Transition and support experiences of first-year STEM students in distance learning universities

Aristeidou, Maria (2021). Transition and support experiences of first-year STEM students in distance learning universities. In: Horizons in STEM Higher Education Conference Proceedings, The Open University pp. 72–73.



Some of the stressors that first-year university students face are maintaining old and creating new relationships, acquiring new learning and assessment styles, and learning how to function as independent adults (Lowe and Cook, 2003). Further, students who are home-based experience difficulties with social transition. This study explores STEM students’ transition experiences from school/college to The Open University, an institution with a long tradition of distance learning. A survey was administered (February 2021) to a random university-wide sample of students, aged 18-19, who joined their first course in October 2020. Collected data in this study involved student responses in a 7-item Likert scale exploring the transition and support experiences of students, and two open-ended questions in relation to (a) what/who has supported them to adapt to university life and learning and (b) recommendations for the university to strengthen this support system. Likert scale responses ranged from ‘strongly disagree’ to ‘strongly agree’; this study presents the proportion of agreement (agree and strongly agree) to the transition and support statements. Students’ comments in the open-ended responses were thematically analysed following inductive analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006).

Survey responses from 92 STEM students showed that the majority (78.3%) feel that the university and tutors hold them accountable for their learning. One in four students (26%) reported that they have been facing difficulties with their academic study and one in five students (19.5%) feel insecure about their academic progress. Over half of the students (55.4%) agreed that they would discuss academic-related concerns with their tutors and one in four (24%) with the university’s community. With regards to their social experience, 44.4% of the respondents reported that they find it difficult to establish university friendship networks and integrate into university life, and 25.5% have been satisfied with socialising online with their study groups. Themes related to student support include the course structure (accessible and easy to use website, content structured in weeks/blocks, checkboxes, set expectations, study planner, and cut-off dates). Second, they include the course content (slow start of the module, content in multiple formats, good instructions, self-assessment exercises, many tutorial options, opportunities for self-regulation, and optional tutorials). Other themes involve induction (introduction tutorials and forums, freshers events, and contact lists) and support (students support services, supportive and responsive tutors, plenty of available resources, and frequent university communication). The main theme, related to student recommendations, is interaction with other students (organised student introductions, more visible events, opportunities to meet students of the same age and same interests). Other recommendations relate to assessment (more practice questions, more explicit instructions in assignments, and formal writing training), and support in transition (academic writing training, time management training, smaller blocks, more introduction tutorials). These findings enhance our understanding of first-year STEM student support in distance learning and have important implications for designing suitable distance learning environments.

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