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School of Biological and Behavioural Sciences

Teaching blog - helping first years make the leap

Our Teaching Interest Group and Education Research (TIGER) ran a seminar on helping first year students adjust with guest speaker Dr Harriet Jones from the University of East Anglia.  TIGER founder and chair Dr Rachel O'Callaghan blogs about the seminar.  You can also watch a recording of the event below. 


Harriet Jones from the University of East Anglia delivered a hugely interesting and topical talk on 5 December as part of our TIGER seminar series. Harriet talked about her extensive research that has focused on exploring ways in which we can create a smooth and effective transition for first year students at university.

There were so many important messages conveyed but the real highlights and thought provoking topics for me were these. Firstly, we need to match the students’ knowledge to our expectations of their knowledge so that our teaching efforts are more appropriate and effective. Harriet’s research suggests that student knowledge and lecturers’ expectations of biology-specific vocabulary in new undergraduates is often mismatched and she feels strongly that ‘we need to be more aware of students’ knowledge and skills when they arrive at university.’

Another important message was that we need to acknowledge the students’ perspective and their expectations of the university working environment. Harriet talked a lot about how we can improve assessment and feedback in appreciation of the students’ abilities and education to date. Research suggests that most first year undergraduates expect personalised verbal feedback for assignments - we all know that offering personalised verbal feedback to large cohorts is a huge time commitment but there are ways in which we can ease this load and also meet students’ expectations. Creating a more prescriptive feedback form or cover sheet is one way in which we can achieve this; although it takes time to create in the first instance, overall it is more time efficient and it allows the student to feel that the feedback provided is more personal, constructive and informative. This is something I will be raising for discussion at the next TIGER meeting so watch this space!

Harriet also shared some interesting results from studies where student focus groups provided recommendations on how feedback may be more valuable to them, some were obvious; annotations need to be meaningful, single ticks are of limited value, other suggestions were less obvious but then very obvious when outlined; use a green pen when marking, students are more receptive to comments and respond more positively to green pen as opposed to red pen – so obvious, so easy and so effective! Another suggestion was to make the first comment a positive one, students say that both positive and negative comments can be helpful but starting with a positive comment, creates a more open and positive mind set in the student.

Harriet identified the many challenges that we face teaching first year undergraduates; their lack of writing, reading and arithmetic skills, their under developed time management skills and a need for guidance in terms of independent study – students are so excited when they arrive at university but the adjustment is hard, they are just not prepared for the expectations of university learning. Overall, Harriet feels we need to create time to help first years learn and we need to engage them in the feedback process but this does not mean we spoon feed them and striking the right balance is essential. We must guide and support them so that (a) they better understand the marking schemes we use (b) they can relate feedback from one assignment to the next (c) they fully understand the feedback language we use. We all know that students can meet our expectations and become great independent learners but the take home message is that they do need support and guidance in the early stages.

Please watch the above recording of the seminar to find out more.



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