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Dr Catherine Durose (INLOGOV, School of Government ), talks about three techniques to facilitate student transition.

Transition is recognised to be vital to student learning, satisfaction and progression (Thomas, 2012). Entry to post-graduate education, particularly without prior experience in the discipline or UK higher education or following a significant break from academic study, can be a confusing and daunting time for students who are often unsure what is expected from them, and may find it difficult to grasp expectations, or develop a sense of belonging. For example, inter-cultural understanding is recognised to take time, with research examining the transition of students to UK HEIs estimating it takes between three and nine months for Chinese students to academically adjust (Quan and et al 2016). Although self-reflection, independent learning and the ability to express ideas are central to higher education, I have balanced focus on such skills with cognisance of student anxieties through creating supportive, as well as effective, learning environments.

I create these environments through using proven techniques such as a ‘soft start’ to seminars, welcoming students by name, encouraging small talk, using humour (Powell & Andresen 2006) and ice-breakers (Kavanagh et al 2011). When teaching live online, in bi-modal or distance learning programmes, I begin participation early through, for example, inviting an emoji or reaction, or asking a simple question such as ‘where are you joining us from today?’ I recognise that the more that we can affirm the behaviour we want to see, and communicate our expectations, explaining the reasoning behind them, the more likely we will build understanding with our students (Kynfolk 2021). My aim here is to provide a friendly and welcoming environment, where students can feel at ease and gain confidence to participate, and be able to do so in ways that they feel comfortable.

In modules that I lead, I have designed an introductory exercise to make students feel welcome, supported, and to begin to learn through the exchange of ideas from the outset. I invite students to take part in an elicitation exercise, and ask them to share an object (such as a photo, image, artefact or piece of music) that reveals something about their perspective on or experience with the theme of module, and then to write or present a short reflection about it (Leigh & Freeman 2019). For example, in the distance-learning MPA module I lead on Democracy, Governance and Participation, the focus is on how students participate as citizens, leading to students sharing their experiences as voters, protesters, volunteers, or political candidates. In these sessions, I recognise the contribution of each student, offering an individual mirroring response. This exercise welcomes students and their diverse identities into the learning environment, and encourages them to interact in a way that models and encourages participation from an inclusive starting point. By operating across different modes of teaching, I have been able to borrow and adapt pedagogies to diversify opportunities to participate, and I have conducted this exercise both face-to-face and via an online discussion board.

My teaching experience has illuminated that when transitioning to new learning cultures or institutions, students can be more reticent to engage in seminars or live sessions if they feel unprepared. In response, for modules that I lead, I develop clear and directive preparatory tasks for these sessions, focusing on activities that students can prepare in advance, e.g. a comprehension or case analysis (Dale Foster and Stapleton, 2012). I regularly use different learning resources, such as animations, video, blogs or media articles to enhance the appeal and accessibility of the activities. The seminar will then be structured around these tasks, with an outline structure shared in advance to enable students to prepare and feel at ease. I also develop ‘model’ responses to these tasks, which I share with students following seminars.

Dale Foster, K & Stapleton, DM (2012). Understanding Chinese students’ learning needs in Western business classrooms. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 24(3), 301-313.

Kavanagh, M, Clarke-Murphy, M & Wood, LN (2011) The first class: using icebreakers to facilitate transition in a tertiary environment. Asian Social Science, 7(4):84-92.

Leigh, D & Freeman, R (2019) Teaching politics after the practice turn. Politics, 39(3): 379-392.

Powell JP & Andresen LW (1985) Humour and teaching in higher education. Studies in Higher Education 10(1), 79-90.

Quan, R, He, X & Sloan, D (2016) Examining Chinese postgraduate students’ academic adjustment in the UK higher education sector: a process-based stage model. Teaching in Higher Education, 21(3), 326-343.

Thomas, L (2012) Building student engagement and belonging in higher education at a time of change.  Higher Education Academy.

HEFi resources to support student transition: