It's a new academic year, and in this post, I have a look at some strategies that can help students make the transition from second to third level

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Teaching has resumed, and the first day of term is always so frantic that it is easy to forget what an enormous transition the new group of students facing me in my first year lecture are going through. Some of them may have moved out of their home—although not as common in Ireland as it can be elsewhere—while others will be mature students returning to education. All of them are going to have to adapt to a new way of doing things; new timetable system, classmates, acronyms, regulations… the list is almost endless.

There is a consensus that students need to become independent learners and problem solvers at university, and move away from the alleged rigid structures of second level. But how true is this? I argue that we effectively promote rote learning in the way we teach (for example, consider the majority of laboratory work at university) and the way we assess. It is difficult to ask students to solve genuine problems in a university exam of a few hours, and there is research to demonstrate that a lot of what is asked at university level is material that could be learned off by heart – rote learning is rewarded. The main difference between the two systems is probably that we at university level are less structured in how we present the material.

Instead of dismissing students’ school experience, there is probably much to learn from it. Catherine Smith’s article in Education in Chemistry last year shone some light on the similarities and differences between school and university level teaching. This included some useful suggestions on how we might phase students between the two systems. These include highlighting to students learning objectives, commonly used at school. At third level, we tend to outline the purpose of a lecture, verbally or at the start or end of the presentation. Formalising this approach looks like a useful strategy to bridge the divide.

Other ideas include using warm up questions at the beginning of the lecture to remind students of what they were working on in the last lecture. This can help students situate themselves in the content, and pick up where the last lecture left off. My own work on pre-lecture activities, also featured in Education in Chemistry is another approach to this.

A series of warm-up activities on a variety of topics are now available on the Learn Chemistry site. These Starters for Ten were developed by Catherine Smith and Kristy Turner and cover a range of topics on introductory chemistry. The duo also developed Advanced Starters for Ten covering more advanced topics.

While we are aware at third level that students are undergoing transition, I think proactive approaches such as those outlined can enable students to begin to make the jump. I have observed that an acknowledgement by the lecturer that students are undergoing transition - which is implicit in the use of these kinds of approaches - is itself a motivator in their engagement with the new environment.

It’s too easy to just announce that the system is new without structuring an approach to how student can navigate this new learning environment. I’d be interested to hear what others do to help students make the transition from school to college.


You can read more about Catherine Smith’s work on teaching for transition in her CERP article: C. J. Smith, Improving the school-to-university transition: using a problem-based approach to teach practical skills whilst simultaneously developing students’ independent study skills, Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 2012, 13, 490 – 499. (Free to access)