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Listening to student voices: Student researchers exploring undergraduate experiences of university transition



This exploratory study presents a different approach to studying transition by involving students as researchers. The aim was to investigate how students talked about their experiences of transition in university. Nineteen first and second year undergraduate psychology students participated in focus groups and semi-structured interviews, conducted by student researchers, to provide in-depth accounts of their transition experiences. Findings showed that students held internal images about university, shaped through cultural experience, which were used to form expectations and interpret experiences. Social relationships were crucial, with the formation of groups facilitating adjustment in an unfamiliar environment. Students also described how negotiating transition contributed to personal changes. The research emphasises the salience of sociocultural factors in transition, and the relationship between transition and identity. Additionally, the value of including students as researchers to provide authentic access to student voices is highlighted.
Listening to student voices: student researchers exploring
undergraduate experiences of university transition
Rachel E. Maunder
Matthew Cunliffe
Jessica Galvin
Sibulele Mjali
Jenine Rogers
Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2012
Abstract This exploratory study presents a different approach to studying transition by
involving students as researchers. The aim was to investigate how students talked about
their experiences of transition in university. Nineteen first and second year undergraduate
psychology students participated in focus groups and semi-structured interviews, con-
ducted by student researchers, to provide in-depth accounts of their transition experiences.
Findings showed that students held internal images about university, shaped through
cultural experience, which were used to form expectations and interpret experiences.
Social relationships were crucial, with the formation of groups facilitating adjustment in an
unfamiliar environment. Students also described how negotiating transition contributed to
personal changes. The research emphasises the salience of sociocultural factors in tran-
sition, and the relationship between transition and identity. Additionally, the value of
including students as researchers to provide authentic access to student voices is
Keywords Transition University Sociocultural Student researchers Staff-student
partnership Student voice
Transitions occur when individuals are faced with a different situation requiring adjust-
ment to align with new environmental demands (Hviid and Zittoun 2008). We adopt a
sociocultural perspective in this paper, where transitions are conceived as shifts in identity
as a response to periods of uncertainty (Crafter and Maunder 2012). In education, tran-
sitions are common as students encounter new knowledge (such as new subject material),
move between educational stages (such as infants to junior) and adapt to different insti-
tutional contexts (such as starting secondary school) (Hussey and Smith 2010).
R. E. Maunder (&) M. Cunliffe J. Galvin S. Mjali J. Rogers
Division of Psychology, School of Social Sciences, University of Northampton,
Park Campus, Boughton Green Road, Northampton NN2 7AL, UK
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DOI 10.1007/s10734-012-9595-3
Starting university is a notable transition due to the changes students experience at this
time. Higher education has particular practices and academic expectations to become
accustomed to, and, for many students, starting university is the first time they have lived
away from home, looked after themselves and been faced with so many new people and
opportunities. Therefore, adapting to university life not only involves academic transitions
in terms of new educational demands, but also involves personal, social and lifestyle
transitions (Hussey and Smith 2010).
Due to these factors, much research on university transition has been orientated towards
first year, when students are undergoing the immediacy of change (e.g. Yorke and Longden
2008). The first year is undoubtedly crucial, and students are particularly vulnerable to
early withdrawals during this period (McInnis 2001). However, transition experiences are
not limited to the early stages of university life. First year is ‘an important part of the long
process of cultural, social and academic assimilation into the world of higher education’
(Harvey et al. 2006, viii). It is therefore important to understand the ongoing transfor-
mations that occur for students as they progress through their degrees (Tobolowsky 2008).
Much research on transition has centred on students’ expectations of university, and
whether these are realised or appropriately aligned with institutional practices (e.g.
Brinkworth et al. 2009; Cook and Leckey 1999; Rowley et al. 2008). Expectations are seen
to be borne out of prior educational experiences, or information provided by friends and
family (Brooks 2003; Leese 2010), suggesting that individuals bring social and cultural
resources which are used as templates to form impressions of new encounters. From a
sociocultural perspective, adjustments associated with transitions present interesting
challenges for an individual as they leave behind previous experiences and ‘become’
something new (Crafter and Maunder 2012; Hviid and Zittoun 2008). Negotiating this
change involves identity work whereby individuals draw on available tools and strategies
to make sense of their experiences (Zittoun 2008). In support of this, some literature has
emphasised how idiosyncratic transition is (Leese 2010; Harvey et al. 2006), and others
have highlighted the salience of personal reflection and shifts in identity through transition
(Britton and Baxter 1999; Hussey and Smith 2010; Warin and Dempster 2007). These
findings stress the importance of studying the process of transition at an individual level,
and seeking to understand how personal histories are used to interpret university life.
Researching these issues suggests methodologies which centre on the student voice.
Whilst there is a proliferation of qualitative studies exploring students’ personal accounts
of transition (e.g. Britton and Baxter 1999; Brooks 2003, 2007; Warin and Dempster 2007;
Wilcox et al. 2005), a larger proportion of research has utilised quantitative survey designs
to study aspects including student preparedness and expectations, belonging and early
withdrawals (e.g. Brinkworth et al. 2009; Cook and Leckey 1999; Pittman and Richmond
2008; Rowley et al. 2008; Willcoxson 2010). These findings have helped to identify
patterns in student reports of transition, but it is more challenging to capture the complexity
of experience, and understand what these issues mean for individuals. Additionally, pro-
jects tend to be staff-driven, designed based on what staff regard as worthy of study.
McInnis (2001) argued for a change of direction in transition research, where students
themselves have more active involvement.
Consequently, this project adopted a different approach to studying transition, by
including students as collaborators with staff in the research. The co-authors of this paper
were undergraduate students at the time the study was conducted, working as student
researchers. The first author was the academic supervisor, providing guidance and over-
seeing the research process. The student researchers were actively involved in all stages of
the study including design, data collection, analysis and dissemination. Therefore, ‘we’ in
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this paper refers to the research team which represents a collective staff-student
The research is especially relevant at a point where UK higher education is undergoing
large-scale change. It reflects the emerging trend in university affairs towards student
involvement in the improvement of their experience, particularly in a competitive market
where students are paying higher fees and wanting more say in their education. Drivers
such as the annual National Student Survey (NSS), which publishes feedback from final
year students about their university experience, and large scale research projects on the
student experience conducted by the National Union of Students, demonstrate a shift
towards student-centred approaches. This makes the study very timely, and provides
potential implications for strategic institutional policy.
This exploratory research aimed to study how students talked about and reflected on
their experiences of transition to university. Both first and second year students were
included as participants in recognition of the importance of the first year, but also
acknowledging the prolonged process of transition. We were interested in personal
experiences, ensuring opportunities for students to explain their stories in their own words.
Therefore, this paper provides a unique insight into transition experiences through
accessing student voices in both the role of researcher, and participant.
Due to the study aiming to explore students’ personal experiences, qualitative methodol-
ogies were selected that would enable students’ voices to take centre stage. The construct
of ‘student voice’ has been a contested one, with debate around questions of definition,
participation, and empowerment (see Seale 2010). Our focus is on transition experiences
rather than exploring this debate in depth, but we strove towards a participatory approach
to researching the student voice. In particular, using semi-structured interviews and focus
groups facilitated in-depth understanding of students’ transition experiences by giving
participants freedom to express their experiences in their own words. Combining focus
groups and interviews in the same study was a form of mixed-method triangulation—
ensuring that a comprehensive approach was taken to researching the issue and giving
improved confidence in the validity of data (Yardley 2008). More crucially, this project
utilised student researchers with the view that they could provide a layer of depth to the
research due to their more equal status as peers, and therefore give students more
empowerment in the research process (Seale 2010).
Student researchers
Four undergraduate students (the co-authors of this paper) worked as researchers on the
study. They were all second or third year Psychology students at the time, seeking
opportunities to develop their research skills and experience. They were part of an insti-
tutional scheme called URB@N (Undergraduate Research Bursaries at Northampton)
which provides undergraduate students with a bursary to work as researchers on a project
supervised by a member of staff (Butcher & Maunder in press). URB@N projects are all
pedagogic in nature, and intended to inform learning and teaching practice. The scheme,
developed by The University of Northampton (UoN) in 2008, allows for staff and students
to work together in the pursuit of knowledge that will benefit the student experience.
Student researchers work collaboratively with staff, contribute to institutional
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development, and develop new skills; and staff benefit from student input into projects,
unprecedented access into the student body, and useful additional resource to undertake
scholarly research. The philosophy of the scheme reflects growing interest in innovative
forms of staff-student partnerships as a means for facilitating educational change (Little
2011). This interest is reflected in published work which has seen students involved as co-
creators of pedagogical planning (e.g. Bovill et al. 2011); strategy development (e.g.
Healey et al. 2010) and as apprentice researchers as ‘change agents’ on learning and
teaching projects (Dunne 2011). Such collaborations have reported widespread benefits,
not just to the students involved, but also to staff, fellow students and institutions as a
Creating effective staff-student partnerships can present challenges, including ensuring
an appropriate level of skill, overcoming initial wariness, and establishing trust (Little
2011). In order to address this, there was a formal application process to assess students’
suitability for the project in terms of demonstrated interest in the topic, and research skills
and experience. This was supplemented with training in facilitating focus groups and
interviews to prepare students for data collection. Time was also spent building rapport
between staff and students so that students felt valued, and empowered to exercise
autonomy in the research.
We wanted to study participants who shared particular characteristics with each other and
with the student researchers. The student researchers were all undergraduate psychology
students at UoN, so participants were selected from the same university and subject area.
Having communal institutional and disciplinary reference points to draw on would, we
hoped, establish rapport between participants and researchers, facilitate discussions, and
add to the meaningfulness of the data. Additionally, all participants had experienced
transition into a similar context, which reduced unnecessary complexity resulting from
disciplinary and institutional differences.
Nineteen first and second year undergraduate psychology students participated, con-
sisting of nine individual interviews, and four focus groups (of between two and six
students). The University of Northampton has a broad student population, with wide ethnic
diversity and a strong commitment to widening participation. We ensured that our sample
reflected this demographic as far as possible. Participants represented males and females;
several ethnic groups; and mature and traditional-aged students. Recruitment was through a
combination of opportunity and self-select sampling. Advertisements were posted around
the psychology division inviting participation, along with e-mail circulars and messages
posted on the university virtual learning environment. Additionally, some participants were
personal contacts of the student researchers.
Focus groups and interviews
The student researchers made an active contribution to developing the interview schedule
by suggesting topics they felt important to include. There was a deliberate attempt to
structure each interview and focus group around the key stages in the transition process to
help guide participants through the narration of their experience in a logical progression.
Examples of the topics covered included the decision to attend university; feelings about
starting university; expectations about what it would be like; successes and challenges
during transition; and factors that helped or hindered transition experiences.
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All of the data was collected by the student researchers. No staff members were present.
Focus groups and interviews were conducted in the psychology department so the envi-
ronment was familiar to participants. This ensured that the student researchers had
appropriate staff support to draw on if required. A digital recorder was used to enable
written transcripts to be produced. All the data was anonymised at the point of tran-
scription, and any personal identifying information was removed. The study was approved
beforehand by the School’s Ethics Committee.
Analytical approach
The dataset was analysed thematically (Braun and Clarke 2006). The flexibility and
‘theoretical freedom’ offered by thematic analysis made it a suitable tool because we
wanted a data-driven analysis which would enable an open exploration of trends in the
data. Braun and Clarke’s (2006) guidance addresses the lack of consistency in thematic
analysis, by laying out a structured, step-by-step approach for researchers to follow. In the
data familiarisation stage, transcripts were read thoroughly and initial notes made about
points of interest. Next, data segments were systematically coded across the transcripts.
Coding involves assigning labels to sections of text to summarise content and interpreted
meaning. We did this by hand, writing notes in the margins of the text. Codes were then
grouped into potential themes based on perceived similarity in their content and meaning.
For example, in our data, the codes ‘social comparison’, ‘fear of isolation’ and ‘need for
social support’ were grouped together into a theme called ‘Development of social con-
nections’. We reviewed initial themes carefully to look for patterns enabling smaller
themes to be grouped together into larger themes. For example, themes ‘growth and self-
belief’ and ‘independence and responsibility’ were grouped to form the main theme
‘Developmental changes to self’. We each undertook analysis individually, then came
together to integrate individual analyses into an agreed set of themes. Final themes were
reviewed carefully by revisiting the transcripts and ensuring adequate fit with the data.
Through exploring how students talked about their transition experiences, three main
themes were identified: Internalised images about university; Expectations versus reality;
and Developmental changes to self.
Internalised images about university
Students held internalised images and beliefs about university life and ‘normal’ students,
rooted in their cultural surroundings, which were used to compare and interpret their own
transition experiences. Firstly, students held images prior to their transition which influ-
enced expectations. For example, they drew on cultural practices about participation in
higher education when rationalising their decision to attend university. Many saw uni-
versity as a logical progression:
It just seemed like the natural route to go’ve done sixth form, now to
Uni. (Female, second year)
I come from a family of academics and Uni was always going to’s just in
the family that we all go (Female, first year)
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These students positioned higher education on a predicted life course, with participation
in university being a cultural norm. Contextual factors such as family and social circle
were important for shaping their choices. From a sociocultural viewpoint, the ‘student
identity’ which individuals were choosing to adopt was not just about the self, but the
identity of students imposed upon them by others such as family members. Cultural values
towards university were also evident, with many holding images of higher education as
high status. Universities were conceptualised as superior establishments, and university
education was something they looked up to.
I thought that university was more for people who had more moneyso I was really
put off I always thought it was about superior intelligence and stuff (Female,
second year)
Although there have been strides to encourage wider participation in higher education,
some students still held beliefs reminiscent of elite university education. University
symbolized something specific for them, and they had pre-transitional images of what
‘university’ meant. These images varied depending on the students’ cultural world prior to
arriving and could therefore act as a barrier to access. For example, the prestigious posi-
tioning of higher education resulted in anxieties for some students over their ability to
I was just really scared about that factthat it’s such a step up. Everyone used to say
A-levels area certain level and then like Uni was literally 10, 20 levels above that
so I was really like scared about that and the work I was expecting and the quality
and just the step up. (Female, second year)
Students’ beliefs about university originated from internalising ‘what other people said’,
and then became instrumental in the formation of their own expectations. They held
images about what a normative university experience involved, and this served as a
benchmark for interpreting their own experiences. We saw references to ‘normal’ students
and what was perceived to be the ‘normal university experience’. This terminology was
typically applied to ‘traditional’ students who moved away to university after leaving
school, studied full time and lived in university residences (which is common in UK higher
I know quite a few students who still live at home and they feel they haven’t had the
same experiences as students who don’t live at home.I do think that the whole
university experience is living away and making friends on your own. (Female,
second year).
The construction of ‘normal’ students (described as ‘the whole university experience’),
with students who fall outside of this description being represented as ‘others’, reflects
popular discourse around ‘traditional’ and ‘non-traditional’ students originating from the
movement from elite to mass higher education. The ‘masses’ who can now benefit from
university education are pathologized by comparing them to ‘typical’ students and label-
ling them as ‘non-traditional’ (Leathwood and O’Connell 2003, 599). In our data, students
made consistent comparisons between ‘normal’ or traditional students and ‘others’. Here, a
mature student compared her university experience with ‘normal’ students.
they’re trying tomake the most of the few years they’ve got at university - they’re
not going to get that experience againit’s like the first time they’ve been away
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from home so they wanna enjoy the partying side of it whereas I don’t feel that I
need to do that. (Female, second year)
She drew on normative ideas about the purposes of university, explaining that for
‘them’, university was a special time in their life with a specific social purpose. By
identifying conflicting priorities and consciously separating herself from ‘others’, it created
division between students. This division was also apparent in the formation of social
groups. When talking about getting to know other students upon arrival, there was a
tendency for students to draw comparisons between themselves and others, and categorise
students into groups or typologies. Students formed allegiances with some of the groups
they identified, and distanced themselves from others. For example, several students
categorised fellow students based on their study orientation by distinguishing between
students who did not take their work seriously and those who worked hard. This was
important in forming working groups.
I think the biggest problem I have is that I don’t want to be with people that aren’t
going be arsed doing the reading outside of lectures and as soon as I’m stuck with
them then I’m not going to want anything to do with them. (Male, second year)
There is tension in the way he speaks about ‘slackers’ in comparison to ‘studious’
students (our terms), and when the two groups were forced to mix through assigned group
work, the perceived clash of study attitudes created frustration. Putting himself in the
‘studious’ group, and separating from other groups, enabled him to position himself within
the student population and provide a sense of identity. His expectations about future group
work and anticipating his feelings shows how transitions can be ongoing. This was further
evidenced by the way students described the development of their social relationships
when they started university. A common anxiety students expressed was about making
friends. They were afraid of being isolated, which seemed embedded within the image of
university as a hub for social relationships – with an active social life forming part of what
was perceived as the normative university experience. The fear of being alone was so
strong that several students spoke about socialising with anyone in the early days.
it was justlatching on to anyone and making sure you had someone to sit with in a
lecture because I didn’t wanna sit on my own. (Female, first year)
The word ‘latching’ implied clingy behaviour, bordering on desperation, to avoid iso-
lation. As a result of this fear of isolation, several students talked about forming initial
social contacts that were not long-standing or particularly meaningful.
I think in the first year it was more about meeting new people and finding out who
you got on with and as you become less reliant on people then you meet people who
you actually really want to hang out withand my friendship groups have changed a
lot in the second year from the first year. (Female, second year)
This student’s social relationships shifted during her transition. In the early days of
starting university, the bonds formed were more relationships of convenience. Once other
aspects of university life became more settled and she felt more comfortable with the
environment, she became more selective with her friendships and re-organised her social
groups. Transitions are therefore progressive during university life and not just limited to
the pre-university and initial settling in period. This student’s use of the word ‘reliant’
implied that she felt that she ‘needed’ other people at first but over time she felt able to
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exert more control over who she spent time with. The feeling of belonging associated with
being part of a group facilitated a sense of identity and security during a difficult time.
In summary, it appeared that the images students held about university created attitudes
and beliefs about university life and other students. Alongside anxiety about establishing
social bonds in a new situation, students engaged in social comparison in order to identify
others who they could align themselves with and separate themselves from. This facilitated
the development of social groups which relieved anxiety and established a sense of
Expectations versus reality
Students drew comparisons between what they expected from university before they
started, and what is was like on arrival. There were often conflicts between expectations
and reality. For example, several students expected more difficult work and increased
pressure, and were surprised that it was not like this.
I thought it was going to beextra extra difficultlike if you want to increase your
earning potential by x amount you’re going to have to be really really intelligent in
order to do that but I think with university your hard work can cut ityou don’t have
to have all this natural ability. a lot of the time people expect that it’s going to be
extra difficult’s often not as difficult as you expect (Female, first year)
We might relate these expectations back to first theme where several students associated
university with status. Ideas about higher education being superior meant they were
concerned about measuring up to the challenge. This expectation contrasted with the way
some other students described an image of university as a leisurely lifestyle. They said
university was more demanding than they anticipated.
It’s not as easy as everyone saidDuring school like everyone told us that ‘Uni’ll be
easy’, butit’s a lot harder. (Female, second year).
She had internalised views that she had been exposed to at school and used these to
form her initial expectations. Other students recognised the pervasiveness of social ste-
reotypes about students and how they shaped their own impressions:
I thought (university) would be all about partying and stuff and I suppose that’s what
the stereotype is about students, that they don’t actually work but that’s the big thing
that struck me about the discrepancy about my expectation and about what’s hap-
pened here. (Female, second year)
It is important to note that conflicting expectations were sometimes observed within the
same accounts. For example, this quote is from the same student who expected university
to be ‘extra extra difficult’:
I was expecting alazy kind of laid back lifeI’m not a lazy person but I did expect
there to betimes when you can just kind of like chill out and not really do any-
thing.I think a lot of the time university and university work is slightly underes-
timatedand that people don’t actually think that there is this amount of work to do
(Female, first year)
There was an inherent contradiction between reporting university to be easier than
expected, but harder than people think. This contradiction seemed to be rooted in con-
flicting cultural messages about the image of university which students drew on to
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formulate their expectations with tensions between the ideas of higher education as elite
and studious, and the stereotype of students as idle, inebriated ‘loafers’.
Expectations were used by students to help them mentally prepare for periods of
uncertainty. Not knowing what to expect created anxiety, so they tried to reduce this
uncertainty by drawing on cultural resources available to them. They internalised what
they had heard from others about university and used these ideas to formulate expectations
so they could prepare themselves.
you don’t expect it to be too much different to school so I think that’s mainly where
(my expectations) came from using the template of school life to adapt it and make
it into universitybecause there wasn’t really anyone that I knew that was at uni-
versity at that point in time so obviously I had no reference pointso it was just
usingwhatever limited experience I had to sort of make up this idea of what would
be expected. (Female, second year)
We see overlaps here with the first theme, where ‘messages’ transmitted through cul-
tural exposure were used by students to construct images about university life. Another
strategy for uncertainty reduction was hearing other students’ experiences. Student voices
were perceived to provide more authentic perspectives.
I think what would make it easier is hearing it from someone who’s already done it.
Not with tutors, not with parents, but just the student themselves (Female, second
Further evidence for this was the way the shared experience of participants and student
researchers was actively voiced and used productively in the research situation. Here,
participants involved the student researcher in their focus group discussion about second
year, and drew on her experiences to help them.
Participant (1): It would be nice to know more about year three.from year three
students cuz likeI’m expecting hard work and stuff
Participant (2): Yeah
Participant (1): Yeah we’re looking at you (said towards the researcher who was
currently in third year)
(group laughter)
Researcher: it’s much much easier than the second year actually
Participant (2): Do you have any advice for us?
Researcher: I don’t think I’m supposed to be speaking (group laughs) ummno
justkind of relax into it becausehonestly it’s so much easier
Despite the student researcher facilitating the focus group, the participants treated her as
a fellow student and included her in the conversation. The group laughter when she
questioned the appropriateness of her contribution (which was supportive and friendly in
tone) highlighted how she assumed a dual role in the research process (as both researcher
and participant), and was able to transition between the two depending on the situation.
Firstly this highlights the value of including student researchers in the study as they were
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able to establish a unique relationship with participants challenging traditional
researcher-participant dynamics. Secondly, it shows that the students themselves did not
see transition as a static experience and expected transitional changes throughout their
degree. Thirdly, it illustrates the strong group identity students felt with fellow students.
The experiences of ‘insiders’ were valued and taken more seriously than those of ‘out-
siders’ (such as staff, or parents). One student who had the opportunity to engage with
other students and hear their experiences and advice found this very useful.
in the first year I met some previous second yearsthey were all telling me how bad
the second year wasI think coming in with the idea that this year is gonna be really
difficulthas made it not as tough coz if I’d come in with not knowing I could
have like screamedpulled my hair out and dropped out whereas I haven’tI’ve
come in assuming that it’s going to be really difficult which is probably why I don’t
think it is difficult as they said (Male, second year)
Hearing from other students enabled him to mentally prepare himself for the challenge
ahead, which relieved anxiety, and enabled him to form coping strategies. Having contact
with fellow students and sharing experiences seemed to assist in the establishment of a
collective group identity as ‘students’, which contributed positively to transition
Developmental changes to self
Students reflected on how they had changed personally since starting university. They
reported developments in their sense of self, and this shift in personal identity was per-
ceived to be linked to transition experiences. This was a sustained experience, not confined
to an abrupt ‘rupture’ upon arrival (Crafter and Maunder 2012). For example, some stu-
dents reported changes in the way they managed their studies and the personal responsi-
bility they took over their learning. The independence they reported encompassed different
aspects. For some, it was a tangible construct relating to taking responsibility for their own
well-being (such as cooking for themselves). However, independence was also abstract,
with students taking initiative and transitioning from a passive to active study approach.
They drove their own learning by organising their schedule, identifying learning needs and
seeking help from tutors.
I think at school I was relying on the lessons to give me all the things I needat Uni
I have had to not only go to the lectures and use them, but you’ve also gotto do a
bit of outside workto be able to understand have to be a lot more
independent and a lot more committed to what you are doing. You have tomake
yourself do ityou aren’t required to go to most of the lecturesbut you still have
to make yourself go because otherwise you are going to miss out (Female, second
Saying ‘you have to’ indicated that she saw this shift in thinking as a requirement for
success at university. Higher education forced her to change, and the development of her
independence was attributed to her adapting to the demands of the new environment.
Students also reflected on their growth as a person during their time at university and
how some of their self beliefs and goals had developed. This personal growth manifested
itself in different elements, the first being an awareness of their own skills and capabilities
whereby students felt more in touch with themselves and more able to express their
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strengths and weaknesses. This student talked about gradually recognising her own abil-
ities as a result of overcoming difficulties.
I see (university) as like an elite thingI would never go to Unithis year’s been
really tough it has made me aware that I can do things and get really good grades
even though it’s stressful and hard workI think my biggest fear with starting Uni
was like oh my god uni’s all the way up there like this massive thing and here’s little
me coming into it (Female, second year)
The internal ideas she held about university being elite (linking to the first theme) were
initially at odds with her self-image. Over time her sense of identity assimilated with the
new environment and she developed self-belief about her abilities as a result of success-
fully negotiating the demands she faced. Some students also expressed growth in confi-
dence in social situations as well as their academic ability.
I found that being at university has actually made me more extraverted, like with
random people that I don’t actually know, I am more willing to start a conversation
with them than I was beforeit’s given me that comfort (Female, second year)
It also developed their sense of direction, with several students talking about their
growing aspirations and where they wanted to go after graduation.
I do feel more positive about myself and I know where I’m going and the person I’m
becoming than I did before. (Female, second year)
Referring to who she was ‘becoming’ is pertinent because it highlighted that she felt
that her transition was incomplete. The second years were still reporting developments, and
noticing changes between their first year and second year experiences. These ongoing
changes seemed to be focussed more on personal developments, implying that they per-
ceived the personal changes to be occurring as a result of the other aspects of transition.
I just think that it changes you as a personit’s just an amazing life experience
cos it just changes you so much and although its difficult and hard I’ve learnt so
much about myself that I didn’t know a few years agoyou go through some bad
times you go through some good times but they just help youlearn more about
yourself and just become a better person I think. (Female, second year)
The developing awareness and reflection on personal identity was a consequence of
experiencing and successfully negotiating other demands. Students were aware of changes
that had occurred to them personally and how various facets of their personality, attitudes
and behaviour were shaped by their transition experiences.
Conclusion and implications
Our study explored how students talked about their transition experiences in higher edu-
cation. We adopted a methodology which positioned the student voice at the heart of the
study, firstly by including student researchers and secondly by yielding in-depth participant
accounts through qualitative data collection techniques. Findings show that the students we
spoke to held particular images about university which they used to form prior expecta-
tions, and interpret their experiences upon arrival. The importance of student expectations
and their comparison to the reality of higher education has already been discussed in
transition literature (Cook and Leckey 1999; Leese 2010; Rowley et al. 2008), and our
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findings add insight into the role of social and cultural factors in the construction of these
expectations. Students’ motivations for entering higher education and their beliefs about
university were influenced by others in their past and present (for example, family, friends,
other students) (Brooks 2003; Leese 2010). These findings resonate with sociocultural
perspectives which see individuals as positioned in different social and cultural contexts,
each having differing norms and practices guiding behaviour. When faced with uncer-
tainty, people draw on available cultural resources (such as interactions with others and
participation in social institutions such as school) to make sense of the new experience
(Zittoun 2008).
Previous literature utilising sociocultural perspectives to understand transition has
emphasised the role of identity processes when undergoing change (e.g. Crafter and
Maunder 2012; Hviid and Zittoun 2008; Zittoun 2008). Students in our study reported
changes in their sense of self and personal developments as part of transition (Britton and
Baxter 1999; Hussey and Smith 2010; Warin and Dempster 2007). These changes were
ongoing, showing that transitions to university are progressive and not limited to the start
of first year (Harvey et al. 2006). Despite some common elements, transition experiences
were also unique and personal. Individuals were negotiating the personal linkages between
their previous sociocultural contexts and current situation in order to position themselves in
the new environment. An important part of this process was the development of peer
groups, with lots of students’ talk being centred on the social aspects of starting university.
Brooks (2007) discusses how coming into contact with diverse students makes individuals
more aware of their social positioning, and sensitive to how they compare to others. We
saw this in our data by students engaging in social comparison between themselves and
others, and grouping students based on perceived similarities and differences. In this way,
we feel that social groups enabled individuals to find their place and establish an identity in
an unfamiliar context.
Successfully negotiating transitions served particular functions by contributing to stu-
dents’ personal development, indicating that hurdles experienced during transition may
have unanticipated benefits. University staff may therefore want to rethink approaches
which aim to ‘smooth’ transitions. Additionally, given the personal nature of transition in
terms of different sociocultural worlds and identity processes, a ‘one-size fits all’ approach
to supporting transition would not seem feasible or personally productive. However, some
things might help individual transitions to occur more easily. For example, facilitating the
development of social relationships between new students early on seems paramount in
aiding students to feel supported and successfully integrated into university life (Brooks
2007; Pittman and Richmond 2008; Wilcox et al. 2005). Our students also wanted
opportunities to meet with existing students in order to hear ‘authentic’ advice and help
them prepare. This could help to manage expectations by providing a resource which
students could draw on to formulate realistic ideas and beliefs about university. Educators
also need to recognize that transition is not limited to the induction period (Palmer et al.
2009). Our students reported progressive transitions through first and second year, and we
recommend further research into ongoing transitions experienced by undergraduate stu-
dents in order to explore this and identify what support might be appropriate at various
stages during degree study.
We recognise that our findings are limited to students from one university and one
subject area. However, we have noted numerous parallels to previous research suggesting
that our findings are not unique to our participant group and represent existing trends in the
literature. Furthermore, we believe that the student-as-researcher model adopted for this
study contributes to the legitimacy of the findings. The data presented represents an active
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dialogue between students engaged in a collaborative discussion about transition without
input from staff. Although the student researchers assumed a particular ‘researcher role’
during data collection, their status as fellow students enabled a particular relationship to be
established with participants which, we argue, would not have been possible for a staff
member to achieve. This student-led approach gives unique, authentic insight into student
life. It also highlights the value of staff and students working together in partnership to
improve understanding of educational issues and facilitate change (Little 2011).
In conclusion, through utilising qualitative methodologies which enabled students to
talk freely about their experiences, we have shown that cultural experience, personal
identity and social factors are salient in accounts of transition. Given the congruence
between core features of sociocultural perspectives and key elements of our findings, we
recommend further research into personal experiences of transition in university with
particular emphasis on social and cultural factors. We also suggest that researchers con-
sider working collaboratively with students on research into student experiences of higher
Acknowledgments We are grateful to the students who participated, and shared their experiences with us.
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... University is a place of transition academically and is socially associated with significant lifestyle changes, making students inevitably adapt to changes in different ways (Maunder, 2013). The academic and social pressures endured also vary among students. ...
... Undergraduate University students in Ghana today are mostly between ages seventeen (18) to twenty-one (21). They are in the late adolescent and/or entering early adulthood stages of life. ...
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This study investigated the influence of peer counselling on social adjustment and academic achievement of students of University of Mines and Technology (UMaT), Tarkwa in the Western Region of Ghana. Two hundred and forty (240) peer counselled and non-peer counselled respondents were sampled randomly for the study. Related literature on peer counselling, social adjustment and academic achievement were reviewed. The research designs used for the study were ex-post facto and correlation research designs. Data collection instruments were self-developed questionnaires on the influence of peer counselling on social adjustment and academic achievement. Instruments' reliability coefficient was 0.92. Data were analysed by Pearson's product moment correlation statistics and independent sample T-test. Documentary analyses on students' academic records were also conducted. The findings of the study were that peer counselling; improves social adjustment and academic achievement of students', peer counselled students had increased academic achievement than their non-peer counselled counterparts. Finally, there was no significant statistical difference in the social adjustment of students in terms of gender. It was therefore recommended that university management and Counsellors should intensify peer-counselling programmes in universities.
... The college environment, in terms of climates, college activities, and student-faculty interactions, affects students' personality development [24]. In addition, cultural and social factors in a college environment influence students' transitioning experience [25]. An interactive and friendly learning environment that supports the formation of study groups encourages deep learning and students transitioning from high school to college [26][27][28]. ...
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Studies have shown that students' college experience and involvement in academic and non-academic activities are pivotal in determining what educational outcomes they attain in college. However, little is known about how high-achieving engineering students' college experience compares with the national norm. This paper investigates the extent to which the two groups differ in terms of the quality of effort expended, college environmental emphasis, and attainment of the desired educational outcomes. It is shown that high-achieving engineering students spend more time and invest more quality effort in academic tasks than the national norm. High-achieving engineering students also make more significant progress toward the desired educational outcomes than the national norm. The perception of high-achieving engineering students about their environment is not different from the national norm. This study corroborates the theory of involvement that educational achievement is directly related to engagement.
... According to (Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2010a) and (Victor & Yang, 2012), loneliness is most prevalent throughout adolescence and early adulthood, a population that includes the majority of university students. In addition, university students experience a new social milieu and pressure to build new relationships regardless of their demographic traits (Maunder et al., 2013). While this period of transition generally encourages loneliness, insecurely attached people may be more susceptible to its effects (DiTommaso et al., 2003b;Wiseman et al., 2006). ...
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This academic paper aims to discuss the issue of loneliness among university students and suggest strategies to combat it. Despite previous research exploring various aspects of loneliness, there has been a general neglect in examining the effectiveness of various therapies specifically for university students. The paper begins by defining loneliness, exploring its types and causes, and highlighting its effects on university students. It then offers suggestions for alleviating loneliness through various strategies. A secondary objective is to emphasize the importance of universities providing support by organizing various social activities to bring students together and to encourage further research into effective methods of combating loneliness. The paper will review existing research to identify the causes of loneliness among university students, assess its impact on their lives, and suggest potential strategies to address it.
... The online learning environment was also reported to JELTL (Journal of English Language Teaching and Linguistics), 8(2), 2023 have a negative effect on students' learning experiences, with many struggling to stay focused during classes, communicate with peers and educators, understand new content, and manage their coursework. Additionally, according to Maunder et al. (2013), cultural experience, personal identity, and social factors are salient in accounts of transitioning from one educational level to another. ...
em>Learner autonomy is one of the predictors of academic performance. Many researchers have argued that moving from secondary to higher school is a big transition. Shifting the focus from teacher-centeredness to learner-centeredness, learners in higher school display less reliance on their teachers to carry on their learning. Throughout this process, learners develop their autonomy and boost their independence. However, numerous studies revealed that most students are unaware of this shift. The purpose of this paper is to assess the autonomy of Moroccan EFL undergraduate students during the Covid-19 pandemic. Equally, this study aims at developing awareness of some strategies and techniques students use to increase their autonomy and self-independence. To achieve this purpose, the study employed a quantitative approach. A Likert scale-based questionnaire was administered to 100 (55 males and 45 females) EFL Moroccan undergraduate students. The research data was generated and analyzed using SPSS. Statistical analysis revealed that during the Covid-19 pandemic (69%) of EFL students were not aware of their role as independent and autonomous learners. Likewise, only (30%) of them were involved in syllabus design. Nevertheless (49%) of EFL students revealed their readiness to be part of decision-making concerning the teaching-learning process. The study results suggest that the use of the internet, self-managerial skills, peer and teacher collaboration are among the effective strategies students employ to increase their autonomy and self-independence alike.</em
... University represents a period of transition where many students move away from home for the first time, requiring them to navigate the newfound independence and overcome unanticipated challenges when trying to make new friends and preserve existing relationships [1][2][3]. Students may find themselves suddenly dealing with new stressors without their previously relied upon support systems [4]. These stressors related to university life are combined with a period of development where the onset of many mental health and substance use disorders peaks [5,6]. ...
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Background University life typically occurs during a period of life transition, where the incidence of mental health and substance use problems and disorders peaks. However, relatively few students obtain effective treatment and support. e-Interventions have proven effective in improving the psychological outcomes of university students and have the potential to provide scalable services that can easily integrate into existing models of care. Minder is a mobile app codeveloped with university students that offers users a collection of evidence-based interventions tailored to help university students maintain their mental health and well-being and manage their substance use. Objective This paper describes the protocol for a randomized controlled trial (RCT) that aims to assess the effectiveness of the Minder app in improving the mental health and substance use outcomes of university students. Methods This study is a 2-arm, parallel assignment, single-blinded, 30-day RCT with 1 intervention group and 1 waitlist control group. Overall, 1496 (748 per trial arm) university students from the University of British Columbia Vancouver Campus (N=54,000) who are aged ≥17 years, have a smartphone with Wi-Fi or cellular data, and speak English will be recruited via a variety of web-based and offline strategies. Participants will be randomized into the intervention or control group after completing a baseline survey. Those randomized into the intervention group will gain immediate access to the Minder app and will be assessed at 2 weeks and 30 days. Those randomized into the control group will be given access to the app content after their follow-up assessment at 30 days. The primary outcomes are measured from baseline to follow-up at 30 days and include changes in general anxiety symptomology, depressive symptomology, and alcohol consumption risk measured by the General Anxiety Disorder 7-Item scale, Patient Health Questionnaire 9-Item scale, and US Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test-Consumption Scale, respectively. Secondary outcomes include measures related to changes in the frequency of substance use, mental well-being, self-efficacy in managing mental health and substance use, readiness to change, and self-reported use of mental health services and supports (including referral) from baseline to follow-up at 30 days. ResultsTrial recruitment and data collection began in September 2022, and the completion of data collection for the trial is anticipated by June 2023. As of May 10, 2023, a total of 1425 participants have been enrolled. Conclusions The RCT described in this protocol paper will assess whether the Minder app is effective in improving the mental health and substance use outcomes of a general population of Canadian university students. Additional secondary outcome research aims to explore additional outcomes of interest for further research and better understand how to support students’ general mental well-being. Trial NCT05606601; International Registered Report Identifier (IRRID)DERR1-10.2196/49364
... It took considerably longer to broaden such positively-framed 'belonging' discourses to the meso-currriculum of institutional culture and staff relations, perhaps because success-driven approaches rarely acknowledge the politics of belonging. However, beyond this national context, such discourses have been critiqued when it comes to student participation, from entry (Maunder et al., 2013) through to postgraduate study (Holley, 2013). Problematics emerge, such as conflating talent with advantage, myths of the autonomous self, and constructing the ideal knower in the image of curriculum authors. ...
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Examines integration into a foreign culture as a significant challenge faced by educational systems Emphasizes the unique cultural and political characteristics of various societies in the global world Presents the opportunities awaiting minority teachers in majoritarian educational settings This book is open access, which means that you have free and unlimited access
... This process of goal setting and articulating specific ambitions may confer important pedagogical benefits. Indeed, research demonstrates how a successful transition to university involves developmental changes to ones' overall sense of self, which can be facilitated by goal setting of personal growth (Maunder et al., 2013). Indeed, in Chester's (2013) five senses of student success, the ability to articulate personal goals and explore their reasons for being at university is an important component of successful transitions. ...
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Background Student transition to university can be a challenging time. Research suggests that providing space for student reflection and goal setting may facilitate this period of transition. Objective I describe the Postcard to my Graduating Self Project, in which psychology students were invited to write postcards to their future selves. In the postcards, students were encouraged to reflect upon their goals and plans for their psychology degree. Method I ran the Postcard Project as part of an induction program of a BSc Psychology undergraduate cohort. One hundred and sixty-six undergraduate psychology students completed postcards. Results In my reading of the postcards and experiences of running the session, students appeared to use the postcard project as (1) a motivational tool, which prompted thinking about future goals, (2) a reflective device, which encouraged reflecting upon previous experiences, (3) and a social experience, which brought students together in unique ways. Conclusion Facilitating students’ writing postcards to their future self may foster social connections and provide educators with richer insights into the student experience. Teaching Implications I provide tips for conducting this project in other institutions and encourage educators to consider using the Postcard to my Graduating Self Project.
... It took considerably longer to broaden such positively-framed 'belonging' discourses to the meso-currriculum of institutional culture and staff relations, perhaps because success-driven approaches rarely acknowledge the politics of belonging. However, beyond this national context, such discourses have been critiqued when it comes to student participation, from entry (Maunder et al., 2013) through to postgraduate study (Holley, 2013). Problematics emerge, such as conflating talent with advantage, myths of the autonomous self, and constructing the ideal knower in the image of curriculum authors. ...
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This open access book offers in depth knowledge on the challenges and opportunities offered by the inclusion of minority teachers in mainstream educational settings from an international perspective. It aims to be a unique and important contribution for scholars, policy-makers, and practitioners considering the complexities brought about by global trends into national/local educational systems and settings. It will also serve to guide future research, policy, and practice in this important field of inquiry. The work will contribute answers to questions such as: How do immigrant/minority teachers experience their work in mainstream educational settings?; How do mainstream shareholders experience the inclusion of immigrant/minority teachers in mainstream educational settings?; What is the effect of the successful (and/or unsuccessful) integration of minority teachers and teacher educators into mainstream education settings?
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Equity of access to higher education (HE) has been a priority for the Irish Government over the last fifteen years. Since 2005, the Higher Education Authority (HEA) in Ireland has introduced three successive national strategic plans for equity of access, which demonstrates its importance in HE policy. The aim of these initiatives is to improve equity of access, participation and success in HE for disadvantaged students. The findings generated from the third of these strategic plans, indicate that although some progress has been made to support this integration from further education (FE) to HE, challenges remain with an acknowledgement that there is a need to establish transparent supporting structures for building coherent pathways from FE to HE. Higher-level qualifications are now a common expectation among the general population and in industry, reflecting increased ambition, labour market demand for higher-level skills, and the need to continually upskill and/or reskill. The objective of this empirical investigation is to identify the perceived barriers preventing students of FE from progressing to HE in Ireland. Like others who have investigated this topic this investigation adopted an interpretivist approach to enquiry and a case study methodological approach. Primary data was generated from in depth focus groups and qualitative surveys. Data was analysed using thematic analysis. The preliminary findings of the first phase of this investigation illustrate that student transition from FE to HE is multidimensional. Findings have supported the development of a draft Transitions Framework, which is currently being piloted with case study students. The ultimate goal is to pursue the effective implementation of the Transitions Framework.
A student’s sense of belonging to a university is associated with success in academic setting, happiness, and satisfaction. It is therefore unsurprising that universities commonly strive to improve student measures of belonging especially considering its negative correlation with attrition rates. This study documents the implementation and assessment of a new curricular intervention at Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine (RUSVM) and measures associated changes in students’ feeling of belonging to the university and accountability for their success. Specifically, small, group, faculty-guided weekly discussion sessions were introduced to the Veterinary Professional Foundation (VPF) course to complement a series of updated didactic only lectures. Voluntary surveys (“belonging to the university scale” [1] and the “personal accountability in education scale” [2]) were utilized to document student attitudes and feelings surrounding these variables. Likert scores from a control group of students who completed the VPF course prior to the curricular change were compared to the intervention group who engaged in the weekly guided discussion sessions via a Wilcoxon test. The intervention group reported significantly improved feelings of belonging to the university (p-values ranging from 0.008 to 0.027). Minimal change was noted between groups associated with accountability. The addition of weekly small group meetings has proven valuable at RUSVM in improving student sense of belonging to the university. Further research is indicated to determine if accountability may be improved over a longer period of monitoring with continued interventions.
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Transitions have traditionally been characterised as forms of change. These may either be inner changes (new beliefs or developmental growth) or the physical move from one place to another (see Erikson, 1975), such as the move from primary to secondary school. This theoretical paper will argue that transition can be best understood using a sociocultural framework, which links human thought and action to social and cultural situatedness (Zittoun, 2006). Using ideas underpinned by Vygotsky (1978) we will present three frameworks for addressing sociocultural transitions: (i) the notion of consequential transitions (Beach, 1999); (ii) symbolic transitions and identity rupture (Zittoun, 2006); and (iii) Communities of Practice transitions (Wenger, 1998). We will borrow examples from research on educational transitions from primary and secondary school contexts through to Higher Education in order to demonstrate that transitions are about a change in self-identity born out of uncertainty in the social and cultural worlds of the individual. Implications for educational practitioners involved in supporting young people undergoing transitions will be discussed
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The authors collected questionnaire data from college students (N = 79) at 2 time points during their freshman year to examine how changes in a sense of university belonging, quality of friendships, and psychological adjustment were associated. Students who had positive changes in university belonging had corresponding positive changes in self-perceptions (e.g., scholastic competence, self-worth) and decreases in their internalizing problem behaviors. Although the results did not link improvements over time in friendship quality to changes in self-perceptions, the authors linked them to decreasing levels of problem behaviors. The authors discuss the importance of educators' fostering university belonging and positive friendships among students as they transition to college.
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‘Not belonging’ is becoming a prevalent theme within accounts of the first‐year student experience at university. In this study the notion of not belonging is extended by assuming a more active role for the idea of liminality in a student’s transition into the university environments of academic and student life. In doing so, the article suggests that the transition between one place (home) and another (university) can result in an ‘in‐between‐ness’ – a betwixt space. Through an interpretative methodology, the study explores how students begin to move from this betwixt space into feeling like fully‐fledged members of university life. It is concluded that there is a wide range of turning points associated with the students’ betwixt transition, which shapes, alters or indeed accentuates the ways in which they make meaningful connections with university life. Moreover, transitional turning point experiences reveal a cast of characters and symbolic objects; capture contrasting motivations and evolving relationships; display multiple trajectories of interpersonal tensions and conflicts; highlight discontinuities as well as continuities; and together, simultaneously liberate and constrain the students’ transition into university life.
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This article argues that to understand higher education student retention, equal emphasis needs to be placed on successful integration into the social world of the university as into the academic world. To date, sociological research reflecting first‐year students’ perceptions of the processes involved in developing social lives at university is scarce. Here the concept of ‘social support’ is used to analyse interviews with 34 first‐year students, investigating the processes through which social integration (or lack of it) influenced their decision as to whether or not to leave university. Our data support the claim that making compatible friends is essential to retention, and that students’ living arrangements are central to this process. Such friends provide direct emotional support, equivalent to family relationships, as well as buffering support in stressful situations. Course friendships and relationships with personal tutors are important but less significant, providing primarily instrumental, informational and appraisive support.
This paper reports on the impact for students of an institutional scheme designed to involve undergraduate students in pedagogic research. Through Undergraduate Research Bursaries at Northampton, students are funded to work as researchers on pedagogic projects in partnership with academic staff. Drawing on data from a larger longitudinal mixed method study, we report findings which demonstrate the positive impact of the scheme for undergraduate learners in terms of new relationships with academic staff; enhanced research skills and career development, thus making a valuable contribution to the enhancement of the student experience. We argue that facilitating undergraduate involvement in pedagogic research enhances both a commitment to, and an engagement with, the scholarship of teaching and learning across an institution, and thus contributes to a growing community of pedagogic practice centred on the student voice.
Two areas of growing importance for academic developers are: first, their involvement in the development of institutional and faculty learning and teaching strategies; and second, how to engage students in academic development activity at institutional, department and discipline levels. This paper explores both interests by considering how academic developers may engage students in the development of both the process and product of institutional learning and teaching strategies. Following a discussion of the nature of strategy and why student engagement is important, this paper presents the authors' reflections on how one UK institution, the University of Gloucestershire, has sought to engage students in the process of strategy development. It concludes that those who lead strategy, especially academic developers, should purposefully engage students in both the process and product of strategy development. This approach of co-generation is equally applicable to ensuring that learning perspectives and requirements specific to particular groups of learners are addressed strategically, such as those of nternational students and disabled students.
Theorists of friendship in contemporary society have suggested that our relationships with peers are characterised by their emphasis on openness, disclosure and emotional communication. Moreover, Beck and Beck‐Gernsheim argue that friendship, as a deliberately sought, trusting partnership between two people, can play an important role in countering some of the negative consequences of a market‐driven society, ‘acting as a shared lifeline to take the weight of each other’s confusions and weaknesses’. However, drawing on a series of in‐depth interviews with students from nine different higher education institutions, this paper will argue that such theorists overlook significant complexity in the ways in which young adults choose to ‘order’ their friendships. Indeed, it will suggest that highly individualised and ruthlessly competitive approaches to academic study can be maintained alongside more socially cooperative relationships with friends and peers, played out in non‐academic arenas. The paper will discuss the implications of this for both sociological theorising about friendship, and policy and practice within the higher education sector.
With the projected increase in student numbers, the transition from school to university will cause more problems than at present unless these are acknowledged and solutions properly managed. At the University of Ulster at Coleraine incoming students to the Faculty of Science were surveyed to assess their attitudes to learning and their expectations of life at University. These results were then compared to a repeat survey after students had been studying for one semester. The results confirm that many of the study habits developed in school persist into the first year of university. This is in spite of staff expectations that students will work more independently and the reality of decreased access to staff support.