Our first Curriculum Transitions event took place in August 2019. A panel of secondary school teachers representing A-level biology, chemistry, physics, psychology, and maths, and BTEC applied sciences and health and social care, were joined by staff from across the university to discuss key issues in student transition to university. We also examined the nature of recent changes to school curricula and the similarities and differences to typical university courses.
Here are some of the key themes that came out of our discussions, including questions that attendees asked. The teachers’ reflections on the realities of learning and teaching on the ground in schools are hugely valuable to us as we think about our approaches to transition. Of course, this is not the experience of all incoming students and the below was based on one set of teachers’ experiences in local secondary schools.
Session 1 - Stepping up to HE: supporting transitions
What will students have been exposed to in terms of learning and teaching prior to HE?
Students may have engaged with a particular learning and teaching approach, but not always in the way that is expected in the HE environment. Just because a student has ‘done’ group work, peer assessment etc. this does not mean that they will know how we want and need them to engage in it in HE. Here are some of the common themes in learning and teaching discussed:
Teaching for the test and goal-oriented ‘grade culture’
There is quite an emphasis on ‘teaching for the test’, not because teachers want to do this, but because of time and resource constraints, as well as the way success is currently framed for schools and individual students. Students can therefore become focused on rote learning, recall, and ‘what they need to do well in the assessment’, rather than having time to deeply and critically engage with material. This is not the fault of students or teachers, but larger structural, political, and societal issues which are at play and that can limit teachers’ ability to take risks. For instance, limited lead-in time for major curriculum changes, syllabi not released when teaching has to start, and unknown exam paper formats.
Assessment, feedback, peer and self-assessment
In many ways, students are primed for assessment for learning; they are used to regular feedback, reflecting on what they need to improve for the next assignment, and to teaching staff being readily available. Teachers develop strategies to deal with this at scale, e.g. having some standard paragraphs for common feedback and pre-populated areas for development for each feedback statement. Peer and self-assessment are common practice in schools and we could do more to extend and encourage these habits.
Content and applying to context
Due to increased content required in the new linear A-levels and the way exam questions have been framed, students might sometimes find it difficult to apply knowledge to new contexts. Schools in federations will have fixed delivery and assessment dates across all schools, so teachers are under pressure to keep on track with content. Students may remember they have covered a topic, but we shouldn’t assume they have the same level of and approach to content or knowledge.
We may see this pattern shifting in our incoming students as new specification A-levels begin to value contextual situation more highly. This will depend in part on school ethos, resource and time given.
Students who have undertaken a project qualification e.g. EPQ will likely be more confident and capable in applying knowledge to different contexts, but these opportunities are not available to every student in every school context. Depending on their local policy, some schools can require all students to do an EPQ. Bath explicitly values the skills an EPQ can bring students and takes it into account when making UG offers: https://www.bath.ac.uk/campaigns/taking-the-epq-to-strengthen-your-course-application/
Students can be very well practised in undertaking tasks in a prescriptive way. Structural factors around narrow mark schemes can make this the norm. What teachers said can help students is planned scaffolding which is then strategically removed, as students grow in confidence with the task.
What skills do students enter HE with?
In the teachers’ experience, some students can be quite goal-oriented and solution-focused and are able to learn a method and apply that method in order to succeed.
Differing approaches to and experience of group work; working in groups is still quite a feature of primary education, but not always done at secondary level consistently.
Given how much is structured for students in secondary education, some may be nervous of ‘getting it wrong’ if a more fluid and less prescriptive model is in place in HE.
BTEC students can be especially critically engaged and this strength should be valued; the new-specification BTEC allows students to develop understanding and become more autonomous learners, taking ownership of their learning and teaching.
Different levels of independent learning and help-seeking behaviours; students may be more ready than you think to focus on where they need help and frame a more specific request. Not all students have the same support for learning in their home environment so we shouldn’t make assumptions.
What practical strategies can we learn from teachers to help us prepare for effective transition?
The teachers talked about the limitations of what they can change in their curriculum. We have a lot more autonomy and flexibility to shape the learning environment and our approach to teaching in HE. Here are some of the strategies teachers and our academic colleagues discussed for effective transition:
- Work out where your students are at in terms of prior knowledge, skills and experience and use it is a chance to develop independent learning. We might use skills audit tools at Bath and get students to action plan for themselves; in school, students may have used knowledge organisers to RAG rate their own knowledge against lists of content in a specification at school. Using Mini-whiteboards in a classroom or an online tool like Menti will allow you to scan a large number of answers at once and gauge general level of understanding.
- Build in opportunities to check for understanding and chunk up material. Students will feel more engaged and assessments and evaluations won’t come as a surprise.
- Given that students might be focused on grades and goals, we have the opportunity to take them out of a prescriptive mindset, encourage them to express themselves and be more engaged in their learning experience. We can help by being explicit in our assessment criteria and explain to students how they can meet them, and be clear these strategies may be different than the way they’ve met the criteria before. We can also be clear about where they can contribute to changes in their learning environment and how our student engagement enables this. Teachers recommend taking an A level paper and mark yourself using the marking criteria to get a sense of what students face.
- Be clear with what you want students to be able to do at each stage; e.g. split the year into beginning, middle and end and explain what success looks like for each ‘level’ of activity across the year. Ensure these messages are set up and reinforced through the year by all staff. Use goal-oriented language and make skills explicit for students.
- If we want students to be independent we need to scaffold this and say initially what the steps are to take towards seeking help with an assignment, then slowly remove the level of detail and scaffold. Teachers often use simple strategies like ‘3 before me’: have you engaged with three sources of support before coming to me? Brain, book, buddy!
- Be clear initially with students about where you might be asking them to apply content in a new context: ‘Because you know this, let’s now look at this in a broader perspective.’ You could start a lecture by taking a question from A-level/another common qualification that your students enter with that they will all be able to get right if presented in the ‘correct’ way; then present the question in different ways and explain the differing emphases.
- Subject and disciplinary identity becomes key in HE. Be explicit about the kind of disciplinary identity you want to create and show them how to get there, e.g. ‘Good Economists here will do x,y,z; tell me what your understanding of what it means to be a good Economist by date x’ .
Session 2 - Developing as a subject specialist
- Students will expect and be more ready to engage with being signposted to support and accepting assistance. At school they are frequently asked to respond to the ‘this is the help you need, go get it!’ prompt.
- Graphic calculators now being used more in schools; students’ ability to use them will depend on teacher engagement and capability .
- IB students will be more used to using technology to support their study.
- Change in content has provided more freedom to teach, but has increased breadth, potentially at the expense of depth.
- Context less likely to be embedded in exam questions.
- There can be a reinforcing impact by doing Maths plus sciences; there are opportunities for students to do reinforcing via Core Maths or EPQ.
- Differences between new and old BTEC; Bath has reflected this in UG offer levels.
- Computing curriculum lower down the school is not IT-specific, it now has more coding. There is no formal teaching on particular types of software and students aren’t explicitly taught this.
Sciences at A-level
Physics, Chemistry and Biology will have agreed content that is common across exam boards. About 20% of the exam is focused on practical elements and common practical syllabi.
Due to lack of funding and pressure to cover large amounts of content, some students may have experienced demos not individual practicals. Students may have only seen simulation and demos, not actively participated, or may have done practicals in larger groups. A lot depends on school resource levels as to how much experience students might have had and their exposure to equipment or techniques.
Scientific method is covered, but can be at quite a surface level. Students may not have a depth of understanding of method, though this will be different at different schools and colleges.
We discussed some of the key features of the new Maths A-level offered by exam boards in England (AQA, OCR, Cambridge, Pearson, Edexcel) for domestic students (note that the international A-levels offered by these exam boards continue to be modular):
- New Maths curriculum should allow you to be clearer what students will be coming in with: Two pure, one stats, one mechanics modules which all students will have to take. Further Maths will continue to have optionality .
- Greater uniformity across exam boards for English-system A-levels.
- Doesn’t go as deep as it did in the past.
- New curriculum exam questions set out problem and students decide which bit of Maths to use. There used to be more explicit leading terms which signalled which technique to use.
- This should mean students coming through this new qualification will have better problem -solving skills in time.
- No decision Maths content in new A-level Maths.
For further info:
A level Maths spec, including very helpful 'at a glance' summary on p.5-6:
A level Further Maths with the useful summary on p.4-5:
Overall page which includes sample assessments so staff can see the kinds of questions students will see are at:
Physics perceived as ‘hard’ – can be used as a tool to motivate students and increase sense of disciplinary belonging and identity.
Mechanics content in new specification A-level shows increase in mathematical rigour, greater emphasis on forces, balancing beams, ‘ladder problem’.
Thermo-dynamics content has greater emphasis on particle theory, more complicated problems.
Most questions will have some elements of mathematical manipulation required for a candidate to do well.
Can be a challenge for some students to get good GCSE Maths; a strong GCSE profile was cited as a helpful predictor of Psychology A-level success.
Transitions and Curriculum Transformation: key insights from the discussions
As most undergraduate course development teams are now planning the detail of their transformed courses, the following points are particularly relevant to keep in mind, especially in regards to designing the first year:
- Schools are very good at scaffolding, then removing gradually. First year needs to provide the scaffold into further years.
- Take a strengths based approach, for example, use students’ goal-focused behaviour to set a target of developing broader knowledge.
- Take time to teach them how to learn in the way you need and be explicit. Tell them how things will be done and where to go for help and support.
- Developing as independent learners – teach and show students how to be an independent learner, how to research, take notes, assimilate information. BTEC students on the new curriculum will have had more experience with this.
- Think about what is being delivered and when. Break down the content into smaller sections and provider opportunities for students to check their own learning and understanding.
- Do not make assumptions about students’ abilities – find out what they can do first, and then build on that.
- Use TEL solutions to reduce staff workload, but improve impact.
- Provide frequent, low stakes assessment, particularly at the start of the first year
- Use peer evaluation and feedback to help develop their sense of the targets, and help distribute the workload.
- Talk about the different perceptions of ‘success’. At university, success can be 50 -70% and it may be rare to achieve a mark above 70%.
- Be explicit about what type of learner, or disciplinary identity, is being created.