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Progressing into Higher Education is a challenging experience for all students and part of a major life transition that involves learning new skills, meeting new friends and changing lifestyles. Students need to be prepared for this life-changing experience or else they will run the risk of under-achievement or drop-out. Studying at university is a lot different from studying at secondary school or college therefore students need to be made aware of some of the new academic skills that are vital in order to succeed at university. It makes sense that these vital skills are learnt before students actually start their course at university. So does pre-university academic skills provision prevent first-year drop out?
The way in which pupils are prepared in secondary school for Higher Education contributes to the students' expectations of higher education (Billington, 1984; Clark & Ramsey, 1990). A pilot survey of science students conducted by Cook and Leckey confirmed that student study habits formed in secondary school persist to the end of the first semester of university life. Such a conclusion indicates that students are not bridging the gap between school and university quickly and effectively. When students fail to make a satisfactory transition to the new academic demands of university life, the results are manifested in drop-out and under-achievement. Could providing the necessary academic skills which are needed at university prevent first-year drop out?
The problem associated with inaccurate prior perceptions is that it contributes to a disengagement from the educational aspects of university life. Such disengagement can have a detrimental effect on academic performance of the individual. This, in turn, may have a direct impact on student retention. The key to facilitating an attachment of students to their institution is in large measure fulfilled by the elimination of unrealistic expectations of life at university. The solution lies at the pre-entry stage.
In the UK only 1 in 12 students, or 8%, left HE during their first year of study, but surveys undertaken by 'What Works?' project teams across four institutions found that between 33% (1/3) and 42% (2/5) of students thought about withdrawing from HE. This finding demonstrates that a significant minority of students consider withdrawal. Rectifying this should be a priority for all programmes, departments and institutions. Mainstream approaches to ensuring student retention and success are therefore required to enable all students to benefit.
Institutions of higher education need to provide appropriate academic preparation for their new students. This context induction should be seen as a process instead of as an event and should be designed to promote academic preparation. Much attention in the early part of the first year needs to be devoted to inducting students systematically so they clearly appreciate what is involved in studying at an advanced level (Power et al, 1987). The most dependent learners are those at the point of entry into the institution. Academic services should thus be concentrated most heavily in the early part of the first year, with intrusive, proactive strategies being used to reach new students before they have an opportunity to experience feelings of fear, failure, disappointment and confusion (Upcraft & Gardner, 1989).
In terms of ethics and social responsibility it is reasonable to argue that, given students are admitted because the institution thought they had the potential to succeed, there is an obligation to take reasonable steps to enable them to be successful. In the words of Vincent Tinto (2008), "access without support is not opportunity". Bamber and Tett (2001) argue that: "Higher education must accept that the implications of offering access to non-traditional students do not end, but rather begin, at the point of entry."
As the cost for higher education is shifted to individual students rather than taxpayers it is important not just to improve student retention, but to enhance the student experience and maximise the success of all students. Indeed, 65% of students surveyed by HSBC/NUS said they would have 'even higher expectations of their experience at university' as a result of a rise in fees (NUS CONNCET 2010). Further possible consequences of increased student fees may include: more students choosing to continue to live in the family home rather than in university accommodation or with student peers; more students combining part- or full-time study with employment; and students postponing entering HE and thus studying as mature students. All of these factors may make it more difficult for students to fully participate, integrate and feel like they belong in HE, which might have a detrimental impact on their retention and success.
At the heart of successful retention and success is a strong sense of belonging in HE for all students. This is most effectively nurtured through mainstream activities that all students participate in. Academic programmes and high-quality student-centred learning and teaching must be a primary focus for effective student retention and success.
Transition to the first year requires not only support through a strategic and coordinated approach by HEIs, but support that starts well before entry to university and continues throughout the first semester and indeed the first year. Evaluation of the impact of strategies to support transition should be qualitative as well as quantitative and measured in terms of student achievement as well as student retention. Transition support should not be extraneous to the mainstream activity of the institution, but integral to the learning experience. Hence, effective approaches to supporting transition depend on the proactive involvement of teaching staff and need to be embedded within programmes in terms of content as well as learning, teaching and assessment strategies. Approaches to supporting transition are linked to improving preparedness for HE, easing integration into the university environment - both academically and socially - and encouraging the development of the independent learner. Much of the research carried out on transition to the first year has been driven by issues of student retention and withdrawal. These, in turn, are linked to the impact on the teaching and learning experience of a mass HE system and the growing diversity of the student population.
The key aim of the GOALS Top-Up Programme is to support pupils from schools with low HE participation rates to develop the confidence and skills necessary to make a successful transition to university. The cultural, academic and institutional barriers facing students from GOALS participating schools are explicitly addressed in the programme. The West Forum tracking project - Students in Transition - has monitored the progression of GOALS students at university. Students who provided feedback as part of this project considered that they had accurate expectations regarding the management of their time, what to expect in lectures, and their workload. The Top-Up Programme appears to be an effective vehicle for supporting school pupils in learning the essential skills required for university, and for providing them with an experience of different teaching and learning methods and different learning environments. As part of an evaluation of the retention and progression of first-year engineering students at the University of Strathclyde in 2005-06, the data indicated that there was no difference in performance between GOALS pupils and other pupils. Research conducted at the University of Glasgow from 2001-05, comparing students from GOALS schools who had completed Top-Up with students from comparative schools who had not, showed that the ex-Top-Up students were performing better in terms of passing exams and were less likely to withdraw from their course.
Many students who withdraw from courses express a desire to stay in higher education, indicating that they may have benefited from appropriate, early academic and personal support (Rickinson & Rutherford, 1995).
What seems apparent is the fact that pre-university academic skills provision does in fact help to prevent first-year drop out. Obviously not all cases are preventable but it has been proven that students who undertook academic skills provision prior to entry are less likely to dropout than students who didn't.
BILLINGTON, V. (1984) Becoming a student, in: L. LEWIS (Ed.) The Student Experience of Higher Education (London, Croom Helm).
CLARKE, E. & RAMSAY, W. (1990) Problems of retention in tertiary education, Education Research and Perspectives, 17, pp. 47-57.
COOK, A. & LECKEY, J. (1999) Do expectations meet reality? A survey of changes in first year student opinion, Journal of Further and Higher Education, 23, pp. 157-171.
POWER, C., ROBERTSON, F. and BAKER, M. (1987) Success in Higher Education (Canberra, Australian Government Printing Office).
RICKINSON, B. & RUTHERFORD, D. (1995) Increasing undergraduate student retention rates, British Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 23, pp. 161-172.
UPCRAFT, M. & GARDNER, J. (1989) A comprehensive approach to an enhancing freshman success, in: M. UPCRAFT, J. GARDNER & ASSOCIATES (Eds) The Freshman Year Experience: helping students to survive and succeed in college (San Francisco, CA, Jossey-Bass).