Why does Transition Matter? Studying Psychology in Higher Education

This post was originally published on the Psychology at Salford blog. 

Whether you’ve just done your A levels, an Access course, or you’ve been out of formal education for a few years, studying psychology at undergraduate level involves adapting to new places, new people, new teachers and new situations.  The Higher Education Academy (HEA) is currently trying to identify ways to make university a less daunting, more enjoyable experience for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) undergraduates.

For that to happen, those teaching psychology across the different education systems need to get better at talking to one another. HE lecturers don’t necessarily know what is taught at GCSE, A Level, and on Access Courses, and in turn, what their new students expect of psychology.  Students come to undergraduate psychology from diverse educational backgrounds. Furthermore, there are a number of A Level exam boards (e.g. OCR, Pearson, AQA) with different syllabi.  Even if HE lecturers were familiar with all syllabi, 40% of psychology undergraduates haven’t studied psychology before (HEA, 2013). So how can you create first year modules that don’t confuse some students and bore others?

Similarly, how can school and college teachers prepare students for undergraduate psychology when universities have greater freedom over what to teach and how to assess students? How can they prepare students for the kinds of learning activities they will experience at university (e.g. carrying out a research project) when there is seemingly less and less opportunity to deviate from an overloaded curriculum?

Transition issues were the focus of a recent event ‘Tackling Transition in Psychology’ organised by the HEA at the University of Manchester.  Teachers from schools, colleges and universities, as well as current psychology undergraduates came together to discuss transition – what it is like, what are the differences and similarities between the two education systems, and what can we do about it? A key message was that although some things are beyond our control, we do have some power to make changes and have a positive impact.

In groups, we came up with a few ideas of how we can work together to help students with transitions to university study.  For example, after AS students have sat their exams, there is a 3-4 week opportunity of time to teach content and run events that might be beneficial for university study.  Our ideas were that research methods and statistics training could be co-delivered by FE and HE lecturers, we could host joint conferences where students present their work, and run ‘taster’ events for students to experience university lab facilities.  Other ideas centred on creating opportunities to participate in current research projects to give insight into undergraduate dissertation projects and what psychology looks like when it is applied.

One particular aspect of interest to me is the role that social media and digital technologies can play in adapting to university study – we could connect psychology students in schools, colleges and universities via social networking platforms, and create opportunities for school and college students to join online undergraduate psychology teaching sessions via Blackboard Collaborate.

Last year Psychology at Salford ran an Open Lecture Series where psychology students from local schools, colleges and sixth forms joined our undergraduates in their first year psychology lectures.  This was a real success and students found the experience really worthwhile.  The challenge becomes keeping these initiatives going and investing time in creating and maintaining meaningful partnerships between local psychology departments.

Although it seems that there is a long way to go to address issues of transition, student retention and success, we can act now. Attending the event and being a part of the solutions-focused conversation it created feels like a positive step forward to me.  The HEA will produce a report at the end of the year on transition issues based upon the findings of their transition workshop series.

If you have any ideas around how to support students with transitions to undergraduate psychology, please leave a comment below.

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