Reflections on university transition from a new staff member By Dr Alana James

I started university this year, or at least it feels like I have upon starting my new job as a Lecturer in the School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences (PCLS). Every face around me is unfamiliar, the campus seems an unnerving maze, and simple processes have become logic puzzles. Oh the joy I felt at using a printer successfully (let’s not mention the attempts at scanning a document). There are many enjoyable aspects – meeting lovely new colleagues and joining in the School’s coffee mornings for example – but the transition is more disorientating than I expected. At the end of my first week I was grateful for some downtime at home, and found myself reflecting upon how my experience compares with the transition to university for new students.

New students face the same challenges I am but may also be living independently, away from their support network, for the first time. Many go home each day to a new place and have to figure out new washing machines and cookers never mind printers, as well as try to get along with housemates. For those commuting there are other challenges, including being at the mercy of traffic or public transport, and trying to forge friendships between classes. I have worked in universities before, and am able to draw upon previous experience; many new students arrive without having spent much, if any, time in a higher education environment. We know that factors such as being the first in your family to go to university or having a disability can make the transition even harder.

My own disorientation in these first days at the University of Reading has reminded me how all-encompassing the transition to university can be. As an academic my focus is often upon ensuring my new students have the academic skills needed to be an independent learner, but it’s important to be mindful that this is just one aspect of the overall transition experience. It’s easy to forget that the initial onset of new faces, places, and challenges can be mentally and physically wearing as well as exciting. When I meet my new students at the start of the next academic year I will try to recall how I felt when I joined the UoR.

One of the influencing factors in my decision to join the UoR was its commitment to student support, particularly mentoring. Harnessing our students’ potential to support each other through mentoring can ease mentees’ transition into university, whilst developing the mentors’ own skills and experience. I have previously run a scheme where psychology students mentored A-level pupils, giving them an insight into what university life is really like, and found that the mentors also benefited in terms of developing transferable skills and ideas about careers. Some recent research with my collaborator found that specialist mentoring, between qualified staff and mentees, is an effective form of support for students with mental health conditions and autism. I will certainly be encouraging my future students at the UoR to make the most of the STaR mentoring scheme and the mentoring connected to the Study Smart online course, first as mentees and later as mentors.

As for me, I am very much looking forward to the meetings with my staff mentor.

What are the benefits of Study Smart? A student perspective By Tom Wise (Part 3, Psychological Theory and Practice)

Being a student mentor for the Study Smart online course for Part 1 undergraduates has offered me an opportunity for personal development, through examining the perspectives of upcoming students to the University. It has allowed me to reflect on my university experiences, and develop further skills in communication. These are areas particularly important to me, as through reflecting on my experiences it has enabled me to understand my personal best practises, and supporting others to find their own. In addition, I have learnt to engage and effectively communicate with new individuals, about topics which are both basic and complex. Although with hindsight a topic (such as referencing) may now seem like second nature, for those initially transitioning to university, it can be extremely complex and daunting. Through developing this understanding, and through personal reflection and guiding others, it has really shown me how important a positive and supported university transition can be.

This course clearly can reduce student anxiety about coming to a different academic environment, made clear by comments during the course. However, there are other subtler benefits of this program, as this course can normalise and provide the understanding that “you are not alone”. When combined with other university wide programs, such as STaR Mentoring, it can provide a fully supportive, but not condescending transition; ensuring students enjoy the university experience for what it is.

Although there can be seen to be these higher-level benefits, Study Smart allows students to really utilize the university resources from day one. The course breaks down these resources, which can be worked through at the student’s own pace, before or during the first weeks at university, rather than being dumped onto them during Welcome Week, which can often leave students feeling very overwhelmed. This can mean that every student is able to receive uniform support into university.

Finally, I have enjoyed being a mentor on this program, as it has allowed me to give back to the University community. This has led me to some further questions which would be interesting to peruse further critically around how this course may impact on a student’s first term at the University, specifically their first formative assessment mark (in areas covered within this course) as well as their levels of anxiety. It would be interesting to evaluate whether students who have completed the course do feel less anxious than those who have not; this could demonstrate even further the benefits of Study Smart.