Transition during semester

Admin issues & transition     Transition and your UoS    Orientation lectures
    Considerations when teaching   Student support services
        University resources 
        Other resources & reading

Transition continues throughout first year

The University and the University of Sydney Union (USU) organise a range of activities and talks during Orientation week that are designed to get the students off on the right foot when it comes to smooth transition to tertiary studies. However, we all know that transition continues well beyond Orientation activities, as students continue to face challenges while adapting to university life.

As a first year unit of study (UoS) coordinator, one of your key roles is to facilitate the students’ academic transition, as well as to direct them to the appropriate people and resources to help them with other challenges that may impact on their ability to learn effectively.

Student transition and your unit of study

Transition in class

Academic transition to tertiary learning can involve very significant changes for students, including changes in:

  • teaching and learning styles
  • the pace of instruction
  • expectations and assumptions
  • the level of self-directed study students need to engage in.

Considerations when teaching your UoS

Seek out information about your student cohort.
It is likely, especially if you are teaching large classes, that they come from diverse backgrounds. As a result they may have different levels of skills depending on their educational and socio-economic background, and on factors such as whether they are coming directly from school or from the workplace, or already have some level of post-secondary education such as TAFE.

In diverse cohorts individual students will have different approaches to learning.

  • Consider designing a UoS that includes a variety of learning modes in terms of place, pace, content and style. See Active learning for more information.
  • See our topic Getting to know your cohort in the section Diversity in L&T for tips on how to learn more about your student group.

Always make both the process and goal of learning and assessment activities explicit.
A broad range of learning, teaching and assessment strategies may underpin different programs and discipline areas. While variety can have a positive effect on learning, it can also be confusing for first year students, particularly those who are studying across different disciplines or who have not experienced those activity types previously.

  • Clarify your learning objectives and requirements in class and reinforce them through your UoS outline and website. See Unit of study design.
  • Scaffold students’ learning for each type of activity by providing staged tasks with clear guidelines and models.
  • Include opportunities for formative assessment and feedback, so that students understand how well they are going and where they need to make improvements.

Support students’ understanding of the standard of work required.
Most students new to tertiary learning have no idea what standard they need to meet to pass, and may have never even heard of the merit grade system.

  • Explain the characteristics of work at each level for each task type.
  • Ask students if you can use their marked work as examples for others, and provide annotated explanations showing why each piece of work received the grade it did.
  • If you can, build up a bank of examples like this with work at each grade level.

Early engagement with academic materials and development of academic skills is crucial.
Students’ background, including the context and experience of their prior learning, may impact on how well they transition to tertiary learning.

  • Many students may benefit from the support provided by generic workshops at the Learning Centre or the Maths Learning Centre.
  • Remember also, that part of your role is to help all students in your unit develop foundation academic skills (including the language and literacy skills appropriate in your area) within the context of their disciplinary learning.

Work with your teaching team to identify students having difficulties early in the semester.
Since many students may lack confidence to ask for help it is important that you, or other members of your team, are able to identify individual students who are disengaged or may be experiencing academic difficulties.

  • When designing your UoS set some assessment tasks as early as possible in the semester (eg prior to week 6). See Assessment tasks for more information.
  • In large classes, where you or others in your team may not be able to contact each of these students individually, you can use your learning management system to send targeted messages to students, depending on their performance in a task recorded in the grade book. See the information on sending notifications in Blackboard for example.
  • Some teachers worry that students will be offended if we contact them individually regarding disengagement or difficulties. On the contrary, as long as our communication shows concern and respect, most students really value this approach. A thoughtful email from a coordinator or a short word of encouragement and advice from a tutor can make a great deal of difference to the experience of a student who is going through a challenging transition.

University resources to support students' transition to university

It’s a good idea to direct new students to a range of activities and programs during the semester. There are also many FREE workshops and online or downloadable resources that will support students in their academic studies throughout the semester.

Orientation lectures and student support services
  • Remind them that they can access the Orientation website all year round
  • Ensure they also know that the University provides a comprehensive range of Student Services, including information on accommodation, child care, safety, financial assistance and scholarships, health and disability services, support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, and more!
Other University resources

The Learning Centre offers a broad range of services to support students in their transition to university.

  • Even if students missed the Learning Centre series of Lectures in Orientation Week, these materials are all downloadable from the Learning Centre resource page, along with many other fantastic resources. While they are at the site, encourage students to also check out the Learning Centre workshop program.
  • It can be the case, however, that the students who need this support most will not be the ones who attend. This may be due to a number of reasons such as lack of confidence, a belief that it’s not necessary or that it won’t achieve much, or time constraints for those who are also working part-time or have a high number of contact hours.
  • If a student does not follow recommendations to attend these courses, try to identify the reason and help the student resolve the problem or gently encourage them to re-consider their priorities.

Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS) also provides a range of support to students who are facing issues and challenges that may be affecting their academic progress.

  • Their free Skills for Success at University program is particularly relevant to first year students. It will introduce them to many key skills to help them not only during their transition, but also throughout their entire candidature and beyond.
  • The CAPS web page for staff provides information and support about dealing with students in distress.
  • It is a good idea to include a link to the CAPS resource for self-help in your UoS outline.

The University Library has a First Year Road Map to introduce students to using the Library and to developing information literacy skills. The information on Study and Research Help on the Library home page is also invaluable.

Administration issues around transition

Providing key information to students
Transition - social life

Remember that students who are new to the University will not know about key administrative information such as:

  • the last day to add, withdraw from or discontinue a unit of study
  • how to apply for Special Consideration or Special Arrangements
  • how to access information on their exam timetable and seat number, and so on.

Support your students by providing this kind of information at appropriate times throughout the semester. You can do this through your eLearning site, and during class times - be sure to let them know in lectures and tutorials that this information is available through eLearning (and how to find it on the site).

Asssistance for students who wish to change course or major

As the semester progresses some students may also reconsider their choice of course or proposed major. In such situations you can refer them to Counselling and Psychological Services who can provide counselling on these issues or to the Careers Service, who offer advice about course choices and their relation to career planning.

Advice & assistance with subject choices in the following semesters

First year students may also need assistance with choosing the second semester or second year subjects that will allow them to pursue the stream or discipline area that they are most interested in. For example, students may not be aware that a UoS they wish to do later on has a pre-requisite in first year.

  • As the coordinator of first year subjects, students may ask you for advice or assistance with their decisions. Using your records of their assessment you may be in a good position to recognise the strengths (or weaknesses) in their skills, and to direct them towards appropriate subject areas.
  • Faculty handbooks have a comprehensive list of units of study with course codes and pre-requisites. Handbooks include information on the requirements for degree progression and completion, and for entry into the next level of a major or program of study.

Other Resources and reading

“First year – Engagement and Empowerment” is a compilation of work on the First Year Enhancement theme by the Scottish Higher Education Enhancement Committee. You can access pdfs of reports from the Quality Enhancement Themes website.

“Getting first year students engaged” is a report compiled from AUSSE (Australian Survey of Student Engagement) Research Briefings produced by the Australian Council for Educational Research.

Orientating students to university study from The Institute for Teaching and Learning’s Teaching Insights provides tips from colleagues involved in the initial University of Sydney First Year Experience Project, 2000-2005.