Case study: Improving student experiences of transition from further education to higher education

Exploring students’ experiences of transitioning from college to university

Three students working together looking at books

The University of Exeter's Transforming Transitions project set out to explore:

  • statistical data on the access and progression of BTEC students across the college-university transition
  • student and lecturer voices on transition.

This case study reports on the student interviews element of the project.

The project focused on the paths of students with BTEC qualifications because research had suggested that:

  • this group did less well at university
  • that vocational students were also often from groups identified as progressing less successfully (they were more likely to be minority ethnic, mature, disabled or from low socio-economic backgrounds).

We were aware that the relationship between vocational qualifications, social disadvantage and degree outcomes had not been fully investigated.

The interviews involved 64 students from four groups:

  • higher education students with BTEC only entry qualifications
  • higher education students with BTEC and A-level qualifications
  • higher education students with A-level or International Baccalaureate qualifications
  • further education students in their second year of a BTEC course.

Exploring the experiences of a range of students helped us avoid making assumptions that our findings related only to the BTEC group. 

A mix of individual interviews and focus group interviews were conducted, with focus groups used more heavily for further education students who seemed more confident when discussing their views with their peers present.

The interviews asked students about their transition from further education into higher education, both in relation to their academic experiences and social experiences.

Three main factors affecting students’ transition experiences emerged from the student interviews:

  • ways of learning
  • assessment practices
  • social experiences.

Ways of learning

Students were asked about how they felt about their learning experiences across the transition from college to university and how academically well-prepared they felt for their chosen courses. 

The interviews showed that:

  • students from all qualification backgrounds struggled with different expectations of learning at university, especially regarding lecture delivery, independent reading and academic writing
  • universities need to be more aware that students are going to have different levels of disciplinary knowledge at the start of their course, and need to accommodate for this teaching delivery
  • relationships between students and tutors appear to be closer and more constructive in post-16 settings than at university.

One student said:

'There are a lot of students in the lecture theatre and for some of them I don’t feel I’ve got a connection at all; I feel like I sit there, go home and do it on my own, over the screen rather than face-to-face.'

Assessment practices

Students expressed varied views about assessment practices, particularly the types of assessment, and the helpfulness of assessment feedback.  

The interviews showed that:

  • there was no real consensus around a particular assessment preference
  • universities may need to ensure greater diversity in assessment types, reducing reliance on exams and written essays, to avoid disadvantaging students whose further education assessments were more varied.

Many students expressed dissatisfaction with the assessment feedback they receive at university, feeling it was less helpful and less personal than in further education.

The question of what kind of learners universities aspire to foster, and how they might support students away from a dependency-driven assessment culture to an independent, self-directed engagement with learning and assessment is an important one for providers to consider.

One student said:

'Feedback from university is by email whereas feedback at school was obviously one-to-one. I found it easier to gauge what I had to improve when it was one-to-one.'

Social experiences

The interviews explored student views on social transitions, notably on social networks with peers and friendship groups, and their sense of belonging. 

The interviews showed that:

  • some vocational, ethnic minority and international students said they were more likely to form friendship groups with people like themselves
  • others wanted to create new friends, and build relationships across multiple networks.

To support more inclusive and equitable student experiences, universities should prioritise understanding the educational, social and cultural backgrounds of the whole student cohort. 

One student said:

'In sixth form I think there is a stronger network because your classes are smaller, so it is easier to build networks than at university where there is a larger amount of people.'

A key finding that spanned all three themes is the diversity of the BTEC group, and the dangers of generalising about particular groups: many of the transition issues described by BTEC students were also shared by other student groups. 

See the Transforming Transitions project website

Case study author: Debra Myhill, Professor of Education at the University of Exeter

Published 22 January 2020

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