Postgraduates may not have studied in a long time

It is easy to assume that because a student has completed an undergraduate degree that they will have the necessary academic skills for postgraduate study. Given many of our students may not have been at university for 10-30 years, this makes it essential to scaffold student’s academic skills and transition them back into the conventions and expectations of higher education.

Learning environments and technologies constantly change

The ways in which we engage students and the learning environments and tools we utilise have undergone rapid changes, therefore it is essential that we transition students into these environments and approaches.

Research has highlighted that postgraduates need support in using technology for learning and that it needs to be part of the curriculum (Blount and McNeill, 2011). Additionally, postgraduates want to have a sense of belonging to a community (Falloon 2011) whether learning environments are online, face to face or both.

Postgraduates speak

I think I would've really benefited from a course orientation, you know if the course coordinator has sat us all down in a room at the beginning of the semester and said:' welcome...this is the structure of the courses, this is how it works, these are the expectations, etc' that would've been great. (Hamlin et al, 2016, p 12).

Academics speak

One of the things that we found is that very few of the students who come into the coursework program have any learning skills. We are talking about people who have probably completed an undergraduate degree somewhere between five and 40 years ago. Even those that have done an undergraduate degree fairly recently, find now they are coming back to university and the digital environment is totally different to what they had before. (Hamlin et al, 2016, p.11).

Building postgraduates' confidence

There has been an assumption that postgraduates are competent in higher education study and have confidence in their abilities. Recent research has found that postgraduates struggle with confidence and their sense of identity in academia (Littleton & Whitelock 2005). They need support in building confidence in themselves and their developing academic identity; this will support them in participating in their academic community.

Applying transition pedagogy to postgraduates

A ‘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.

First-year curriculum principles

As part of the project a series of guiding principles was developed to support designing the first-year learning experience.

The following provides an overview of the principles and strategies to support the postgraduate 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.

First-years need support to develop an understanding of the expectations of the university, the course and the unit.

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 (see Self-evaluation tab)
  • Providing study and research advice
  • Explaining the technologies used in the course/unit and where to find support with these. Such as providing links to the Student LEO guides
  • Developing course/unit orientation activities and communicate the benefits of these widely to students
  • Acknowledging the challenge of balancing work, study and other commitments.

Know your students

Curriculum needs to respond to the diversity in student postgraduate population. Drawing on this diversity can enhance the learning experience for all students.

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.

Build a solid foundation

A good first-year curriculum should be designed to build a strong foundation. Skills and attitudes should be developed sequentially and student needs taken into account.

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
  • Giving an overview of the course that focuses on the students’ pathways
  • Embedding academic literacy - scaffolding skills needed for assessments and later units
  • Providing links to academic skills support, such as ACU Academic Skills Unit.

Design for active learning

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

See the Engagement page.

Teachers can support this by:

  • Creating opportunities for students to build relationships with peers and staff
  • Asking for student input
  • Scaffolding the development of student’s group work skills
  • Replacing traditional lectures with other more active options
  • Explaining difficult concepts or common issues in the discipline
  • Using authentic assessment, such as, case studies.

Begin small, increase complexity

First-year students need variety 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 (see the student self-evalution tab)
  • Build in opportunities for self and peer review (see the peer-to-peer tab)
  • Build in regular opportunities for feedback.

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.
  • See the following pages for further ideas about embedding feedback:

Source: Principles from Kift (2009) and strategies from Cooper & Buchanan (2013).

Whole-institution approach

The transition pedagogy approach warns against transition and scaffolding solely being addressed by ‘de-contextualised, “bolt on” skills courses’ (Kift, 2009). We need to move beyond the co-curricular activities approach and focus on a whole-institution strategy. Read the following to find out more about ACU’s postgraduate strategy.


First-year postgraduate student experience

Transition Pedagogy

The following may be useful if you would like to understand transition pedagogy more.


ALTC Kift Senior Fellowship. (2009). First year curriculum principles checklists. Retrieved from

Blount, Y., & McNeill, M. (2011). Fostering independent learning and engagement for postgraduate students: Using a publisher supplied software programme. International Journal of Educational Management, 25, 390–404.

Falloon, G. (2011). Making the connection: Moore’s theory of transactional distance and its

relevance to the use of a virtual classroom in postgraduate online teacher education. Journal of Research and Technology in Education, 43(3), 187–198.

Hamlin, Gary; Kinash, Shelley; Crane, Linda; Bannatyne, Amy; Judd, Madelaine-Marie; Stark, Ashley; Eckersley, Bill; Partridge, Helen; and Udas, Ken, "National research on the postgraduate student experience: Case presentation on the first year postgraduate student experience (Volume 1 of 3)" (2016). Learning and Teaching papers. Paper 142.

Littleton, K., & Whitelock, D. (2005). The negotiation and co-construction of meaning and understanding within a postgraduate online learning community. Learning, Media and Technology, 30(2), 147–164.

Cooper and Buchanan. (2013). Prezis for Academics playlist [videos]. The Seahorse Project. Retrieved from

Tobbell, J. and O’Donnell, V. (2013). Transition to postgraduate study: postgraduate ecological systems and identity. Cambridge Journal of Education. Vol. 43, No. 1, 123-138.

Page last updated on 27/02/2020

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