Starting a new course at university can be both exciting and terrifying for students. But however students feel, they are unlikely to be able to focus on their studies until they feel accepted as part of a new social group.
Designing social experiences for new students isn’t usually the role of Learning Designers in higher education, who tend to focus more on developing curriculum. But social integration is the priority for the majority of new students, and so it’s vital to create space for social learning activities in the curriculum.
How do new students feel?
A study by Hughes and Small (2015) aimed to find out which aspects of university life are most and least helpful in the transition to HE. The study asked students to respond to short open statements to establish the dominant positive and negative preoccupations in the process of transition – on the understanding that ‘if interventions begin where students are most preoccupied, they may be more likely to engage students at a key moment and open the possibility of addressing other problems while their attention is fixed.’ They found that:
it is not unusual for students going through transition to experience psychological distress, anxiety, depression, sleep disturbance, a reduction in self-esteem and isolation.
transition support may gain better student engagement if it is initially focused on social integration and student wellbeing and lifestyle. Universities may also wish to pay more attention to the impact of administrative processes failing to meet student needs in the transition period.
The findings from the study also showed that:
- Students expressed a preference for induction sessions in small groups to allow for team building and socialisation. Large gatherings in lecture theatres attracted more negative comments.
Cognitive overload is a very real danger.
- Students were preoccupied with knowing and understanding the support that was available
- Academic concerns not a major pre-occupation at this stage – focus on social, personal and organisational aspects of university life.
- Small administrative oversights and problems can apparently have a weighty negative impact.
The level of social support was a dominant theme in the research, from both a positive and negative perspective. For many new students, having friends in the same situation that they can share their experience and worries was vital. But for those struggling to make friends, the feeling of being left out was terrible.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the study indicated that making friends was a key preoccupation at this stage of the first year. Positive interactions with staff, particularly lecturing staff, was also significant. This is a useful reminder to educators and learning designers that until students feel a sense of belonging, they are unlikely to be able to focus effectively on their learning.
I have found the activities to get to know the lecturers and other students useful as they made me get to know people.
Being put into very large lectures during induction week and not having any sort of team building exercises to get to know anyone [was unhelpful]
Empathise with students’ actual needs
It’s so easy to forget what it’s like to be a new student. Whereas many large organisations now design every stage of the customer experience, universities tend not to. The result is often a disjointed journey involving multiple interactions with people and departments who haven’t talked with each other about their collective impact on the student experience.
I feel like we were bombarded with paper and information in my first few weeks … made me feel so overwhelmed and scared.
The researchers concluded that:
universities may benefit from focusing their initial interactions with students on supporting social integration, promoting positive thinking patterns and behaviours and challenging negative thinking and lifestyle choices. Institutions may also wish to consider the potential impact of all early activities on student transition, whilst remaining confident that it is possible to positively influence this process.
Phil from Ding has a useful anecdote about what it feels like when your expectations don’t meet reality. The results can be life-changing, in a bad way.
The good news is that by refocusing on what students actually care about in the first few weeks, we can begin to design a more supportive experience.
How learning designers can enable a positive induction
So, if you’re looking for ways to improve your students’ experience during the first few weeks of university, here are some suggestions:
Prioritise Social Integration and Wellbeing
- Design activities that facilitate social interaction and help students build connections.
- Ensure these activities explore concerns of isolation, help students see that others are also worried, and get all students talking so they feel included.
Promote Positive Psychological Mindset and Lifestyle
- Design reflective activities that encourage students to recognise the importance of their own thoughts and behaviours in achieving a successful transition.
- Discuss Carol Dweck’s theory of fixed and growth mindsets with students, and design activities that enable them to reflect on their own mindset.
- Provide motivational sessions to boost confidence and self-belief.
Keep inductions small
- Conduct induction sessions in small groups to foster team building and socialisation.
- Prioritise ‘discovery’ activities over ‘transmission’ activities. For example, get students to work in pairs to answer 10 questions about their unit handbook. Don’t just read the handbook out to them!
- Minimise large gatherings in lecture theatres, which tend to garner more negative feedback. If you have to use a lecture theatre, include lots of small group discussions where students talk with their neighbours.
- Use tools such as Mentimeter and Slido to enable students to share their feelings anonymously. Doing this helps them find out how others in the room are feeling, without people having to speak in front of the group.
Ensure Clear and Accessible Support Structures
- Ensure information about available support resources, including professors, academics, and institutional services, is easily available (and well designed).
- Make sure students are aware of where and how to seek help when needed.
Address Administrative and Organisational Issues
- Pay attention to small administrative details, as oversights can have a significant negative impact on students.
- Where possible, streamline organisational processes to ensure a smooth transition for students.
- Assume nothing!
You might also like:
- Read the full article here: Hughes, G. and Small, O. (2015) Which aspects of university life are most and least helpful in the transition to HE? A qualitative snapshot of student perceptions. Journal of Further and Higher Education. 39(4), pp.466-480
Thank you to:
- Ray Martin for researching and preparing this article
- Karsten Winegeart on Unsplash on Unsplash for a fabulous photo!