This blog was kindly contributed by Daniel Dipper who is going into his second year at the University of Oxford. Daniel’s Twitter is @DanielDipper1.
Many University of Oxford students have commented on the jump from sixth form or college to university. This transition is potentially exaggerated by findings that students have lost around one-third of their learning time due to COVID-19 between March 2020 and April 2021, meaning they may not be as equipped for university study as previous years through no fault of their own. Therefore, I believe additional support is necessary for smoothing this transition. Increased contact time, study skills sessions and mentoring are provisions I recommend. These provisions would help to tackle the educational impacts of COVID-19, however, they could be applicable for smoothing the transition in a ‘normal’ year.
Increased face-to-face teaching gives a greater opportunity for personalised feedback and for explaining exactly what students need to achieve in their degree. From speaking to other students, one of the barriers identified was getting to grips with expectations for study and what we specifically need to do within our essays. More teaching would allow increased focus on these two areas and would support the transition from sixth form by making the drop-off in face-to-face learning less severe. In sixth form, I had 20 hours of contact time each week compared to an average of 10 hours each week in the first year of my degree. Attending additional 90 minute weekly seminars increased the structure of my week, led me to understand the topics I was studying more quickly and allowed me to synthesise my thoughts by hearing about the latest scholarship available. I also benefitted from at least one hour of revision sessions for every one of my first-year exams. These revision sessions were useful because they helped to simulate later year assessments. In my case, they were also the first ‘normal’ set of assessments I had really sat since GCSEs, meaning there was increased value in revision sessions as they supported me to perform as well as I could. Revision sessions allow you to look at the breadth of content covered increasing understanding of the content and confidence in applying my knowledge to more challenging questions that covered a number of topics. Revision sessions and more teaching time are two interventions which would support the academic development of students while minimising the jump to university through less of a difference in contact time.
I feel that as much of my History and Politics studies is about developing core study skills – like critical reading or essay-writing – as it is learning the content for exams. These study skills can and are developed simply through the progression of my degree. However, the impacts of COVID-19 mean students may not be in the same place academically as in previous years. Study skills sessions would bring value by bridging the study gap between sixth form and university.
Even when I generally understand expectations for an essay, it is useful to hear what I need to focus on, for example, that introductions ought to be a summary of the main body of the essay. The few hours each term I spent in study skills sessions improved my academic performance by reminding me of what I needed to achieve and made me feel more supported in my degree. Even more useful would be of study skills sessions which focus on applying the skills to actual essay questions or problems as opposed to discussing them in the abstract. Replicable approaches and examples as models for students would help to crystallise expectations. With my learning, I find that my performance depends as much on how I structure my essay as on my level of understanding of the content. Supporting students to develop an improved writing style is therefore advantageous for progression in their degree and for their career prospects. The skill of prioritising what to include in an essay and how to maintain coherence can be developed both through practice and through study skills sessions and interventions should reflect this.
Personalised mentoring was crucial to my academic development this year. I had five 30 minute sessions each term to discuss my academic progress and my approach to work with a tutor at my College. We would review my essay I had submitted for the week, considering how I intended to implement feedback I received for future. I found this helpful for supporting the development of my self-awareness of my learning and this personalised support made my learning more directly applicable to future parts of my course. There are of course concerns about implementing this in practice due to the resources necessary – and I am aware that compared to some other universities Oxford has far larger financial resources. However, I hope my suggestions can add value in explaining what some students find helpful to receive which may give inspiration for further ideas. Mentoring for all students may not be feasible, but there are other alternatives. For example, the offer of a 15 minute progress check session on a monthly basis, or students being able to discuss their progress in dedicated office hours, may be a potential alternative way of delivering similar benefit. Some form of personalised feedback or mentoring in supporting students to track progress and what they need to do next would be beneficial.
I have benefitted from increased contact time, study skills sessions and mentoring this academic year and I feel all of them were helpful for my academic development. As students start their higher education in September and October this year, I believe it is important to ensure they have the necessary support, particularly given the learning loss they may have experienced because of lockdowns and the need to isolate. Any ways to support students to develop academic skills to thrive in their degree and ensure students feel supported in the transition from sixth form to university will be valuable.
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Interesting to hear a real, live student comment on what they think is needed to improve their skills at a leading university.
More personal contact time is emerging as a major factor.
New students entering this September are likely to need similar support.