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The ones that get away

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Why do many first-year university students drop out of their studies? New research comparing the expectations and attitudes of college and university tutors may shed some light. Christine Tyler explains.

Most school and college leaders will have experienced that mixture of concern, disappointment and frustration when a former sixth form student announces that he or she has dropped out of university. It was as a result of just such a reaction that a team of researchers from sixth form college and university backgrounds began their investigations.

The starting point was a desire to understand whether there are significant differences between the teaching and learning environment of college and university and whether it could help explain why some students find it so difficult to make a successful transition.

The University of Salford has a well-established network of associate colleges - both sixth form and general FE colleges - spread across Greater Manchester. It was the ideal opportunity to create links between FE and HE teachers.

The same questions were posed to both FE and HE respondents, allowing for a direct comparison of practice across the sectors. Eight college tutors (four from sixth form and four from general FE colleges) and ten university staff were interviewed. All had experience in the management and delivery of business-related qualifications.

Through the research, six areas of difference between college and university emerged.

Programme aims and objectives

College teachers wanted to give students an understanding about business and business practices with firm emphasis on achievement of the qualification - often expressed as a desire to enhance opportunities for students themselves. However, a focus on targets and performance indicators used to manage the institution and its teachers meant that the qualification itself often became the objective.

The main emphasis throughout the HE interviews was on the need for students to develop appropriate intellectual and conceptual skills: "to reflect, to learn from experience, to identify and process relevant information, synthesise knowledge, evaluate, demonstrate independence and be capable of making one's own decisions, an ability to think, take a position, to justify and argue your case."

Or as one respondent put it: "To teach students to think. That's it!"

Teaching and assessment

The class-based activities in college and university were similar, involving PowerPoint presentations, worked examples, case studies and class discussion. In most colleges, work experience, visits and special events involving local business personnel were common.

In contrast, university teaching was totally classroom-based. Theory was contextualised through case studies and content was often deliberately linked to students' actual work experience.

College teachers used informal assessment to reinforce learning or check progress and often began lessons with a review of previous knowledge. Practice exam papers and homework were used to monitor progress and there was extra support for students who were falling short.

However, only one university tutor mentioned the value of informal checks of individual students and several HE tutors felt that formative assessment was of limited value because "if you don't mark, they won't do it".

Teacher's role

College participants saw their roles mainly in terms of curriculum delivery and student progress. Promoting student interest and enjoyment in the subject seemed to be less important.

Most university tutors defined their role in terms of developing an interest in the subject, alongside independent learning and thinking skills and "a culture where people learn to solve problems and get satisfaction from that".

Student's role

SFC and GFE tutors emphasised predominantly factors relating to behaviour (like attendance and punctuality), working to meet deadlines and achieving expected standards.

Unsurprisingly, university tutors expected students to be proactive, engaged and motivated. Several university tutors interviewed noted that they wanted students to prepare for class but that the students were reluctant to do so.

Concerns about poor attendance and punctuality were noted by HE teachers as a constraint that had to be worked around rather than a factor to be addressed.

One said: "I don't think that (students) fully understand the purpose of doing a degree at university. We, as lecturers, expect them to learn. We expect them to have autonomy."

HE teachers often expressed concern about the decline in standard of student intake or preparation for university study, though college tutors had similar views about student entry on their courses.

Guidance and support

College and university tutors were likely to provide students with hand-outs and access to additional resources to support learning, either on paper or in a virtual learning environment (VLE).

In colleges, the aim appeared to be to provide most or all of the information required whereas in the university it was often intended as a starting point.

One HE tutor said: "I want people to give me answers that aren't simply from my hand-outs and lecture notes...proof that they have done some reading around the subject."

Evidence of these expectations was apparent in recommended reading lists and module handbooks but there was little evidence that checks on access or understanding of additional material were carried out in HE, other than through modular assessments.

Torrance et al (2005) identified that the increasing transparency of assessment criteria in post-16 qualifications has resulted in much coaching, practising for examinations and formative feedback to improve coursework grades.

The study supported these findings. An FE colleague said: "We do err on the side of giving them masses and masses of help...but do you stand back and let them sink a bit?"'

University tutors were more likely to consider the student group as a common entity and expect individuals to take the initiative to seek additional help. All participants said that one-to-one support was provided if a student had identified problems but only one actively appeared to recognise the importance of good staff-student relationships.

Teacher monitoring methods

College tutors highlighted the importance that managers put on success rates and value-added measures as evidence of effective teaching.

Responses from university tutors revealed far less emphasis on formal evaluation of performance. Only one commented on the increased scrutiny and interest shown in pass rates, retention and proportion of higher grade degrees by senate.


In conclusion, college In conclusion, college tutors seem to see their roles as teachers of a subject, taking due regard of the needs of the student. However, heavy emphasis on performance targets also leads to a focus on the qualification as the primary goal. Students know what they are required to do and feel relatively secure with their tutor, who manages and monitors their learning.

University tutors see their role as motivating students to develop an enthusiasm for the subject and promoting independence, self-confidence and problem-solving abilities. Teaching effectiveness is not formally assessed and the review process focuses mainly on maintaining standards. As a result, poor performance is usually interpreted as a failure of the student rather than as a problem with teaching.

There is concern that first-year university students often fail to engage adequately, miss classes or do not read around the subject. However, less learning supervision and impersonal staff-student relationships can lead students to feel insecure, thus reducing their motivation and self-confidence and, in the case of some undergraduates, prompting withdrawal from the course.

It was also clear that many new students did not understand the difference in requirements of university from college, for example in attitudes to the resubmission of coursework.

Another explanation for failure to engage may be that students are only motivated by assessment. This may not be a problem exclusive to university since a similar concern was raised by at least one of the college tutors.

However, colleges may be exacerbating the problem because of external pressure to cover the syllabus in limited time and for students to achieve at least minimum target grades. This sometimes forced tutors to adopt an instrumental approach - teaching to the test rather than engendering excitement.

Finally, there is the question of whether students entering university understand why they need to become independent learners and whether they are developing the skills required.

The superficial similarities in teaching methods used in college and university - use of PowerPoint, hand-outs and so on - may mask the fact that learning and assessment objectives in university differ from those in college. It may not be recognised by students until they fail an exam.

What next?

As a short-term response to the early research outcomes, the university department is devising a standard module delivery guide for all first-year tutors. In the longer term, the research team will encourage the development of materials to support student transition for use in joint college and university tutor training sessions.

If teachers can come to understand where their expectations and experiences of students differ and work together to resolve the issues identified, their students can only gain.

Christine Tyler is ASCL's colleges specialist and is helping to establish an ASCL Research Support Network for members. Contact christine.tyler@ascl.org.uk


Torrance H., Colley H, Garratt D, Jarvis J and Piper H, (2005), The impact of different modes of assessment on achievement and progress in the Learning and Skills sector, LSRN, www.itslifejimbutnotasweknowit.org.uk

Crabtree H, Roberts C and Tyler C, (2007), Understanding the problems of transition into Higher Education, www.ece.salford.ac.uk

Key learning points so far...

Transition to higher education

  • FE and HE teachers have different teaching methods and approaches to teaching. However, because they appear superficially similar, many students do not recognise that HE requirements are different until it is too late.

  • HE tutors should make expectations and requirements very clear to first year students and provide proactive, rather than latent, support opportunities.

  • College tutors see their roles foremost as subject teachers; HE tutors focus more on motivating students to develop enthusiasm for the subject, as well as independence, self-confidence and problem-solving abilities.

  • The focus in FE on meeting assessment targets means students receive more personal support and coaching. As a result, many find it difficult to work independently at university.

  • In FE, practice should encourage and include some opportunities for independent learning. In HE, tutors should take into consideration the learning experiences that students bring with them.

  • Most students adopt a mechanistic approach to study. Both FE and HE tutors should encourage a more holistic approach through a variety of teaching and study methods.

  • FE and HE tutors will find it useful to meet to discuss each other's approaches and to recognise the different focus that each sector offers.

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