more then we could do a lot more innovative things. Perhaps the real issue is that we need smoother more seamlessness between 6th form/college and university but that is a whole other kettle of fish!

  3. Thank you. A think piece I will share with my team as we prepare “ourselves” to welcome into learning our Foundation Year students. Building on prior learning and life experiences, building agency and confidence, that learning is always taking us out of our comfort zones and it’s okay to feel apprehensive.

  4. Interesting and important reflections but I think the key ‘armband’ needed is self-awareness. It has always been the case that higher education transition poses massive challenges. Modular frameworks and class sizes may make it harder to spot those who are struggling but we need to recognise that personality traits and differences account for a huge element of how individuals cope with change under pressure. Those with more ‘I’ type personalities may struggle for weeks at the beginning but then fly and those with more extroversion may fly in Freshers’ Week but crash by Christmas. We should focus less on teaching pre-or-recent arrivals what they are going to encounter and more on how they have and will cope with change.

  5. Great piece Jim. As Mary says, the current admissions system makes it hard to do earlier and more effective preparation. But a more seamless transition is possible if we are aware of the differences of learners on entry and drip feed information in a timely way over an extended period. Leading up to and during arrival, students need to be allowed to deal with the practical issues of settling in and not bombarded with information. As William Proctor my colleague says, ‘students need to hit the ground walking’.

  6. Last year an engineering fresher asked me what he was supposed to do in lectures – no one had told him, and he felt so isolated and bewildered he was considering leaving. It really illustrated for me how far unis still have to go with transition and induction. It’s too easy to get this wrong and the implications can affect people for life.

  7. Thank you for an excellent article. We currently run a Readiness for Academic study course online for our students which embraces various aspects of academic life, from independent learning to Q and A sessions for all questions to be answered. I’m also working on YouTube videos about what to bring to support learning and various organisational aspects. There are lots of changes, but keeping learners informed and to provide opportunities to ask questions I consider to be the way forward.

  8. Great point made by Katherine Lloyd Clark that the key ‘armband’ needed is self-awareness, and to recognise that personality traits and differences account for a huge element of how individuals cope with change under pressure.

    I’ve been developing a free online tool that may be of interest to parents, students and university staff alike, which helps students to think about their individual needs in their university setting. I’d really welcome your opinions on it. It’s called My Study My Way, and is for students (and universities) to use to identify students’ support needs. As part of our research we did for this we discussed with various Student Support teams the difficulty they face in encouraging students to disclose any needs they have, and then implementing support in a timely fashion. So we’ve flipped this issue around so that we put the student in the driving seat to identify any barriers they may face due to their individual circumstances (eg, undisclosed caring responsibilities, disability, faith or culture commitments or pressures, financial worries) during the course of their studies. Then once the student has noted this info, we suggest how they can share their needs to see what they can do next to get the most out of their university experience – for example, they might wish to speak to student services about software they could be entitled to depending on their need, or advice about study tips and other support options they may have locally.

    While helping the individual student gauge what help they might benefit from, the tool can also help the universities as it highlights levels of need across the student cohort overall, and can be tailored to signpost actual services in a specific uni and provide aggregated data to them.

    I’d love to hear your feedback on our My Study My Way tool – please do share any comments about what works, or we might do differently. If you want to take a look at it, visit:

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