by Karen Gravett
This blog draws on recent research into educational transitions within higher education. Student transitions are a central part of higher education policy and practice internationally. However it is striking that much of the work within this important area is underpinned by unquestioned assumptions surrounding what transition as a concept might mean. Too often understandings of transition defer to narratives that reinforce stereotypic and limited understandings of students’ experiences of life and learning.
In recent years, student satisfaction and successful outcomes for students have become key institutional priorities, and narratives surrounding transition can be seen to employ a number of recurring ideas in order to explain and regulate students’ outcomes. These include the navigation of distinct stages: induction; ‘welcome’ week; the ‘first year experience’, as well as conceptions of transition as a structured process, or a linear pathway, to be smoothed and bridged. Words matter. These narratives have implications for how students’ learner identities are constructed, as well as for how students are interpellated into discourse. Recurring tropes of bridges and gaps reinforce the implication of a personal deficit within the student, a ‘gap’ to be ‘bridged’ that exists from the very outset of a student’s experience at university. These metaphors are also underpinned by the assumption that individuals should adapt to their university environment.
Such narratives also ignore the multiplicity and diversity of individuals’ lived experiences. Depicting students’ experiences as uniform is particularly problematic given the reality of today’s diverse student populations and differing individual circumstances. Pathway metaphors also support a view that upholds individualised discourses of aspiration and resilience, and yet recent events remind us of how quickly trajectories can become unsettled, how easily linear pathways can be disrupted, through no fault of a student’s own. Within the narratives surrounding student transition, then, an intense focus on fixed time frames and ‘progressive’ outcomes can be seen to construct limiting timescapes of higher education and such fixed conceptions can be problematic for students who may for a variety of reasons need to ‘drop out’ or change direction.
Overall, the need for more nuanced understandings of students’ experiences into and through higher education has been brought into sharp focus recently with the unprecedented disruption to life and learning as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. Understanding difference becomes even more important as we begin to see how different learning experiences may be for different students – those with space to work at home, those with a stable home, those with access to computers, printers, broadband connections, those without ill-health or caring responsibilities. And other new questions arise: is it still appropriate to speak in terms of rites of passage, linear pathways and first year experiences? What does transition into higher education now mean given that are students are currently transitioning to online study and facing unprecedented levels of uncertainty and change? Perhaps it is time instead to consider how we can we foster greater consideration of the granularity of students’ experiences, considering that beneath institutional discourses there may lie a more nuanced picture: one where students’ experiences can be understood as diverse, messy, and rhizomatic.
Recent empirical research with staff and students also suggested the diverse, fluid and ongoing nature of students’ transitions at university as depicted in these students’ comments:
You’re constantly changing, you’re constantly meeting new people. (Laura, second interview)
I was already quite independent when I came to Uni … because my mum, she’s disabled, so I already do a lot of stuff at home for my brother. (Maria, first interview)
It doesn’t feel like I’m living the same experience as they would, even though we go to the same uni. (Mena, first interview)
In these studies, our data portrayed tensions between the stories, narratives and linear timescapes that surround traditional conceptualisations of student transition, and the fine-grained, messy, changing, becomings of students’ lived experiences. The implications of such a reconceptualisation thus offers new potential for a rethinking of approaches to theorising and doing transition, as well as raising new questions regarding our understanding of students’ experiences. A new question for institutions now exists: in how to reconcile the fluidity and rhizomatic experiences of students with the conventional linear and modular institutional approaches to the acquisition of knowledge that may be driven by neoliberal agendas of efficiency and managerialism.
Indeed, to date such traditional conceptions of transition have encouraged a focus on short term, practical, strategies to promote success, for example pre-entry, induction and welcome week initiatives. Perhaps instead we might wish to consider individuals’ lived temporal rhythms, the ongoing nature of learning and development within higher education, and the ongoing nature of transition itself. What would a rethinking of transitions as something necessarily troublesome, as rhizomatic, and as part of an individual’s ongoing series of becomings offer? Key implications will be a need for institutions to offer support beyond the initial stage conventionally termed transition, as well as to seek to depart from approaches that construct students as experiencing a homogeneous ‘student experience’, or as experiencing a transition period that should necessarily be managed, smoothed and eased at all. Rather, considering how we can share an understanding of the inevitable challenges and difficulties inherent within learning, and the ongoing nature of change and becoming may be more useful, particularly in our troubling times where we might conclude we are now always experiencing a period of transition, or becoming.
This blog post is based on research recently published in Studies in Higher Education and Higher Education Research and Development. Karen Gravett is Lecturer in Higher Education at the University of Surrey. She is an Associate Editor of the journal Higher Education Research and Development, a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, and a co-convenor of the Society for Research in Higher Education Learning, Teaching and Assessment network.