Students in Transition: the challenges of becoming a first year student

I recently wrote a pre-conference workshop for the European First Year Experience Conference called “Arguably the First Year Experience is 109 years old: How up to date are you?”(1) with my colleague Diane Nutt. This post outlines some of theory relevant to anyone seeking to better understand the transitions associated with becoming a first year student.

Defining transition

I’d personally recommend everyone to have a look at the extremely comprehensive American text “How College Affects Students” for an analysis of the multiplicity of ways that higher education changes students (worryingly, volume 3 is far less optimistic when compared to volume 2)(2).

As this blog concentrates just on the process of becoming a first year, I’m therefore going to use a simpler definition, I particularly like this one:

  • “the student experience of change involved in joining the university, &
  • “the programmes of academic and other activities, which the university provides to support and enhance student transition.” (Johnston, 2010, pg.4)

How different is the first year?

The step up from post-16 education to university is a profound one. There are many continuities, but it’s easy to miss how unsettling the differences can be. Cook (2012, pg.19) described the problem as students feeling that they are ‘trained for the high jump; asked to do the long jump”.

  • Independent learning – New students will have carried out lots of independent learning appropriate to each prior stage of their education. The important difference is that it will normally have had tighter boundaries and been much smaller in scope than we expect in university. It’s easy to say ‘students don’t know how to do independent learning’, but it’s far subtler than that.
  • Academic & student support – Support at university often contains a wide range of specialist support (mental health, dyslexia, care leaver specialists, international student support etc.), but unlike in previous stages, the students are expected to be ‘adult’ about seeking out help in the first place.
  • Assessments – Prior to university assessment is organised by national or regional bodies, but in higher education, it’s managed internally. Tony Cook had a great line on the differences:

In college tutors collude with students to beat the system, but in university, we ARE the system.

  • Feedback – Tutors in post-16 education have some scope to offer formative feedback on assessment a student is working on at the time. However, formative feedback in higher education is extremely rare. HE tutors may write brilliant summative feedback, even so, the additional maturity and skill required to apply this feedback to the next piece of writing, not the writing the student is concentrating on, is enormous.

How do we know if someone is ‘transitioned’?

Arguably, if the assessments are aligned to the curriculum, one could argue that just passing all the relevant assessments is evidence of a successful transition. Alternatively, in the UK the Quality Code for Higher Education provides a series of frameworks that describe the competencies expected of a level 4 (first year) student. This outcome-based approach is important, but it lacks something: the lived experience of the student. Adams (1979) offers an interesting interpretation of this academic engagement suggesting four increasing levels of participation:

  1. Accountable performance – i.e. submitting coursework essential to pass
  2. Interaction – participating in group discussion
  3. Experiential – actually enjoying the subject
  4. Decision-making – participating in course committees and the wider governance of the institution

In her model, it’s easy to see how a student may pass their course, but not be particularly engaged with it. Hardy & Bryson (2012) spoke to students who had passed assessments, but did not particularly feel that they belonged and had not particularly adapted their learning strategies to meet the requirements of the course.  They had, however, adapted to the social environment of the university and felt that they belonged to friendship groups formed through accommodation, the course and their interests. Tinto (1997) also found that students tended have transitioned into the social milieu faster than the academic one.

In the last post, I stated that I felt that Harris et al’s (2004) model is a useful way of describing student engagement. I feel that it’s also a useful framework for considering whether or not a student has transitioned into the first year.

  1. Cognitive – Are students engaging cognitively? Are they being introduced to the skills and knowledge give them opportunities to do so?
  2. Affective – Are students enjoying the course? Are they stimulated in their learning? Are they confident that they are actually coping?
  3. Relational – Are there opportunities to build relationships with staff, with peers, with professional services? Are there opportunities to learn from more experienced students (peer mentors, etc?)
  4. Conative (time on task) – Do students have meaningful opportunities (and feedback) to help them understand how to learn effectively?

Whilst we should be careful of oversimplifying the entire student experience to ‘student engagement’, using an engagement lens at least focuses on what a student does. However, any consideration of transition needs to also involve students adapting to (or at least accommodating) the norms and conventions of both the course and the institution they have joined. Lea & Street’s (1998) work on academic literacies suggest that students need to learn how to write competently, not just generally, but specifically to their discipline and the institution in which they are studying. Moreover, students are expected to adapt to the rules and conventions of the institution they belong to, to absorb its habitus (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977).

The journey through the first year

Tinto’s (1993) work on the student experience draws upon much earlier work by the anthropologist Van Gennep (1909) exploring rites of passage. Van Gennep describes three distinct phases in a rite of passage:

  • Separation
  • Transition
  • Incorporation

Or in the original French:

  • Separation
  • Marge
  • Agregation

My French is terrible, but I really feel that ‘marge’ is a far better word than ‘transition’. It implies being on the fringes and, for me, offers no guarantee that the process will be completed.

One of the real challenges is the question, ‘when does transition occur?’, or ‘Given that every year thousands of new learners all adapt at different rates, when is it reasonable to assume that the transition has occurred?’. This question isn’t one of idle intellectual curiosity, but has an important influence on learning and teaching. If we teach first year students as if they have completed the transition to being effective learners from day one, it will offer a challenge to some, but will be completely alienating to others. There must be a point where we expect students to absorbed the conventions and norms of the course and institution, but students will need scaffolding and supporting well into the first year.

I worry that we may tell students that we don’t expect them to have transitioned, to be really capable of independent, self-directed learning until the end of the first year, but that we actually teach as if they’ve absorbed those concepts by the end of the first term.


Cook & Rushton (2008) offer a useful model of how to treat the transition through the first year. They argue that there are three distinct phases:

  1. Support prior to entry – contact with students before they arrive on campus. Not just welcoming messages, but also ‘practice’ activities designed to help them focus on starting their studies (Keenan, 2008).
  2. Initial induction – What happens during welcome week/ orientation/ Freshers. The most important point they make is that no-one is ‘transitioned’ by the end of the first week. Just the same as no employee is fully inducted at the end of their first week at work.
  3. Extended induction – Cook & Rushton suggest that the whole year be treated as a transition process. As they encounter new forms of learning and teaching activity, staff need to scaffold learning, and induct them appropriately.

Cook & Rushton - three stage first year model

Barriers to Transition

Unfortunately, all the barriers that block engagement potentially also inhibit the process of  transition. Socio-economic factors, such as poverty can make the experience of transition harder than it needs to be. If students lack the cultural capital to understand the rules and expectations or if they have no clear vision  of the destination they’d like to achieve, these too can be barriers to success. Palmer, O’Kane & Owens (2009) found that if students faced obstacles such as struggling to understand their studies, or negative experiences such as poor feedback, their confidence that they were transitioned dropped. Interestingly, Jessen & Elander (2009) discovered that students prior to university were over confident about how well prepared they were for university only to discover later that they were not.

What can we do to support the transition?

There are a range of activities used by institutions to support the transition into the first year.

  • Peer mentoring
  • Integrated projects with 2nd and final years
  • Induction/ Orientation/ Welcome Week
  • University 101 (particularly in the US)
  • Staff development
  • Coaching/ mentoring approaches to tutoring
  • Use of social media – particularly prior to entry
  • Use of learning analytics
  • Practical help including childcare and even food banks


Perhaps the most important thing is to remember that it is a transition. The students we teach aren’t the same as us. Just as we were probably never really quite the students we’d like to think we were. They will be confused, searching for guidelines and clues about how to learn and how to be a student. Our job is to remember that one fact when we speak to, teach or advise them.


I’ve somehow managed to write this article without making reference to The National Resource Center for the First Year and Students in Transition. Anyone interested in this topic should take a look at their resources.


ADAMS, M., 1979. An analysis of meanings attached to ‘involvement’ by ANU students and teaching staff, 1979, pp. 508-519.

BOURDIEU, P. and PASSERON, J.C., 1977. Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture. London: Sage.

COOK, A. and RUSHTON, B., 2008. Student Transition: Practices & policies to promote Retention. UK: Staff & Educational Development Association.

COOK, A., 2012, Trained for the high jump; asked to do the long jump: does first year assessment promote retention?, In: L. CLOUDER, C. BROUGHAN, S. JEWELL and G. STEVENTON, eds, Improving Student Engagement and Development through Assessment: Theory and Practice in Higher Education. UK: Routledge.

HARRIS, R., BOLANDER, K., LEBRUN, M., DOCQ, F. and BOUVY, M., 2004. Linking Perceptions of Control and Signs of Engagement in the Process and Content of Collaborative E-Learning, 2004 2004.

JESSEN, A. and ELANDER, J., 2009. Development and evaluation of an intervention to improve further education students’ understanding of higher education assessment criteria: three studies. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 33(4), pp. 359-380.

JOHNSTON, B., 2010. The First Year at University: Teaching Students in Transition. Glasgow: McGraw-Hill.

KEENAN, C., 2008. Students getting down to work before they start at university: a model for improving retention. In: G. CROSLING, L. THOMAS and M. & HEAGNEY, eds., Improving Student Retention in Higher Education: The Role of Teaching and Learning. Abingdon: Routledge.

LEA, M., STREET, B., 1998. Student writing in higher education: An academic literacies approach, Studies in Higher Education, 23:2, 157-172,

PALMER, M., O’KANE, P. and OWENS, M., 2009. Betwixt spaces: student accounts of turning point experiences in the first-year transition. Studies in Higher Education, 34(1), pp. 37-54.

PASCARELLA, E. and TERENZINI, P., 2005. How college affects students: volume 2 a third decade of research. USA: Jossey-Bass.

VAN GENNEP, A., 1960. The Rites of Passage. USA: University of Chicago Press.

TINTO, V., 1993. Leaving college: rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition. Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press.

(1) Surprisingly, people attended. The title comes from the fact that Vincent Tinto’s work on student engagement references the anthropologist Arnold Van Gennep’s work on rites of passage first published in 1909.

(2) The authors are particularly concerned about how increasingly the value of higher education is only being seen by policy-makers in terms of the impact on a student’s career, not their growth or potential to affect society in a positive way.

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