How can Business Schools best support the ‘outsider student’ in their transition to Higher Education?

For any student making the transition to higher education, retention and success are predicated on building a sense of belonging among peer groups (Thomas, 2012), but recent changes in the students we recruit equally highlight the importance of considering students in transition more as individuals (Goodchild, 2017). We used focus groups and surveys to look at the experiences of students who were working alongside their studies and had completed the first year of their programme in a local college before transitioning to university. Would these students feel that they were joining a community of practice or, as in Hwang and Arbaugh (2006), engage and disengage with peers strategically based on assessments?

Themes in our data included the familiar transition issues of feeling lost, unaware of support, and simply surviving. However, we also found substantial self-organisation. Students engaged with informal groups, online and offline, and study in ways which puts them outside the traditional university experience but which, through their focus on efficiency, may still capture the essence of what it means to be an independent learner. We therefore wanted to offer some thoughts on how to helpfully work with students in the spirit of efficiency.

Many of our findings were locally-significant, suggesting small changes in helping students to find information: wandering around an unfamiliar campus after a last-minute room change can reinforce feeling like a visitor on campus. This fits well with Langan et al.’s (2013) finding that course organisation and administration influence overall student satisfaction. Common concerns such as timetables being available well in advance and avoiding last-minute room changes are even more important to peripheral students who may not know their way around or have to arrange work and/or child cover. Similarly, scheduling classes on the same day makes it easier to justify a day off work.

Information flow was vital. Students reported feeling overwhelmed by emails and simply stopped checking them. Instead, WhatsApp groups from peers still picking up their emails or direct emails from a tutor to a personal email account were the only sources of information. This creates problems when institutions have policies of only contacting students through their university email, but points to a more fundamental issue around efficient email use. Scraps of information or irrelevant spam will mean that key information is lost in the shuffle, and the response from our busy students seems to be that they will simply stop checking their university account and hope that a friend shares important information with them.

In terms of identity, we find that these students are largely comfortable with slight outsider status. They study off-campus, finding coursemates who live locally and meeting in coffee shops or local libraries. They do as much as possible in advance and online. They expect university administrators to respect their time as professionals, so will simply short-cut to a colleague or academic tutor if processes are inefficient. Given that outsider students are also professionals, they will not be content with many university norms that full-time students have come to accept. One student’s experience gives a good example of such short-cutting being necessary:

"They [administrators] said they’d contact you closer to the time...I’d sent multiple emails saying ‘what’s happening?’ You just got emails back saying ‘Don’t worry about it, we’ll get in contact when the time is right’...I rang up and said I need to speak to somebody. They put me through to [tutor] and she sorted it that day...if I hadn’t have pushed, I’d still be waiting."

One suggestion was to invite lecturers into some informal groups. This would keep some spaces free for students to have their private space and ask questions just to their peers, but would also create a useful space where information could be verified by lecturers and trusted. Spaces where students can ask questions and have lecturers comment already exist in VLEs, but it seems that these are not much used.

Our advice is to seek ways of ensuring current information is prominent so that rumours or misinformation are not spread. More than this, it may be worth considering that academics helping with routine enquiries such as room changes or how to reset a Moodle password are not wasting their time but performing valuable relationship-building and trust-building work. Accounting for this in workload models may be more challenging. However, even well-run universities will likely appear shambolic to an outsider, so anything we can do to make their experience more efficient could have a substantial impact on students’ relationship with the university.

By Professor Monika Foster (University of Sunderland), Tim Mulroy (Sheffield Hallam University), and Dr Mark Carver (University of St Andrews)

Goodchild, A. (2017). Part-time students in transition: supporting a successful start to higher education. Journal of Further and Higher Education.

Hwang, A., & Arbaugh, J. B. (2006). Virtual and Traditional Feedback‐Seeking Behaviors: Underlying Competitive Attitudes and Consequent Grade Performance. Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, 4(1), 1–28.

Langan, A. A., Dunleavy, P., & Fielding, A. (2013). Applying Models to National Surveys of Undergraduate Science Students: What Affects Ratings of Satisfaction? Education Sciences, 3(2), 193–207.

Thomas, L. (2012). What works? Student retention & success. London: Paul Hamlyn Foundation.