Students and Universities - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents

Memorandum 48

Submission from Liverpool Hope University


Issue: Student support and engagement


    — The division of UK post-16 education into separately organised and funded sectors has led to increasing differences in the types of student learning, writing and assessment that are expected at A level and in Higher Education.— Those differences exacerbate the difficulties that many students experience in the transition to university study.— Initiatives to support and prepare students, and to make teachers and tutors more aware of teaching and assessment practice in sectors other than their own, can go only some way towards easing student transitions.— Policy changes to reduce sector differences in learning, writing and assessment will ultimately be needed to enable smoother educational transitions for students, especially those from less educationally privileged backgrounds.


    — The Flying Start project is a National Teaching Fellowship project (funded by HEFCE and managed by the Higher Education Academy) which is being conducted at Liverpool Hope University and the University of Derby, along with other partner institutions. — The project focuses on easing the transition from A level to degree level study, especially for students entering Higher Education from a widening participation background.

    — The project is multi-level, with elements focusing on practice (student transition mentoring programmes) and tutors (cross-sector communities of practice in student writing and assessment), as well as a policy strand to develop policy recommendations to reduce differences in learning, writing and assessment between UK educational sectors.


    — James Elander is Professor of Psychology at the University of Derby. He is a Higher Education Academy National Teaching Fellow, and has published research on student writing, student assessment, and student authorship.— Lin Norton is Professor of Pedagogical Research at Liverpool Hope University. She is a Higher Education Academy National Teaching Fellow, and has published research on pedagogical action research and many aspects of student learning, writing and assessment in Higher Education.

    — Glynis McDonough is manager of the Centre for Widening Participation at Liverpool Hope University. She has many years of experience with post-16 education in schools, FE and HE, has developed published teaching resources for GCSE and A level teachers, and leads the Liverpool Hope STARS Compact, a major pilot with 14 schools and over 100 students committed to developing cross sector teaching and learning innovations.


  1.  Post-16 education alone does not sufficiently prepare students for university study. One study showed that the majority of first year university undergraduates felt that A levels had not prepared them for university.[136] A comparative study of teaching methods found that A level students were not expected to study autonomously and development of critical analytic skills was mainly limited to preparation for specific exam questions, whereas HE students were expected to be more autonomous and were encouraged to develop more general analytical skills for assessment.[137] The consequence is that many universities find themselves having to offer classes in essay writing because students are unable to write critically.[138]

  2.  A major widening participation priority has been to provide preparatory support prior to university entry,[139] including outreach work at schools and FE colleges.[140] One transition programme focusing on the skills required for coping with teaching and assessment in HE, delivered just prior to entry to university, significantly increased HE retention and completion.[141] However, concern continues about transitions from schools to universities.[142] There is a demonstrable need for greater shared understandings of learning and assessment among practitioners across the school, FE and HE sectors,[143] and evidence that those understandings need to be discipline-related[144]

  3.  A developing feature of UK post-compulsory education is the emergence of dual-sector institutions providing FE and HE, and universities with close links to schools and FE colleges.[145] Those institutions have developed transition programmes focusing on generic study skills, peer mentoring, and residential experiences, which have been shown to improve university retention, progression and completion.[146]

  4.  Assessment criteria for university writing can be a useful focus for helping students understand what is expected in university essays and other written assignments. In Higher Education, research has shown that tutors and students have different understandings of criteria for written assignments such as "critical evaluation", and "argument".[147] Workshops focusing on those criteria have been effective in improving students' understandings.[148]

  5.  A very recent study compared A level and university students' understandings about what was required in university written assignments, and evaluated an intervention for A level students to help improve their understandings. The comparison between A level and university students' showed that:

    — A level students were more confident than university students about their understanding of the assessment criteria for writing at university.

    — A level students' understandings in fact revealed more superficial approaches to learning (remembering facts rather than understanding concepts) and more naïve epistemological beliefs (believing that knowledge is fixed and comes from authority rather than being constructed through the learner's active engagement).

  The intervention consisted of workshops to improve A level students' understandings of what is required in written assignments at university. The evaluation was a longitudinal, comparative trial in which participating students were tracked over time to assess changes and compared with students who received standard tuition. This showed that:

    — The workshops reduced A level students' previously overstated confidence in their understandings, thereby increasing their awareness that producing written assignments at university would present a new challenge.

    — The workshops promoted more sophisticated beliefs about essay writing, for example increasing the proportions of A level students who believed that structuring relevant material to the essay question is more important than including all the "right" information.

  This research, which is presently being evaluated for publication, concluded that interventions to develop more realistic understandings of what is required in academic writing could be used to prepare students more effectively for the transition to Higher Education.[149]

  6.  The student experience is one half of the picture and there is growing evidence to suggest that how university lecturers' conceptualise assessment and its purpose will determine the types of assessment they set and the way they mark them.[150] Recent in depth interviews with 29 lecturers from 18 disciplines at four universities showed that lecturers' assessment philosophy did not always match their assessment practice because of a number of external constraints, including:

    — students' expectations

    — institutional requirements

    — range of students

    — quality assurance procedures[151]

  Limited professional autonomy may also affect teachers and tutors in the school and FE context, with consequences for how students are supported in their academic writing.


  7.  At both Liverpool Hope University and the University of Derby there are well established Widening Participation Compact programmes that guarantee agreed numbers of university places for students achieving "lower" grades. The Liverpool Hope Widening Participation Centre has several years' experience of providing and evaluating Widening Participation initiatives, including a 4-year cross-sector collaborative project (the Syndicate Project) funded by Merseyside Aim Higher (

8.  The Liverpool Hope University STARS project is a Compact Scheme where 120 year-12 students from 22 local schools work with Hope undergraduate student mentors in a programme of monthly contact, special events and a four-day project focused on writing for assessment at A level. The programme focuses on the synoptic A level paper and reflective writing, as well as transferable competencies related to university assessment criteria.

  9.  At the University of Derby, the first UK integrated dual-sector institution, there is an FE college offering A levels on over 16 subjects, and a Compact Scheme with over 50 partner schools, whose students made over 11,000 individual applications to study at HE at the University in 2006-07. Over 90% achieve the grades they need and over 70% go on to enrol. The Compact Scheme employs undergraduate students as mentors and Compact Assistants in schools and colleges (, as well as operating an award-winning web site providing information about choosing courses, applying to university, study skills and being an effective student.

  10.  Moderate numbers of A level school teachers have expressed interest in working with university tutors on collaborative pedagogic action research projects. The main obstacles are the limited time that school and FE teachers have for activities away from the classroom, and their limited experience and confidence with undertaking action research projects. For this reason, providing collaborative support and Research Assistants is more effective than funding their release from classroom teaching and other duties.

  11.  Excellent resources exist to provide guidance and instruction in pedagogical action research, including Professor Lin Norton's newly published book.[152]

  12.  The existing pool of Compact Scheme student mentors can be given additional training to work as Transition Mentors with students in schools and FE colleges, and training materials can be developed that can be shared between schemes and institutions.

  13.  Web-based systems (eg Moodles and Wikis) facilitate information sharing and management between students and practitioners across sectors.

  14.  The A2 "synoptic paper" provides a useful initial focus for promoting analysis, evaluation and argument in pre-university student writing.


  1.  A level assessment should include more items of extended written composition.

2.  Assessment criteria for A level examinations should include greater emphasis on analysis, evaluation and argument in addition to knowledge of facts and information.

  3.  A level examination boards and universities should liaise and consult more closely with one another over their assessment criteria.

  4.  Preparatory courses in writing and assessment in Higher Education for prospective university students should be organised and funded jointly by the schools, FE and HE sectors.

  5.  Teaching staff in schools, FE and HE should be given greater incentives to collaborate in sharing and developing good assessment practice.

  6.  Training for university academic staff should include increasing their awareness of students' pre-university experiences of learning, teaching and assessment.

December 2008

136   Smith, K. (2004). School to university: an investigation into the experience of first-year students of English at British Universities. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 3, 1, 81-93. Back

137   Ballinger, G.J. (2003). Bridging the gap between A level and degree: some observations on managing the transitional stage in the study of English Literature. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 2, 1, 99-109. Back

138   Frean, A., Yobbo, Y. & Duncan, I. (2007). A level students unable to write essays. The Times, August 15, 2007. Accessed 10 December 2008. Back

139   Robertson, D. & Hillman, J. (1997). Widening Participation in Higher Education by Students from Lower Socio-economic groups and Students with Disabilities. National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education, Report number 6. Back

140   Yorke, M. & Thomas, L. (2003). Improving the retention of students from lower socio-economic groups. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 25, 63-74. Back

141   Knox, H. (2005). Making the transition from further to higher education: the impact of a preparatory module on retention, progression and performance. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 29, 103-110. Back

142   Times Higher Education (2008). Are schools failing universities? Times Higher Education, 10 January 2008. Back

143   Birnie, J. (1999). Physical geography at the transition to higher education: the effect of prior learning. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 23, 49-62. Back

144   North, S. (2005). Different values, different skills? A comparison of essay writing by students from arts and science backgrounds. Studies in Higher Education, 30, 517-533. Back

145   Burns, D. (2007). Conceptualising and interpreting organizational boundaries between further and higher education in "dual sector" institutions: where are they and what do they do? Paper presented at the International Conference on Researching Transitions in Lifelong Learning. University of Stirling, 22-24 June, 2007. Accessed 10 Dec 2008. Back

146   Bathmaker, A. M. & Thomas, W. (2006). Positioning Themselves-Higher Education Transitions and "Dual Sector" Institutions: Exploring the Nature and Meaning of Transitions in FE/HE Institutions in England. Paper presented at SRHE conference, Brighton. Accessed 10 December 2008. Back

147   Harrington, K., Elander, J., Norton, L., Reddy, P., Aiyegbayo, O. & Pitt, E. (2006). A qualitative analysis of staff-student differences in understandings of assessment criteria. In C. Rust (Ed.), Improving Student Learning Through Assessment: Proceedings of the 2005 13th International Symposium (pp. 235-247). Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development. Back

148   Harrington, K., Norton, L., Elander, J., Lusher, J., Aiyegbayo, O., Pitt, E., Robinson, H., & Reddy, P. (2006). Using core assessment criteria to improve essay writing. In C. Bryan & K. Clegg (Eds.), Innovative Assessment in Higher Education (pp. 110-119). London: Routledge. Back

149   Jessen, A. & Elander, J. (under review). Development and evaluation of an intervention to improve Further Education students' understanding of Higher Education assessment criteria: three studies. Journal of Further and Higher Education. Back

150   Norton, L. (2007). Using assessment to promote quality learning in higher education. In A. Campbell. & L. Norton (Eds.), Learning, Teaching and Assessing in Higher Education: Developing Reflective Practice (pp. 92-101). Exeter: Learning Matters Ltd. Back

151   Shannon, L., Norton, B., Norton, L. & Phillips, F. (2008). Contextualising Assessment: The Lecturers' Perspective. Paper presented at the 4th biennial EARLI/Northumbria Assessment Conference, Potsdam, Germany, 27-29 August 2008. Back

152   Norton, L.S. (2008). Action Research in Teaching and Learning: A Practical Guide to Conducting Pedagogical Research in Universities. Abingdon: Routledge. Back

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