Transition to University

Report of LTS event 20: Thursday 28 June 2009

The session offered various perspectives on students' transition to university and was attended by academics, administrators and student representatives from across the University.

Dr Keith Johnstone, Academic Leader of the Transkills Project, introduced the session by noting the growing discourse within the Sector about how students from all backgrounds can best be supported to take advantage of the educational opportunities available to them and so fulfil their potential.

On this page:

Perspectives on transition

Challenges for assessment: Mark Shannon, Cambridge Assessment

Mark presented an overview of changes to the A-level system since its introduction in 1951. He suggested that 'Curriculum 2000' and the introduction of AS/A2 modular A-levels has changed students' attitude to assessment and learning, as the increased frequency of assessment and opportunities to re-sit exams has encouraged a more didactic approach to teaching and a climate of 'cramming'. University entrants may consequently be less prepared for independent study and expect continuous assessment and re-sits. This presents a challenge for the Collegiate University to manage students' expectations and equip them to succeed here.

Various changes to the A-level system will be introduced from 2009-10; for example, an A* grade to differentiate between good and exceptional students. Attendees were hopeful that some of the changes could help to address students' preparedness for University; for example, the quality of written communication will be an assessed element in all A-level subjects and extended writing will be encouraged, which will hopefully help to inculcate good academic writing skills at an earlier stage. The introduction of 'stretch and challenge', whereby synoptic assessment will be part of all A2 units and a broad range of question types will be included to assess a range of skills, was also thought to be a constructive change which could help to prepare students for university.

Another change is the introduction of the extended project, a separate qualification equivalent to half an A-level, whereby students can undertake a project on a topic of their choice. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) have suggested that universities should consider encouraging prospective students to undertake the extended project as it will help to develop independent research and study skills, and will enable them to demonstrate enthusiasm for particular topics.

The student voice: Tom Chigbo, CUSU President-Elect

Tom welcomed the collaborative approach to transition encouraged by the Transkills team, and stated that CUSU's primary aim is to support students in getting the most out of their education. CUSU's website contains a number of study skills resources, as well as the CamExams site. Student representatives can also help staff by articulating the challenges facing students during the transition, and suggesting ways of enhancing support.

CUSU have identified two key problems:

  1. the mismatch, and growing gulf, between the skills and knowledge expected for A-levels and Part I of the Tripos;
  2. the mismatch between the 'ideal' student (who knows exactly what they want from their education and how to get it) and the actual student (who finds the transition to university daunting).

It was suggested that students would benefit from:

  • explicit guidance (e.g. about how to get the most out of the supervision system and lectures);
  • greater consistency in the provision of academic resources (e.g. in the availability of online lecture notes);
  • more skills training alongside academic instruction, perhaps embedded in supervisions (e.g. note-taking, using reading lists etc).

Lessons from UCL's transition programme: Marco Angelini, UCL

UCL's transition programme is informed by research about the 'student experience' and trends in North America and Australasia where transition is institutionalised practice. The programme is intended to promote UCL's widening participation agenda and Access Agreement while assisting all students to adjust to the academic, social, geographical and administrative demands of university life (including: finding a social niche, adapting to new teaching and learning styles, and identifying sources of support and information etc).

Students are allocated to small groups led by a second year (or above) student mentor from the same teaching area. Mentor groups meet regularly during the first term to discuss any topics which affect the students. Sessions often focus on social issues for the first few weeks, after which mentor groups are encouraged to become Peer Assisted Learning (PAL) groups and the focus shifts to discussion of academic assignments and study skills. The programme is supported by a resource-intensive transition website and workshops on academic skills.

Student feedback on the programme has been very positive and there is evidence that it has increased retention rates. Staff have also benefited from the increased student engagement and independence fostered by the programme. UCL have found that embedding the programme within the student's discipline is important to success: attendance at the PAL groups is 80% where the programme is adopted by the department compared to 50-55% overall.

Supporting students – Transkills resources

Link to skills portal

The skills portal: Dr Keith Johnstone, Transkills Project

The Transkills Project aims to facilitate the transition from school to university to enable students to take full advantage of the educational opportunities provided on arrival. The Project has adopted a collaborative approach involving students, supervisors and Directors of Studies.

The Project is developing resources and practices which will be deployed to students and their supervisors prior to arrival, as well as during the first year. Its primary focus is to support the development of first year undergraduates' academic writing and contextualised mathematics skills. Transkills resources will be accessible to incoming students and their supervisors through the University's skills portal from September 2009 as part of a searchable online directory of skills-related resources and workshops.

The Transkills team is currently developing an engagement strategy to raise awareness of the resources. For example, from 2009-10 every first year CamTools site will feature a link to the skills directory. It is also developing an evaluation strategy to assess the impact of the project.

Cambridge Online Study Skills (COSS): Anny King, Language Centre

COSS is a series of online resources developed in collaboration with the Language Centre to support the development of core study skills for first year undergraduates. The resources, which will be accessed via the University's skills portal from September 2009, are designed for use prior to arrival and throughout the first year.

COSS addresses seven key study skills: academic writing, effective listening, effective reading, presentation skills, time management, making the most of supervisions, and exam preparation. Explanations, practice exercises, key points and additional resources are provided for each study skill.

Academic writing resources for supervisors: Dr Corinne Boz, CPPD

New and experienced tutors in the Biological Sciences collaborated to design three workshops: 'transitions to undergraduate academic writing', 'providing effective feedback', and 'preparing to write in exams'.

All participants received a pre-workshop package designed to introduce relevant materials and establish a common discourse for discussion. Ideas suggested by supervisors via a Google Doc were incorporated into the workshop and afterwards participants received copies of all the materials used or produced.

Feedback from both new and experienced tutors has been very positive: many felt more confident about supervising, particularly in giving constructive feedback, and appreciated the space to discuss supervising with colleagues.

Academic writing resources for students: Dr Joanna Page, MML

On arrival at University many students struggle to adapt to the critical reflection expected in essays, as it differs to school-level approaches which encourage simple or fixed ideas. Dr Page has developed a series of downloadable pdfs (with related crib notes for supervisors), which supervisors can work through with their students to introduce them to academic writing styles and skills. The resources are discipline-specific; for example, students are invited to develop essay plans for real MML examination questions.

The resources are all available online and students are encouraged to use them outside supervisions to reflect on their writing style, and as part of their revision.

Maths enrichment: Steve Hewson, NRICH

NRICH is a joint project between the Faculties of Mathematics and Education, supported by Transkills. It aims to help students to develop contextualised mathematical skills by offering challenging and engaging activities, developing mathematical thinking and problem-solving skills, and placing rich mathematics into meaningful contexts.

stemNRICH explores the mathematical contexts underlying science, technology and engineering through physical, relevant and engaging applications. The resources may be used by sixth formers as preparation for the transition from A-level mathematics to the mathematics embedded in university science courses.

Transition practices

During the workshop attendees mapped when and by whom students should be introduced to key transition issues. Opinions varied about both of these issues; however it was clear that support should be provided and that ideally this support should be made available during the year at appropriate points, rather than being concentrated into a single induction period.


In the course of a short discussion attendees agreed on the importance of understanding changes to secondary education and how they could affect the skills and knowledge of university entrants. Ideas included: talking to current students, acting as parent governors, and getting involved in national debates about the future of the secondary curriculum.

It was agreed that training for supervisors should cover transition issues and how to support students, as they often play a critical role in helping students to manage the transition and successfully taking responsibility for their learning. Participants acknowledged that there was some variation in the quality of student experience across the Collegiate University, although the standard is generally very high, and welcomed initiatives like Transkills which share good practice.

Transkills update (October 2009)

As part of the Transkills project a set of online resources have been made available to current undergraduates. Feedback will be sought during 2009-10 and, subject to the results of evaluation and consultation, some of the resources may be made available to students in subsequent years prior to their arrival in Cambridge.

For further information about any of the following, contact Keith Johnstone, Academic Leader, Transkills Project (email: kj10 at

Student resources

1. Undergraduate Skills Directory

The Skills Directory is a searchable database of online resources for undergraduates at the University of Cambridge, including those produced by the Transkills Project, to support their academic development. The Directory is intended to be used by students looking for advice, practice, information and support in their work. The resources in the Directory do not supplant the advice and support given by supervisors, Directors of Studies or any staff involved with teaching within the University. Rather students are advised to use the resources to supplement guidance given by teaching staff. The Directory currently contains over 300 online resources, and will continue to grow throughout the academic year.

Keith Johnstone, Academic Leader of the Transkills Project said: 'It's been amazing to see the wealth of resources provided by faculties and departments to support student learning. In addition, we have developed a wide range of online resources to aid the transition of students to university study.'

Dr Rob Wallach, Secretary to the Senior Tutors' Committee commented: 'The Skills Directory brings together, for the first time, a wide range of resources from across the University to support both postgraduates and undergraduates. The new Transkills materials, in particular, provide excellent support for undergraduates which will facilitate and make more rewarding their first year studies'.

The Pro-Vice Chancellor for Education, Professor John Rallison said: 'The resources developed by the Transkills Project will help to underpin the University's commitment to support students to enable them to fulfill their full potential at Cambridge.'

Links to the Undergraduate Skills Directory will be provided to students through CamTools, the University of Cambridge Skills page and the CUSU website; faculties, departments and other University institutions may also wish to link to the Undergraduate Skills Directory through their own web and CamTools sites. Further information about how to add a Skills Directory button to CamTools sites is available at . In addition to a University news item on the first day of Term, all 2009 Freshers will receive publicity about the Undergraduate Skills Directory early in Michaelmas Term.

The Skills Directory can be accessed via CamTools, the University's Skills Portal (, and CUSU's website.  Faculties, departments and other University institutions are also encouraged to link to the Directory through their own web and CamTools sites.  For information about how to add a Skills Directory button to CamTools sites please see:

The Skills Directory was featured as a University news item on the first day of Term and all Freshers will receive publicity about the Directory early in the Term.

2. Cambridge Online Study Skills (COSS)

COSS was developed in collaboration with the University of Cambridge's Language Centre to provide a generic set of study skills resources. The key topics covered are: Academic Writing, Effective Listening, Effective Reading, Making the Most of Supervisions, Managing Your Time and Preparing for Exams. Each topic within COSS can be accessed independently of the others. In each section an explanation, one or more practice activities, a summary of the key points and a set of resources for further study are provided.

COSS can be accessed via the Skills Directory, and University institutions may also wish to link to COSS through their own websites. COSS has been designed such that in subsequent years it could be made available online or be distributed as a DVD.

3. Academic writing

In addition to COSS, the Transkills project is committed to developing discipline-specific resources to support the academic development of students. Student academic writing packages have been developed in Biological and Biomedical Sciences (covering academic writing; using feedback; referencing and plagiarism; and exam writing) and Modern and Medieval Languages (in collaboration with Joanna Page) which will also be of value to other science and arts first year students respectively. These packages complement the resources for supervisors described below. Additional packages will be developed during the academic year.

4. Maths skills

stemNRICH has been developed in collaboration with NRICH (and specifically with Steve Hewson) to support exploration of the richness of the vital mathematical ideas underlying science, technology and engineering in thoroughly physical, relevant and engaging contexts.

The application nodes bioNRICH, chemNRICH, physNRICH and engNRICH are specialised to a particular discipline whereas the two mathematical sections, core scientific mathematics and advanced scientific mathematics explore the mathematics which forms the crucial parts of any scientist's toolkit. These resources are targeted at students studying A-level and first year undergraduates to facilitate their development of contextualised mathematical skills. They may also be used as part of induction activities.

Preparatory problem sets have also been developed for Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Engineering and Applied Mathematics. Finally, online MathTutor and StatTutor resources have been made available to students for general maths support.

Students can access both the academic writing and maths resources via the Skills Directory.

Supervisor resources

1. Workshops

The Transkills Project in collaboration with the Centre for Personal and Professional Development has established an ongoing series of academic writing workshops for supervisors of first year Biology and Biomedical Science students.

The project team is willing to consider developing additional workshops to provide training of teaching staff and students in a wide variety of areas of academic practice - expressions of interest should be sent to

2. Online resources

Supervisor packages for academic writing in Biological and Biomedical Sciences as well as Modern and Medieval Languages (in collaboration with Joanna Page) have been developed; access is provided through the Graduate Skills Directory as well as through departmental and course websites.