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You are reading: Student transition into higher education

ALTC Good Practice Report, written by Professor Trevor Gale and Dr Stephen Parker


Student transition into higher education (HE) is of considerable interest in the current policy context of equity and expansion targets for student participation and attainment in HE, recently announced by the Australian Government (Transforming Australia’s Higher Education System 2009).

This Good Practice Report reviews 19 completed projects (14) and fellowships (5) funded by the Australian Learning and Teaching Council (ALTC) between 2006 and 2010, and identified by the ALTC as contributing to an understanding of student transition into HE. Five current projects (3) and fellowships (2) are also identified and summarised although, given their in-progress status, they are not analysed in this Report.

The summaries identify and analyse the findings of, and resources for, teaching and learning in HE produced by the ALTC projects and fellowships, particularly in relation to student transition. To enable a reading across these, each project/fellowship is summarised in six sections:

  1. overview
  2. design, methodology
  3. findings, resources, outcomes
  4. dissemination
  5. implications for student transition into higher education, and
  6. project report online availability.

Sections 3 and 5 are particularly pertinent to the interests of this Report.

The project/fellowship summaries are ordered in two broad groupings, according to their undergraduate and postgraduate (specifically, higher degree by research; HDR) focus. While the Report is primarily interested in the transition of students into undergraduate education, student transition into postgraduate education (from undergraduate or other education contexts) is significant enough to warrant its examination within a broader conception of student transition. As the HE sector becomes increasingly differentiated, with some universities downsizing their undergraduate enrolments and increasing their postgraduate enrolments, and as postgraduate qualifications increase in importance in the context of a global knowledge economy, student transition from undergraduate to postgraduate HE will become increasingly significant.

Within these undergraduate and postgraduate groupings, the project/fellowship summaries are arranged in overlapping themes. The undergraduate grouping includes projects focused on:

  • supportive and enabling technologies
  • mathematics, statistics and the science and technology disciplines
  • issues of retention and cultural difference, and
  • the first year student learning experience.

The postgraduate grouping is also arranged in overlapping themes, including skills and criteria associated with: HDR student research, supervision and examination, in creative writing, creative and visual arts, law, technology, dance and in inter-disciplinary and trans-disciplinary fields.

Only two of these completed projects/fellowships (CG7-494 and Kift) claim explicit focus on issues of student transition into HE. Another (CG7-395) is closely related. As an explicit focus, student transition tends to be of interest primarily in undergraduate HE. In the order they appear in this Report, the undergraduate-focused projects/fellowships can be represented on a rough continuum from implicit interest to explicit interest in student transition.

Analysing the completed projects/fellowships as a collective, there are two interrelated observations regarding student transition into HE that have implications for teaching and learning. Echoing Colley‘s (2007) first two conceptions of transition, they represent the key outcomes for HE teaching and learning of the ALTC work completed on the topic. The first draws attention to HE as a distinct cultural context, while the second draws attention to the academic capital that governs this context. Together they focus on what students transition to rather than what they transition from and are premised on the implied benefits of making the transition.

1. Higher education: recognised as a distinct cultural context
The distinctiveness of HE from schooling or other education contexts is implied in how the concept of student transition into HE (or from undergraduate to postgraduate HE) is understood in the projects/fellowships. That is, the difference in these contexts is seen to be sufficient enough for ‘transition’ to be an issue. Recognition of this contextual difference is evident in several of the completed projects/fellowships.

For example, Christine Bruce‘s fellowship notes a variety of education contexts and a variety of pedagogies applicable in these contexts, in part because different contexts have different purposes. Similarly, Project GI7-635 indicates that students’ ‘successful’ transition into new education contexts is dependent on their prior knowledge; that is, the extent to which knowledge and ways of knowing in the new context is similar to knowledge and ways of knowing in the former context. The greater the distance between these, the more students question their academic ability and/or whether they belong in HE (Project CG7-395). While students might explain their transition ‘problems‘ in these terms, the insight from Project CG7-507 is that this transitional distance – between one context and another – is often better explained in cultural terms.

2. Higher education: governed by a distinct cultural capital
French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu‘s (1988) explanation of these contextual differences is that HE values certain cultural and social resources over others, which are specific to and govern the HE field. Bourdieu names these resources as ‘academic capital’, a distinctive institutionalised form of cultural capital.

Several of the projects/fellowships acknowledge the importance of this academic capital in HE and the difficulties it poses for student transition. For example, Adams and Poronnik refer to students’ knowledge deficits (specifically, the lack of academic capital) and what this means for accessing dominant knowledge (see also CG6-24). Project LE6-15 similarly refers to the perceived lack of adequate preparation by some students, which restricts their access to knowledge, and the need for a coordinated institutional response. For some projects, an appropriate response involves recognition that some forms of knowledge transmission (pedagogies) are discipline specific (CG6-20) and, to aid student transition, these pedagogies need to be explicit (GI7-631). Others (e.g. Kift, and Lister & Edwards) note the importance of keeping student transition in mind when designing curricula (‘what counts as valid knowledge,’ Bernstein 2003: 85) and assessment (‘what counts as valid realization of this knowledge,’ Bernstein 2003: 85). In short, the projects/fellowships highlight the importance of HE curricula, pedagogy and assessment – the three message systems of education (Bernstein 2003) – in the transition of students from a range of backgrounds to ‘successful’ futures (e.g. careers in science, see DS6-598).

Only a few projects/fellowships challenge the dominance of the prevailing academic capital. For example, Project CG7-494 observes that students’ responses to pedagogies are culturally informed, while Project CG6-25 notes that students enter university with a diversity of knowledge stances. Even fewer take this recognition of difference to its logical conclusion, to argue for the recognition of alternative knowledges and knowledge forms (Mitchell) and for the creation of legitimate space within HE for these (including embodied knowledge) (PP6-45). These are matters that are taken up further in the literature review later in this Report.

Read more here: Student transition into higher education and at the Office for Teaching & Learning website.

Support for the original work was provided by the Australian Learning and Teaching Council Ltd, an initiative of the Australian Government.

Gale, T. and Parker, S. (2011), “Student transition into higher education: Good practice report.” Australian Learning & Teaching Council, Strawberry Hills, Australia. Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia.