Tending to the Transition: Exploring the impact that the reformed A Levels will have on University learning – April 2018 Update

April 2018 Update

A student-focused project, run by students themselves

In September 2015, the government began implementing the new and reformed ‘linear’ A-Levels – replacing normally modular-assessed subjects, with multiple assessments throughout the year, with exams at the end of the course. Incubator fellow Dr. Matt Finn and his team of student researchers investigate the effect this has had on current and prospective students and how this can inform future education strategy.

We are a team of eight undergraduate students, led by Dr Matt Finn, undertaking a ‘Success for All’ project for the Education Incubator. The project aims to examine students’ transition from their last year of school to university following the implementation of the new reformed or ‘linear’ A Level. Although the project encompasses the elements of students’ social and emotional transitions, the academic facet of the transition is our primary focus, building on past research1. The project seeks to identify both the challenges and opportunities encountered by students in order to better ‘bridge the gap’.

The project is being run by Student Researchers who are currently studying at the University of Exeter, and thus our own transition, from further to higher education, is fresh in our minds. The team’s ability to empathise with the participants in focus groups has helped to stimulate honest discussion within them.

What’s happening?

The project is approximately half way through completion as the team is currently at the mid-point of data collection. Our research has been concentrating on Biology, English and Geography A-Levels and the research team features undergraduates in each one of these subjects.

Initially, the project began with a literature review, because immersing ourselves within the academic terrain would be vital to move from our own experiences to incorporate the insights of existing research. It proved pivotal in helping to ensure focus groups maintained a precise focus and flow, enabling us to give prompts to provide further understanding of students’ experiences.

Focus group conversations are taking place with four parties: A-Level students and their college teachers, and first-year University students and respective members of teaching staff, those significantly involved in first-year teaching.

‘Employing this qualitative methodology has allowed flexible, participant-led discussions where ideas can be considered by the whole group’

Each focus group is categorised by subject, meaning there is a representative focus group for Biology, English and Geography. This will help us to discern whether the trends established are within or across subjects. Employing this qualitative methodology has allowed flexible, participant-led discussions where ideas can be considered by the whole group. This form of discussion lends itself to producing a variety of responses from participants, as they can comment on whether they dis/agree with others’ thoughts.

Anticipating a disjunction

The project is seeking to establish the impact of the new A Levels on its students, in order to identify specific areas of the education process which requiring ‘bridging’ upon entering university education. Reading academic literature prior to beginning the project, suggested some universities may be ill-equipped for helping students adapt to new content, new assessment structures and the requirement of different skills to those taught via A Levels2.

Ultimately, revealing the key impacts that the transition has on students, will stimulate appropriate responses in schools and universities to help implement suitable academic support.

Looking forward

The team hopes to collate the findings into two separate reports – one for school staff and the other for universities. If these insights can provoke change on both sides of the transition, it is hoped students’ success in both the short and long term can be maximised through this student-centred approach3.

‘Ultimately, revealing the key impacts that the transition has on students, will stimulate appropriate responses in schools and universities to help implement suitable academic support.’

Afterwards, our aim is to run workshops with staff at the University significantly involved in first-year teaching, to share the recommendations which arose from the project. The team also hopes to present its research at future conferences to help influence the development of academic support.

1 See for example Tate, S. and Swords, J., (2013) ‘Please Mind the gap: students’ perspectives of the transition in academic skills between A-level and degree-level geography’, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, vol. 37, issue 2, pp. 230-240 and Ferreira, J. (2018) Facilitating the transition: doing more than bridging the gap between school and university geography, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/03098265.2018.1437397

2 Norton, L. et al, 2009, ‘Helping students make the transition from A level to degree level writing: a staged action research approach’, British Educational Research Association Annual Conference.

3 Hill, P. et al, 2010, ‘From deficiency to development: the evolution of academic skills provision at one UK university’, Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education, Issue 2.



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The University of Exeter’s Education Incubator scheme. Promoting pedagogic innovation and collaboration with an aim to enhance learning across the University and beyond.

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