• All students bring with them a wide variety of prior learning experiences, motivations, interests and cultural understandings.
  • Transition pedagogy is designed to scaffold and enhance the first-year student learning experience in Australian higher education.
  • Students experience transitions at different stages of their learning journey and these multiple transitions need to be acknowledged and supported.

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Student Diversity Supporting students through transitions

Student Diversity

 diversity students

"Diversity refers to implicit and explicit understanding that each student is unique."
(Morgan, 2013, cited in Eckersley et al, 2016, p 7).

ACU’s focus on the student experience is designed to provide students with a wide range of opportunities for interaction and engagement and promote a sense of belonging. Awareness of the demographics, needs, and drivers of various cohorts enables targeted and effective support.

All students bring with them a wide variety of prior learning experiences, motivations, interests and cultural understandings. Teacher awareness and understanding of students is at the centre of ACU’s aim of supporting the student learning journey “by ensuring excellent educational experiences that meet the needs of all students” (ACU Education Strategy, 2020). Birbeck, McKellar and Kenyon (2021) found that “caring teachers remain a key component to student success throughout university”. Some key student groups to be aware of:

International students

Prior to the impact of Covid-19 on international student numbers, the number of international students studying in Australia had been steadily increasing, with 399,078 international students enrolled in Australian Higher Education institutions in 2018, this was an increase of 14.3% on 2017 (Department of Education and Training [DET] 2018). International student enrolments and the multicultural make up of Australian society mean that higher education classrooms in Australia are culturally and linguistically diverse.

International students can experience a different learning pathway to domestic students and some of these differences were highlighted in the 2014 First Year Experience survey (Baik, Naylor, & Arkoudis 2015). Baik, Naylor and Arkoudis (2015) found that of those students who had completed a university enabling course (pathway program), the majority were international students. Understanding the different pathways students follow can enable better support through learning transitions.

The 2014 First Year Experience survey also found that while social integration of international students improved over the period of the survey, they can still experience difficulties with their studies (Baik, Naylor, & Arkoudis 2015). However, it is worth noting that international students stood out as being more likely to seek advice and assistance regularly from teaching staff than domestic students (Baik, Naylor, & Arkoudis 2015). International students also reported different motivations to domestic students for undertaking university study, with parental expectations more important to international students compared to domestic students.

International students also face a range of challenges distinct from domestic students, including:

  • Higher financial cost for courses
  • Studying course full-time (no part-time options accessible if living in Australia)
  • Developing their English language whilst learning in English, including learning the language of their discipline
  • Living in a different culture
  • Experiencing a different university culture
  • Their country of origin may have very different copyright rules.
Indigenous students

ACU has a commitment to ‘distinctive, inclusive, dynamic and student-centred education’ (ACU Strategic Plan 2020-2023). A component of this commitment is to widen participation and outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and embedding Indigenous Knowledges into curricula. This commitment requires a whole-of-institution approach. Liddle (2016) emphasises the need for a whole-of-institution approach to culture and governance if full engagement of Indigenous students is to be achieved.

Research has shown that indigenous students are under-represented in participation in higher education (Bradley et al, 2008 cited in Barney 2013; Baik, Naylor & Arkoudis 2015). Despite progress in recent decades, “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people remain significantly underrepresented in Australian universities” (Behrendt, et al., 2012). Baik, Naylor and Arkoudis (2015) found that despite a strong commitment to their studies, Indigenous students experienced isolation, financial stress and self-doubt and a higher rate of subject withdrawal.

Research (see Hutchings, Bodle & Miller 2018; Behrendt, et al., 2012; Liddle 2016; Barney 2013; Baik, Naylor & Arkoudis 2015) has demonstrated that indigenous Australian students, undergraduate and postgraduate, face different barriers to non-Indigenous students.

Unique challenges

  • Indigenous students’ rates of participation, retention and completion are much lower than those for non-Indigenous students
  • Many students are first-in-family to complete tertiary study, and are more likely to lack a network that is supportive of postgraduate study
  • More likely to come from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds and have lower personal income
  • Cultural isolation – it is common for students to feel isolated, this can be more acute for indigenous students, with limited (or no) indigenous peers to interact with.

“…it was an isolating experience because you do it on your own and so you ask people in our [Indigenous] community what a PhD is and very few people understand what it necessarily involves or is about and even a Bachelor degree half my family didn’t know what that meant and I didn’t know what that meant either until I did it … so it can be culturally isolating as well…” (Barney, 2013, p520)

Regional, rural and remote students

Students from regional and remote backgrounds are under-represented in higher education and the proportion of students from these backgrounds actually decreased from 1994 to 2014 (Baik, Naylor & Arkoudis 2015). Understanding and addressing the needs of this cohort of students is important to enable inclusive student-centred education.

Regional, rural and remote students experienced different challenges to their metropolitan students. In particular they experience financial and emotional challenges associated with separation from their communities (Baik, Naylor & Arkoudis 2015). Regional, rural and remote students face challenges different from their metropolitan counterparts. In some cases, moving to metropolitan areas may not be a viable option for studying, as accommodation costs can be prohibitive, and students may have financial and family responsibilities.

Unique challenges

  • Regional and remote background students often need to move to attend university
  • Often first in their family to go to university
  • They are more likely to have dependents and be studying part-time

Supporting students through transitions

"Transition pedagogy seeks to mediate the diversity in preparedness and cultural capital of entering students" (Kift, 2009, p.9).

Kift’s (2009) work in transition pedagogy is designed for all first-year students, whether undergraduate or postgraduate. Transition pedagogy evolved from an ALTC senior fellowship grant into developing a pedagogy to scaffold and enhance the first-year student learning experience in Australian higher education. However, its application is broader than first-year student learning experience. Students experience transitions at different stages of their learning journey and these multiple transitions need to be acknowledged and supported.

Students encounter challenges and transitions right across their program of study and curriculum and delivery needs to be designed to support students throughout their learning journeys (Birbeck, McKellar & Kenyon, 2021, p.1). Transition should be conceptualised as a process that takes place over time (Tett, Cree & Christie 2017). This process goes beyond the first year at university and encompasses their experiences across the learning journey (Tett, Cree & Christie 2017). Birbeck, McKellar and Kenyon (2021, p.7) found that “Students described their learning experience and challenges in terms of continuous transitions”. Student in this study specifically identified three key transitions:

  • the transition into first year of university
  • transition from first year to second year
  • transition from learning theory to applied practice-based learning

Understanding that there are transitions in the learning journey, beyond the first year, can enable more targeted support and development of a shared approach to addressing issues and challenges (Birbeck, McKellar & Kenyon, 2021, p.9). Teacher awareness is at the centre of student success. The following principles and strategies can be used to help support students through transitions; principles from Kift (2009) and strategies from Cooper & Buchanan (2013).

Principle 1: Transition - University is a mystery, help students understand it

Curriculum design and delivery needs to be explicit in taking into account that students need support in negotiating the transition from their previous educational experience to their new one. Students need support to develop an understanding of the expectations of the university, the course, and the unit. This understanding should be embedded in curricula and should be conceptualised from a holistic approach based on students moving through multiple transitions across their learning journey.

Teachers can support this by:

  • Clearly articulating the course design
  • Explaining university policies
  • Modelling their reasoning by speaking their thinking out loud to students
  • Facilitating the development of students' self-evaluation skills
  • Providing study and research advice
  • Explaining the technologies used in the course/unit and where to find support with these.
  • Developing course/unit orientation activities and communicate the benefits of these widely to students
  • Acknowledging the challenge of balancing work, study and other commitments.

Principle 2: Diversity - Know your students

Curriculum and teaching practices need to respond to the diversity in the student population. Drawing on this diversity can enhance the learning experience for all students. All students bring to the classroom their own unique, mixed cultural and linguistic background, and each classroom has its own specific mix of identities. Understanding this cultural and linguistic diversity, and being able to engage with this diversity, requires teacher awareness.

Teachers can support this by:

  • Getting to know their students. What is their background? Where are they from? What are their unique needs?
  • Drawing on students’ prior experiences; students from other locations, age differences, and cultural backgrounds can all add richness and foster engagement
  • Exploring topics from multiple perspectives
  • Varying learning experiences and approaches
  • Using inclusion and disability services where appropriate for additional support.

Principle 3: Design - Build a solid foundation

A good first-year curriculum should be designed to build a strong foundation. Consideration should be given to the different kinds of learning that comprise students’ learning journeys, and the students’ learning needs should be at the centre of education. This understanding should then be extended across the curriculum to enable support for transitions across the learning journey.

Teachers can support this by:

  • Developing students' learning skills across the course
  • Making students aware of the links between their current learning and future units in the course and profession where relevant, as well as ongoing personal learning needs
  • Giving an overview of the course that focuses on the students’ pathways
  • Embedding academic literacy - identifying skills needed for assessments and later units
  • Providing links to academic skills support, such as ACU Academic Skills Unit.

Principle 4: Engagement - Design for active learning

Engaging students in active learning and teaching strategies will help support their transitions.

Teachers can support this by:

  • Creating opportunities for students to build relationships with peers and staff
  • Asking for student input
  • Identifying a range of skills that will support students' group work
  • Replacing traditional lectures with other more active options
  • Explaining difficult concepts or common issues in the discipline
  • Using engaging and varied assessment, such as, case studies

Principle 5: Assessment - Begin small, increase complexity

Students need variety and progression in assessment and provision of timely feedback. Assessment should begin with smaller, less complex, low stakes items, with complexity increasing (and scaffolding decreasing) throughout the course.

Teachers can support this by:

  • Explain the university assessment process, such as how to submit, academic integrity, extensions etc.
  • Unpacking marking criteria, provide annotated work samples
  • Develop students’ self-evaluation skills
  • Build in opportunities for self and peer review
  • Build in regular opportunities for feedback.

Principle 6: Seeking timely feedback

Build evaluation into your unit using a variety of mechanisms to allow yourself to monitor students and provide timely feedback, intervention and changes.

Teachers can support this by:

  • Seeking feedback from students at the mid-point of semester about the unit, using various instruments - surveys, forums, focus groups, questioning
  • Integrating evaluation throughout semester. At the beginning of each week’s synchronous meeting ask ‘any issues, any feedback?’
  • Devising mechanisms to find out which students need support. Regularly following up behaviours such as, repeat non-attendance, regular applications for extension. Reviewing LEO Reports will help you notice patterns of behaviour in the usage statistics.
  • Connecting students to appropriate support such as, disability services, counselling etc.

Other resources

Baik, C., Naylor, R. & Arkoudis, S. (2015) The First Year Experience in Australian Universities: Findings from two decades 1994-2014. Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education, The University of Melbourne.

Barney, K. (2013). ‘Taking your mob with you’: giving voice to the experiences of Indigenous Australian postgraduate students. Higher Education Research and Development.

Birbeck, D., McKellar, L. & Kenyon, K. (2021). Moving Beyond First Year: An Exploration of Staff and Student Experience. Student Success Journal, 12(1). 82-92.

Behrendt, L., Larkin, S., Griew, R. & Kelly, P. (2012). Review of Higher Education Access and Outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People Final Report.

Cooper and Buchanan. (2013). Prezis for Academics playlist [videos]. The Seahorse Project. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XxAa0_gooEw&list=PLQxvL4PjJkJQeYmHXdRW0VrE9U86xlQRy&index=2

Department of Education and Training [DET] (2018). 2018 International student data: End of Year Summary of International Student Enrolment Data 2018.

Eckersley, B., Crane, L., Kinash, S., Bannatyne, A., Hamlin, G., Partridge, H., Richardson, S., Rolf, H., & Udas, K. (2016). National research on the postgraduate student experience: Case presentation on postgraduate student diversity (Volume 2 of 3). Canberra, ACT: Australian Department of Education and Training. Retrieved from: http://PostgraduateStudentExperience.com

Hutchings, K., Bodle, K. & Millar, A. (2018). Opportunities and resilience: Enablers to address barriers for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to commence and complete higher degree research programs. Australian Aboriginal Studies, 2018(2). 29-49.

Kift, S. (2009). Articulating a transition pedagogy to scaffold and to enhance the first year student learning experience in Australian higher education Final Report for ALTC Senior Fellowship Program. Queensland University of Technology.

Liddle, C. 2016 ‘First Peoples: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation in higher education’ in A Harvey, C Burnheim and M Brett(eds), Student equity in Australian higher education, Springer, Singapore.

Tett, L., Cree, V.E. & Hazel, C. (2017). From further to higher education: transition as an on-going process. Higher Education, 73. 389-406.
Page last updated on 26/04/2023

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