Supporting academic transition: a focus on first-year teaching

This guidance was written by postgraduate students participating in the Centre for Teaching and Learning’s Student Experience Internship Scheme 2021, and is based on interviews they undertook with Oxford students. Each interviewee was asked to reflect on an early academic experience at Oxford (or their expectations of Oxford), and invited to share what would have improved this experience. While these interviews clearly do not represent all Oxford students, the themes that emerged across these interviews form the basis of this guidance and are further supported by evidence from educational research.

Before coming here, I couldn't even imagine what it would be like.

- Student in MSc International Health and Tropical Medicine


The vast majority of first year students will not have been in a university setting before, and many will be moving away from home for the first time. They are therefore likely to experience significant changes in their social and academic lives in a relatively short space of time. Excitement and anxiety are a normal combination of emotions for students during this period of transition. When teaching undergraduate first-years, especially during Michaelmas term, it is important to remember that what may seem obvious to you is likely to be completely new and possibly challenging to them. A key role for teaching staff is to help ‘normalise’ asking for help, e.g. by explaining to new students that this is part of the learning process.

Many of the approaches recommended for teaching first-year undergraduate students are essentially ‘good teaching practice’ generally, and the principles are likely to be broadly applicable to all students.

Whilst postgraduate students are generally more independent, graduate students will still require support, for example, adjusting to Oxford-specific terminology. Most postgraduates will be coming from a centralised rather than collegiate university and will also require guidance, such as when to seek support from their college and/or when to seek academic support from their department or faculty.  

Clear communication 

There tends to be an assumption in lectures and in classes and in approaches to essays and tutorials that you are from a British background. A lot of staff have talked about ‘oh, this is an A-level text’ and ‘oh, you would have seen this at A-level.’ I think those assumptions about who they're kind of teaching and who their audience and listeners are is something that could be worked on.  

- Undergraduate student in English

  • When teaching first-year students, it’s important to remember the diversity of their prior educational experiences. Most undergraduate students will not have experience with academic research, various formats of citation or the academic expectations of their discipline. They may also be anxious about things like how to address their tutor in class and/or by email. International students may also struggle to connect to culturally-specific examples used in teaching, or may not understand certain colloquialisms. Consider the small things you can do to help students develop their sense of academic belonging, e.g. by clarifying early on how they should address you in class and by asking them how they would like to be addressed.  
  • When asking students to undertake academic tasks, communicate clearly your expectations and where possible, provide them with examples of the standard of work expected of them. You might also create your own study support resources, but there are many excellent resources provided both by the University, colleges and departments/faculties to support students’ academic transition and these are available on the Oxford Transition Support webpage.

During the first lecture we had, the lecturer explained the process of writing a good essay, the mark scheme, and how to achieve the top marks. In this way, he gave us his ideal answer, which was useful, because I got a good understanding of each specification point.

- Undergraduate student in Medicine

  • One of the most straightforward and effective ways of supporting your first-year students is to communicate your academic expectations clearly and early, and to revisit these expectations as you progress through the term/year. This will minimise confusion later and provides students with a stable base from which to begin work at Oxford. 

Some ideas for establishing effective academic communities and communicating your expectations to first-year students are provided below: 

  • Introduce yourself to students, including telling them what you would like to be called and asking how they would like to be addressed. 
  • Explain your teaching approaches, for example, how you expect students to engage in tutorials/classes.
  • Explicitly acknowledge the differences between problem-solving at school/college and at University. 
  • Explain how you will be providing students with feedback on their work and your expectations for students to engage with this feedback. See the Oxford Teaching Ideas on giving effective feedback and engaging students in feedback.
  • Highlight key readings to support students in their assignments (see the effective reading lists resource).  
  • Clarify your availability for in-person/online meetings and/or in what timeframe you will respond to email queries etc.

Supporting skill development 

I wasn't quite confident enough to approach my tutor and ask all these questions because I felt like, oh, do other students know what they're doing? I'm the only one who doesn't know what I'm doing. It was quite disorienting.

- Undergraduate student in Archaeology and Anthropology

Academic writing 

A lot of my classmates were not fresh from undergrad or had an experience in writing papers. Most of them came from medical background. More support in terms of writing would be very helpful early on to set expectations. 

- Student in MSc in International Health and Tropical Medicine

Many Oxford degrees that are heavily essay-based do not require an essay-based qualification as a pre-requisite subject. Even students studying subjects such as English and History will feel uncertain about the expectations of essay writing in this new context and may lack confidence. 

In addition, students may be coming from a background with a very different style of academic writing, and many postgraduates have taken time to work between their degrees and will need to re-acclimate to academic writing. 

Below are some suggestions that may help you in supporting your first-year students’ academic writing/problem-solving skills:

  • Build your students’ confidence by reassuring them that academic writing and problem-solving skills develop over time and with practice. Providing your students with effective feedback on their work that explicitly identifies the strengths and areas to practice is particularly important.
  • Be aware of the range of support available to students from the Language Centre, for example, courses on Academic English.   
  • It may be helpful to direct your students to the Oxford Study Skills Centre’s Canvas site which also includes advice on general study skills. The Oxford Study Skills Centre also hosts workshops at participating colleges and training in study skills teaching methodologies.    
  • The University has developed a new Oxford Transition Support webpage for students which directs them to institutional, college and departmental/faculty-level support for their academic work. 
  • See the Oxford Teaching Idea for more detailed practical tips on providing guidance on essay-writing (ADD LINK). 

Labs/practical classes

First years are likely to have a wide range of prior experience of lab/practical-based work and some may be lacking in confidence and/or familiarity with basic lab/fieldwork and/or problem-solving techniques. 

Some suggestions to support your students include:

  • Providing pre-recorded demonstrations to alleviate nerves, boost students’ confidence and prepare them for practical classes. See biochemistry laboratory based practicals for an example at Oxford.  
  • Clearly communicate your expectations of lab/practical classes. This can be done in advance, for example, through your Canvas site.  
  • Design lab/practical classes to be inclusive to boost first years’ sense of academic belonging. See the CTL resource on inclusive lab practicals for more detail.  

Digital learning  

First year students, both under- and postgraduate, may not be familiar with using Canvas, the University's Virtual Learning Environment. It is helpful for students if you can clarify early on how you expect to be using Canvas and other digital tools (such as Turnitin and ORLO) in your teaching. You could also direct your students to IT Service’s Online tools, a student-facing webpage with information on using these tools.   

Using 5th Week to reinforce academic expectations and boost students’ confidence

The notorious ‘5th week blues’ describe the lull in productivity and motivation often felt by students (and staff!) during the mid-point in term. You may find that first-year students need a little extra support at this time. For undergraduate students and postgraduate taught students, 5th week of Michaelmas term is an ideal time to revisit and reinforce academic advice given to your students in Freshers’ Week, which is often lost amidst all the material students are expected to absorb in their first few weeks. This might also be a good time to evaluate your teaching to see if there are changes you could make to enhance your students’ learning experiences. 

Other ways in which you might use 5th week to support your new students include:

  • Discussing students’ progress with them individually (e.g. at the end of a tutorial or during a short 1:1 meeting) or incorporate this explicitly in your feedback on their work. If there are any areas where they need additional support, direct them to relevant resources.  
  • For PG students, 5th week may be an ideal time to meet again with their College Advisor. During your initial meeting in 0th/1st week, you could pre-arrange a time for a mid-term meeting.  
  • Using class time to focus on a particular academic skill. You could survey your students to find out what topic they would find most beneficial. The CTL resource on methods to evaluate your teaching summarises polling and online survey options.  
  • Redirecting students to helpful resources such as Bodleian Libraries workshops, Oxford Study Skills Centre resources and the Oxford Transition Support webpage.

Oxford Teaching Ideas © 2024 by Centre for Teaching and Learning, University of Oxford are licensed under Creative Commons Licence Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International .

We encourage you to adapt and build upon the material in any medium or format to suit your individual teaching purposes (for non-commercial purposes only). If distributing your adapted material, we ask that you credit the Centre for Teaching and Learning.

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