For the first #LTHEchat of the academic year, transition seems to be a fitting theme as we are all starting the new academic year. There may be excitement and nerves along the way – both for students and staff! Transition, however, is an ongoing aspect of university life and not just into Higher Education, and this can have an influence on the students’ sense of belonging, identities and community.
Transition can be a complex process that influences the sense of identity and relationships, particularly among students both individually and in context (O’Donnell, 2016). Students, regardless of whether they are just entering HE, progressed into the next year or returning from either suspension of study or repeating a level, will start their journey but the importance of a smooth transition can play a role in the outcome. The analogy of the Wizard of Oz’s yellow brick road (Palmer, 2020) can help illustrate this; Students are following the road to an outcome, whether it is their desired outcome or changes along the way e.g. reassessments; but there may be some barriers along the way that can affect the transition.
Transition is an opportunity to feed into the sense of belonging, supporting the student’s sense of identities as it evolves over time, and encouraging a caring and committed community at university. Pre-arrival and induction are, of course, starting points of the transition, but this is something to continue throughout the student’s studies and into the outcome of their journey, particularly as students will change and adapt depending on their experiences.
If a student were to have a bumpy transition, for example poor communication about their timetable or not having the opportunity to meet their peers, this may contribute to the outcome of their journey; either their engagement declines and are required to do reassessments, or they withdraw voluntarily from their studies. There can be alternative routes to support the student e.g., repeating the year; but transition for this should be smooth to allow them to make the most of the opportunity and be able to succeed in their studies. Should they have a positive experience, not only are they likely to help them develop in their resilience and confidence, then they are likely to feel that their institution is committed to the student and that they belong at university, therefore they are more likely to remain.
As an example, students progressing from Foundation Year at the University of Hull will be joining a cohort of new Year One students in September, which is a big change to what they have developed over the year in terms of their self-perception of their identities, sense of belonging to the programme cohort and progressing from the community of support from the Foundation Year team. To support them with this transition, students are allocated their new personal supervisors prior to them arriving back to University where they have the opportunity to meet and get to know them. This can be reassuring, particularly if they have had a difficult year and required support. This may include a handover from myself as their Foundation Year Tutor to the new personal supervisor, with the student’s involvement which can demonstrate a strong sense of belonging and person-centred support.
When considering the transition points throughout the students’ studies, consider the following questions and some of the comments I have included:
- How can we create a smooth transition into and throughout higher education? This is where both barriers and good practice could be mapped out, and potentially explored with students in partnership to get their perspectives based on their experiences. Gale and Parker’s framework of Transition in Induction, Development and Becoming (2014) can be useful to consider transition across the student journey.
- How can we encourage and develop students to recognise and embrace their evolving perspectives of their identities during their studies? Their identities are more complex and can change over time, such as a later diagnosis of a specific learning difference or changes in their family support network. Thomas and May’s four-pronged typology of a student (2010) can demonstrate that students identities vary depending on their educational experiences, their dispositional and circumstantial situations and their cultural experience.
- How can we nurture a sense of belonging throughout their time with us, and beyond? Belonging can appear in various guises whether this is physical, socially or emotionally. Students may find this in different settings e.g. accommodation, societies or in the communal area before their class. But over time, it may change and this could influence the student’s decision to remain at university or not. In the What Work’s project (Thomas, 2012), core interventions throughout the student journey can play a role in sense of belonging; such as supportive peer relations and meaningful interactions between staff and students.
- How can we establish and maintain purposeful and caring communities among students and staff? Boyer’s Six Principles of communities in Higher Education (1990) is still relevant to today. An inclusive community among staff and students can allow opportunities for us to be purposeful, caring, open, just, celebrative and disciplined. Whether communities are developed through academic or social interactions, these can play a role in how students interact with their studies and beyond; whether it is forming study groups or having the opportunity to feedback and develop practice with staff.
Regardless of whether we work in professional services or academia, we contribute to the transition of students into and throughout university. Whether it’s signposting to support, running social activities or working in partnership with students about their programme and student experience; these transition points can feed into how the student feels about themselves, their sense of belonging and their community. Transition into the following year may change this for the student, so it is important to consider how either to enhance or support the students in the changes they may encounter particularly with their identities, belonging and communities.
Emma is a Foundation Year Tutor at the University of Hull, working with the Faculty of Arts, Cultures and Education (FACE) and Faculty of Business, Law and Politics (FBLP) to support and enhance the transition and retention of Foundation Year students. Prior to this, Emma was a Student Life Officer within Student Services on which she supported students through key transition points; from arrival to exploring options such as mitigating circumstances and repeat year. In 2019, Emma was recognised as one of Hull and Humber’s Top 30 Under 30’s for her work in student experience both in HE and FE. Emma is a member of the SEDA Transitions Community of Practice and has Fellow status.
Emma has a keen interest in student identity and their sense of belonging, and how this is influenced based on academia and social circumstances. This has fed into development of projects and resources, such as contributing to a Teaching Essentials toolkit for University of Hull staff for understanding student identities.
Resources and further reading.
Boyer, E. (1990) Campus Life: In search of Community. United States of America. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
Gale, T., and Parker, S. (2014) Navigating Change: A typology of student transition in Higher Education. Studies in Higher Education. 39(5) pp. 734 – 753.
O’Donnell, V. L., Kean, M., and Stevens, G. (2016) Student Transition in Higher Education. Higher Education Academy.
Palmer, E. (2020) Somewhere where they Belong: Understanding the impact and influence on UK Undergraduate students’ Transitions, Identities, Sense of Belonging and Communities within a diverse and changing Higher Education sector. MA. University of Hull
Thomas, L., and May, H. (2010) Inclusive Learning and Teaching in Higher Education. York. Higher Education Academy.
Thomas, L. (2012) Building Student Engagement and Belonging in Higher Education at a time of change: a final report of What Works? Student Retention and Success Programme. London. Paul Hamlyn Foundation.You can view my slides from the talk I did for SEDA Transitions Community of Practice in June (2021) which explores this topic in depth and looking at a fictional student example: https://www.academia.edu/49454266/Communities_of_Practice_Transition_Group_June_2021_Supporting_the_transition_of_students_sense_of_belonging_identities_and_communities_throughout_the_Academic_Year