How can you find out more about what history students at university think? The HA and the History Subject Centre carried out a joint project in 2011 asking students about transition to university and the differences they found. Podcasts of some of the results can be found here
. They address such questions as:
· How far did your studies prepare you for history at university?
· What was difficult to get used to?
· What does independent study mean?
· Handing in your first piece of coursework?
· What was enjoyable and what was expected/unexpected?
· What advice would you give to prospective students?
The project also addressed extended student engagement, asking:
· What opportunities did you have to enhance your experience?
· What skills and attributes did this highlight and enhance?
· What effect did the additional work have on your studies?
· How will this work benefit you beyond your degree?
You might be surprised – pleasantly or otherwise! – about students’ views on their transition experience.
How did students find the transition from secondary school lessons to lectures, seminars etc?
At school students felt that lessons focused on ‘hard facts’ and they were surprised to find that lectures focused on different approaches and interpretations instead. They found that contact hours were about providing them with signposts rather than direct knowledge transfer. They were surprised that they couldn’t ask questions in lectures in the same way they had been used to at school. They were disappointed that there was very little in the way of interaction. Many found that the lecturer spoke too quickly. When students felt the opinions expressed were controversial they felt that they needed to be able to raise questions immediately rather than in seminars or ‘office hours’.
What did students expect university study to be like? What difficulties did they find?
Most students were aware of the structural division between lectures and seminars and understood this. Many expected peer discussion groups to be central, but this was not always the case.
The most commonly mentioned difficulties were:
· The unexpectedly steep rise of difficulty
· The level of background reading required
· The cost of tuition compared to the number of contact hours
· Misleading module titles and descriptions
· Modules that were poorly organised
How did learning and teaching methods in HE differ?
In schools and colleges pupils were used to being taught in groups of up to 30 although classes often contained considerably fewer students than this. But at university they found lecture courses were regularly delivered to up to 300 students. It is clearly difficult to raise questions in a group this size, which led to some of the issues mentioned above. The students found lectures very variable, with some being were very general and others highly focused and detailed.
Many students were very surprised by their experience of seminars, the other main form of teaching in higher education. They were not expecting the amount of reading that they are required to do in advance. Most students were also unprepared for the fact that, in many institutions, participation in seminars is being incorporated into assessment strategies.
How do students cope with the change in contact hours and methods of assessment?
These are significant issues in the transition to higher education. Students are increasingly closely mapped and monitored in the assessment driven atmosphere of schools, but at university they have to take much more responsibility for themselves. Students found that assessment deadlines were sometimes unclear or unevenly spaced through the year. The feedback they got was variable, and they had not expected assessed groupwork.
Many found it particularly difficult to get used to the reduced contact hours compared with time spent with teachers at school. Many students were not happy with the concept of ‘office hours’ particularly when they were not adhered to.
A big issue was students expecting to be able to hand in draft work for comment and then revise it before final submission, They had been used to this at school and could not understand why it was no longer the case in HE.
It is difficult for individual teachers to do much to prepare their students for the changing expectations they will encounter however.
How can they address the needs of their students in the next phase of their education, while at the same time satisfying the demands of a senior management team who are driven by the dictates of exam results and league tables?