Who owns transition knowledge? Part 1

Below is the introduction for a paper I am writing about guiding transition and the role of mentors. While anecdotally and experientially I think the model I am developing works in all transitions, I have conducted a case study review of the the first year in Higher Education. I intend to disseminate the sections of my paper through my blog as I develop the ideas and would greatly appreciate any critical friendship that may wander past in the blogosphere and other aspects of social media. Enjoy Part 1.door-673000_1280

Transitions are receiving more and more attention in education research. Initially the realm of primary school to secondary school researchers, more and more key transitions have been identified and researched. Today we have education research that looks at easing the transition between early childhood to middle years of schooling, junior secondary to senior secondary, school to higher studies, doctorate to early career researcher, education to industry, and even transitions within industry like offline to online.

Transitions are big business. The ability to help people transition between different stages of schooling and work is a lucrative skill, knowledge or theory to have. This is particularly evident in the transition into Australian universities, where successful transitions (or more crudely, retaining bums on seats) is directly associated with funding.

To capture and organise this knowledge, researchers and professionals in the field of first year of higher education (FYHE) transition have over the past five years begun to formalise the process of transition by writing transition curriculums. These curriculums are informed by half a century of theorising and empirical research culminating most recently a transition pedagogy proposed by Sally Kift (funded by the Australian Council of Learning and Teaching). This pedagogy outlines the expectations that underlie the development of a transition curriculum that places knowing the transitioning students at the core. While there is a plethora of empirical research that informed this pedagogy, the role of the person that owns this knowledge in order to disseminate it effectively has yet to be conceptualised.

Central to easing this transition is the mentor or the person that owns the transition knowledge in order to provide guidance. In universities, this role has become a job description. Student advisors as a professional or academic role are tasked with answering queries about university expectations, intervening when transitioning students are struggling, and counseling students about their options when life outside of university begins to encroach. However, it is not possible for the student advisor to hold all the knowledge necessary for a successful transition; the students who attend university are simply too diverse.

To address the need for a wider network of transition advise, many universities have hired specialist first year academics or have placed expectations on their academic staff to engage with first year pedagogy. Policies about early assessment, emailing non-attendees and responding actively to student feedback have become integral to how a course is conceptualised. While individual academics might not own the big picture knowledge of transition they can provide informal advice, particularly when they have developed a supportive relationship with their students through course activities. However, despite intervention strategies and well framed and scaffolded assessment, each individual student is responsible for their own success.

The transition to FYHE literature is heavy with research questioning and analysing first year students’ ability to cope with the demands of university. The literature either bemoans or tests the ability of first year students to be autonomous in the learning, confident in their ability to navigate university expectations or find friends. The literature also highlights the diverse nature of students and the personal hurdles that many have to overcome to access higher education. While university transition curriculums can acknowledge that these hurdles exist and adjust their structure and expectations to suit, they cannot live the life of each individual for them. Individuals are usually advantaged by a support network outside of the university that shares knowledge that helps navigate their personal concerns.

In the last decade it has become easier to evidence that advice about university comes from places outside of the physical place. The advent of social media, particularly Facebook, has seen a growing bank of research on the role of social media in learning and sharing learning tips through course or degree Facebook pages. There is also a mixed reaction to the usefulness of these online spaces. Whether useful or not, researchers now have evidence that the knowledge of understanding university is also owned by the community at large.

In effect, I believe that people have at least four zones of mentoring available to assist their transition. How frequently people access these zones and give them precedence could determine the success of a transition or at very least the level of anxiety surrounding transitions. In future blogs I will review literature around the role of transition mentors and continue to develop a mentoring model to inform the framing of transition curriculums using the empirical conclusions of the FYHE as a transition case study.

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