Listening to student voices: student researchers exploring
undergraduate experiences of university transition
Rachel E. Maunder
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
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
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).
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
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.
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.
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 really….you’ve done sixth form, now to
Uni. (Female, second year)
I come from a family of academics and Uni was always going to happen….it’s just in
the family that we all go (Female, ﬁrst year)
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 money…so I was really
put off… I always thought it was about superior intelligence and stuff (Female,
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 fact…that it’s such a step up. Everyone used to say
A-levels are…a 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,
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 to…make the most of the few years they’ve got at university - they’re
not going to get that experience again…it’s like the ﬁrst time they’ve been away
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 just…latching 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 with…and 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
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 be…extra extra difﬁcult…like 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 it…you don’t have
to have all this natural ability…. a lot of the time people expect that it’s going to be
extra difﬁcult and….it’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 said…During school like everyone told us that ‘Uni’ll be
easy…’, but…it’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 a…lazy kind of laid back life…I’m not a lazy person but I did expect
there to be…times 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-
timated…and 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
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 university…because there wasn’t really anyone that I knew that was at uni-
versity at that point in time so obviously I had no reference point…so it was just
using…whatever 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 like…I’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)
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) umm…no
just…kind of relax into it because…honestly 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
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 years…they were all telling me how bad
the second year was…I think coming in with the idea that this year is gonna be really
difﬁcult…has made it not as tough coz if I’d come in with not knowing… I could
have like screamed…pulled my hair out and dropped out whereas I haven’t…I’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 need…at Uni
I have had to not only go to the lectures and use them, but you’ve also got…to do a
bit of outside work…to be able to understand something….you have to be a lot more
independent and a lot more committed to what you are doing. You have to…make
yourself do it…you aren’t required to go to most of the lectures…but 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
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 thing…I would never go to Uni…this 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 work…I 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 before…it’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 person…it’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 ago…you go through some bad
times you go through some good times but they just help you…learn 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
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
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
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
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