The ability of learners to make successful transitions at key points in their education is crucial for their development and for enabling their success in and through higher education. There are many important transitions that learners have to navigate: the transition from post-primary to higher education, from undergraduate education to employment or to postgraduate research and learning. Other transitions relevant to many learners include the transition from one national culture to another, the transition (in the case of mature learners) from a work-based environment back to an educational one, or the transition from one mode of learning (e.g. full-time, conventional) to another (e.g. distance, blended or e-learning modes).

With this in mind, the National Forum facilitated a sectoral focus, called an enhancement theme, on ‘Teaching for Transitions’ in 2013-2015. The sectoral focus helped to inform the activities of the National Forum and its partners, through focused research projects, undertaken by teaching and learning experts across the country, and a range of seminars and national events intended to learn more about how to stimulate innovation and excellence while supporting students through transitions.

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10 Things We Have Learned About Transitions

One of the big challenges for any learner in life is moving and changing from one educational context to the next. The National Forum’s first enhancement theme was ‘Teaching for Transitions’. This discourse on transitions, led by many across the sector, has renewed our focus on the underpinning values of education: the cultivation of the intellect, the development of the person, the ambition for each student that they live rich and fulfilling lives, and the focus on generating in each learner a strong sense of autonomy and agency.

There are important things to consider as we pave the way, create the supports and spot the opportunities to make transitions in and through higher education work as well as they can. We need to consider what we have learned from the wide range of activities associated with this first enhancement theme. The following summarises these into ‘10 things we have learned’.

Firstly, we were not starting from scratch, the work over the last two years has often served to reinforce a lot of knowledge that we had already known about transitions to higher education. There have been many reminders emerging from National Forum engagement and research – echoes of things that previous research and exploration has already shown.

Some of these include:

  • Students find transitions hard.
  • We can attribute a substantial amount of non-completion to students struggling at key transition points.
  • Institutions have been paying attention to retention, completion and transition issues for some time. Understanding transition issues in context and as they relate to different kinds of students with different kinds of challenges remains as important as it always has been.
  • Just as the problems of transitions are complex, so are the solutions. There is no simple or one-dimensional answer to the challenge of improving retention rates and addressing student non-completion where those rates are problematic. Academic preparedness remains an issue, but so do very many other factors.
  • Equally, while the differences between different educational levels are often pronounced, there are lots of things that students learn at second level that serve them in higher education.

Informed by this knowledge base it is encouraging to see a more co-ordinated approach to gathering, interpreting and responding to evidence relating to transitions. Non-completion reports generated by the HEA highlight sectoral trends and challenges, the Irish Survey of Student Engagement is beginning to realise its potential to take a more comprehensive look at students’ own perspectives at the early stages of their time in higher education. Other important processes now help us to pay informed attention to the statistics on the interventions, the disciplines, the socioeconomic factors, the supports and the processes through which transitions can be made smoother for students within their contexts.

In addition – as well as national level data that help us to get a broader view and to understand which subjects and which educational contexts students are likely to find most challenging, we also have developed a stronger sense of proactive awareness of and responsibility for the effective transitions of students in and through higher education.

A second broad observation from the work of the National Forum relates to the importance of the disciplines and of academic departments when it comes to very many aspects of teaching and learning, not least the issue of transitions. Engaging with transitions at the level of the academic department and at programme level makes sense. There are general teaching approaches that are good for the transitions of all students; and there are discipline pedagogies that need to be applied in specialist ways to the transitions of some students. We know that threshold concepts and signature pedagogies matter greatly to teachers and learners within specific disciplines – and that transitions of particular students are strongly supported at discipline level with a really clear sense of the particular skills that they need on their programmes of study.

While it seems that transitions will always be a challenge, there’s also the element of shifting terrain – the idea that there are moving targets in terms of enhancing teaching for transitions, and one of the forces behind this shifting terrain is the digital aspect.

Digital literacy is hugely important. People need digital skills for different reasons at different times. The All Aboard project, funded by the National Forum’s teaching and learning enhancement fund highlights different categories of digital competence and skill. These different categories are: finding and using information, digital identity and wellbeing; teaching and learning competencies; creating and innovating; communicating and collaborating. Technology can be used with great effect to support key transition stages but it’s not valuable in isolation. In the words of Lord David Puttnam, who was Ireland’s digital champion and a board member of the National Forum: “Technology becomes valuable [both for teaching and for transitions] when the people using it are well trained, well equipped, confident and imaginative.” The possibilities of technology need to empower and excite teachers and learners, not alienate or diminish their central role in teaching and learning, particularly at key transition points.

Being connected and cared about matters – it makes a difference. We must continue to honour the teachers who focus on those crucial aspects of their role. We tend to use ‘connection’ as a technology dominant concept these days. Many of the findings through the work of the National Forum show again and again that students need, value, appreciate and learn best if they are learning in contexts where they feel cared about, where teachers have and use time to get to know them, and where they know that they can rely on authentic and attentive support inside and outside the classroom both from academic and support staff and from students. Transformative teaching at key transition points pays attention to those old-fashioned, ever- important issues of care, time and help. As one of our National Forum insight papers puts it: ‘Notwithstanding the strong cognitive and academic strengths that higher education teachers bring to their teaching roles, the caring role of teachers matters greatly to students’. Teachers’ capacity to engage emotionally as well as intellectually and their capacity to connect with and interact effectively with students are skills and orientations that are related to experiences of progression, performance and success among higher education students of all backgrounds.

Institutional supports both within and outside the curriculum are key – however we have to be smart about how we influence our students and each other in terms of what we spend our time doing. Everyone knows of the classical problem of having lots of useful resources and advice that students for many reasons, may not be able to avail of or engage with. Take for example our institutional orientation processes, within and outside the curriculum– we work desperately hard, providing lots and lots of perfectly excellent information, advice, web resources, library tours, directions to learner support details. But overwhelmed students may only be taking in a fraction of the information that’s being provided – that’s a good example of the problem of large supports with the best of intentions and with great expertise that don’t always reach the students the way we hoped.

On the other hand, we know also though – that sometimes very small supports at the right times – even in the form of a single word of encouragement at a crucial moment – can be the difference between staying and leaving, or between success and failure. Of course teachers need to have time to be able to notice when those words of encouragement or support will make a difference. Our institutional systems need to be alert enough and responsive enough to the signals that indicate a student is struggling to be able to avail of those opportunities. The more intelligently a system can work to help identify those at risk, the more that intuitive type of support will be activated to best effect.

There is the broader and striking insight that relates to that crucial time between when a student is offered of a place in higher education, and when their programme of study begins. Our international panel had some interesting insights on the subject of what a short time our students have to make the transition into higher education. Many people have more time to prepare for a two week holiday than students have between offer and acceptance, and between acceptance and enrolment. How much time students have for adjusting and making the move that is deeply wrapped up in the transitions process.

We do know that when they arrive, many students are utterly overwhelmed and disorientated, some having had literally only days to confirm and commit to a particular programme within a particular institution. No matter how good the transition supports that exist, this disorientation needs our particular attention. If students are stressed then they become less able to problem solve, less willing to engage, less confident about looking for and finding the support they need. We can’t underestimate the importance of addressing and assisting with this disorientation. We know that some interventions are particularly helpful: a longer period of adjustment and orientation that provides information, support and guidance over a period of weeks rather than days; a commitment to integrating transitioning skills into the curriculum. The provision of low stakes, helpful, formative feedback that students can engage with and learn from in order to build skills and confidence in their new environments.

While help and support seem crucial in all of this, there are also some concerns that we need to be careful about spoon-feeding or disempowering students. Many insights and evidence from a range of diverse sources says this: it’s not about making things easier it’s about making the difficult journey possible – enabling, empowering, supporting but not handholding – there is a need to engage students to have the courage to make their own journey to independence, autonomy and agency – part of this incorporates another crucial aspect – that of student expectations. It’s not always about teachers doing more for students – it’s about designing experiences that enable students to do their best and be the best they can be – to fulfill their potential. So, in some ways there is a danger in making things too easy. The message that students seem to need to hear from their teachers is: ‘some of this is going to be difficult, learning is not easy and getting through this programme will take trial and error – and there will be times when it will be tough, but you are not going to be on your own, and here are the things we can offer, things we know that work, for when the going gets hard.’

There are some non-completions we can’t prevent – but the ones that we can prevent we need to be as proactive as possible about. Additionally, learners need strategies that respond positively to the need for flexibility and for personalising the transitions process for different individuals and different contexts.

We have explored whether there were particular teaching strategies that our systems need to adopt at times of transition and through an analysis of the data from student feedback, it appears that great teaching is teaching for transitions. Some of the principles of excellent teaching are disproportionately valuable at key transition times, for example: formative feedback; peer support; experiential learning; developing assessment literacy and understanding; addressing large class anonymity with the scaffolding of smaller group identities; using technology to connect and collaborate in large groups. All of these have a role to play in helping students make the adjustment by building their skills and sense of belonging.

We need to build bridges between the sectors in order to maximise the impact on transitions. Other work in the sector as well as ours has highlighted that there’s still very little formal or active collaboration for example between second level teachers and higher education teachers. There is something here about fostering a way for the system to work more cleverly and more collaboratively. Given what we know of the impact of the often incredibly short time the students have to transition to a new context, we should work together to build a better bridge between levels.

Adjustments is difficult for students, their expectations are frequently not met. We have done a lot. There is a risk that some of the work on transitions is not having the impact it might have. It is not beyond our capacity as a sector or as a country to build a better bridge.