Supporting students' academic journey: Getting started 3. Creating the right conditions
This section of Supporting students’ academic journey looks at three ways you can help to create a learning environment where students can succeed. These are: in supporting students through the various transitional stages, in your role as a personal tutor, and in helping to manage student expectations about the university learning environment.
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A student will experience several transitions throughout their period of study: into university, between years and beyond university. Supporting a student during the stages of transition makes their chance of success better and their lives easier (and ultimately, yours as well).
Apart from the academic and personal/developmental aspects of transition, students also contend with the transitions caused by specific events in the academic cycle and with (re-) creating a sense of belonging. These all take time and are likely to affect academic performance. Bear in mind that the transition into university may be more difficult for some than others - students with disabilities or mental health issues, BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic), Widening Participation (such as students with caring responsibilities or from a care background) or international students may have extra barriers to overcome.
You can help by thinking about the anticipated journeys of students on your course. Students are likely to need incremental introduction and exposure to different approaches to learning, teaching delivery and assessment, as well as to the academic content. This will influence not only what is taught and assessed at which stages, but how, and to what extent.
You will need to be explicit about the conventions within your discipline: show students how to format work, conduct research, refer to the literature, and ensure that the requirement is consistent across their programme. Avoid making assumptions that students know what ‘good work’ looks like. Examples and clear assessment criteria can help.
Case study: Integrated portfolio assessment
The School of English has developed an integrated portfolio assessment, with a common approach to learning and teaching for each level of the BA English Literature programme to ensure students’ logical and cohesive progression and the development of a wide level of skills.
The portfolio approach aligns assessment across the programme and students are required to reflect on and re-draft a previous year’s assignment.
What you can do
- Scaffold student learning to move students progressively towards learning outcomes - Introduce them to new techniques and explain their purpose.
- Model or demonstrate new tasks and give students an opportunity to practice techniques before a summative assessment.
- Monitor understanding frequently.
- Explain the ‘rules of the game’ (eg what is ‘good writing’ in your discipline?), how you assess, and how to interpret and use marking criteria so students can improve learning and results.
- Signpost students to extra support when necessary.
As a personal and academic tutor, you provide the longest relationship with a member of staff that a student is likely to encounter, and the holistic nature of the role means that it offers support that covers all points of need. Students often feel intimidated by the prospect of a 1-1 conversation with a member of teaching staff, so it is up to you to welcome your tutee, to reassure them and to help them get the most from these sessions, both by addressing issues that the student raises and by ensuring that the conversation is relevant to their ‘age and stage’. You also play a key role in supporting students as they learn how to study in HE, and in how to use feedback for success.
The University has a set of personal tutoring principles which apply to all staff and Elevate has produced more in-depth guidance:
Case study: Raising Awareness, Raising Aspiration
The Faculty of Engineering worked on an Office for Students funded project that targeted personal tutoring as a means to narrow the attainment gap.
Known as RARA (Raising Awareness, Raising Aspiration), the project sought to boost students’ feelings of belonging and entitlement to the support available by providing guidance on personal tutoring and linking it to personal development based on the skills outlined in The Sheffield Graduate Engineer.
What you can do
- Schedule regular meetings with your tutees and explain why they need to attend.
- Build up a relationship - you will be writing their references!
- Keep students on track by offering a conversation relevant to the stage of their studies.
- Help students to keep an overview of their academic progress and get the most from their feedback.
- Make sure you are up to date with specialist services you can signpost to, such as Central Welfare and Guidance, Disability and Dyslexia Support Service, English Language Teaching Centre and Student Access to Mental Health Support (SAMHS).
- Ensure you adhere to your department’s chosen methodology for managing personal tutees.
University study may differ greatly from students’ previous experience of education, and it can be difficult for students to understand what is expected of them, and what they can expect from us. You can help by explaining the roles and responsibilities of the department, the staff, and the student themselves as part of course and module information, and build in ways to reinforce these expectations in the classroom. Our commitment is a useful starting point, and it is worth discussing with your students.
Highlighting the responsibilities of students can help to set out expectations of independent learning and development of other skills and graduate attributes. It is also helpful to build in explanations of how these skills are exportable to other contexts. In particular, it is worth explaining how feedback works in a university setting, and the student’s role in this, since it is likely to be different from their previous experience.
What you can do
- Be clear and realistic with your students about what you offer.
- Make your students aware of their role in the learning process, and their need to be responsible for their own learning journey.
- Consider providing a Sheffield Graduate Attributes map for students as part of their programme and assessment overviews.