From TAFE to university: Paving the pathway with more than good intentions

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1 Abstract Iris Ambrose, Marie Bonne, Kate Chanock, Sandra Jardine Academic Language and Learning Unit, La Trobe University, Australia Pathways from Technical and Further Education colleges to university offer students who do not initially aspire to higher education a second chance to realise their academic potential. These pathways are particularly important for students in country (rural) areas with limited educational opportunities; and where credit is granted enabling students to commence part way into the degree, they can complete it sooner. However, they may also be disadvantaged by missing the orientation to university programs and the first semester s induction into their disciplines cultures of enquiry; and by not belonging to a cohort that commenced together. Based on research at four regional campuses of an Australian university, asking students who had articulated from TAFE about their experiences of transition, Academic Language and Learning Staff have developed a range of measures to support future students more effectively. This paper reports on what we learned, and on the initiatives arising out of it. Introduction This paper discusses work-in-progress by Academic Language and Learning (ALL) staff in a project to support the transition of students who move from vocational colleges of Technical and Further Education (TAFE) to study at the regional campuses of a large, multi-campus Australian university. The project underpins institutional efforts to meet the objectives of the Bradley Review for broadening participation in higher education (Bradley, 2008). In country areas, where students are likely to be from lower socio-economic strata, to be less successful at school, and to participate less in higher education (Parliament of Victoria, 2009, pp. xiiixv), the pathway from TAFE offers significant opportunities for non-traditional students to realise their academic potential. All commencing students experience challenges related to differences between their previous context of learning and the cultures of enquiry at university; but the disparities are typically greater for students articulating from TAFE than for school-leavers. They face a difficult transition from highly structured, closely scaffolded, vocationally-oriented, competencybased studies to less directive, theoretically-oriented studies, often requiring considerable amounts of reading and writing for assessment (Aird et al., 2010; Aitchison et al., 2006; Brown et al., 2011; Watson, 2006). Our project arose out of a concern with such difficulties, both identified in the literature and evident from our experience as Academic Language and Learning (ALL) staff working with students at both TAFE and university. In 2012, we conducted research via surveys and focus groups at the four regional campuses of our university, to learn more about the specific

2 challenges facing students who had made the transition between sectors, and how they experienced this transition. What we learned We distributed an anonymous survey to students who could be identified as having come from TAFE (requiring a search through many different enrolment codes, as many students from TAFE do not identify as such). The responses by 76 students pointed to a range of problems. After providing information on their age, gender, TAFE course, and credits granted toward their university degree, respondents were asked what types of support they encountered during the transition, and which they had found most and least helpful. They were asked how their experience of university compared with the expectations they brought with them, and to specify what challenges they had encountered. Finally, they were asked what advice they would give to future students coming from TAFE to university and how they thought the university could improve the transition experience. Next, focus groups were recruited by inviting both students who had volunteered for this on their survey forms, and students known to the ALL staff. Twenty-six students attended 7 focus group sessions of an hour s duration across the campuses. A thematic analysis of students comments fleshed out what we had learned from the survey. Twenty-five students said their TAFE had offered no support related to university; 17 had received information about applying or transferring; and 9 got advice and encouragement. Arriving at university, students were offered support in several forms, but found most disappointing, judging from low ratings of most helpful (Table 1). Support by Uni for transition How many used most helpful Uni help How many used Transition programs 2 1 Peer mentors 10 2 Orientation activities Student services 16 2 Materials in print/online 32 6 Admin help 3 1 Modules/tutorials/ consultations to develop skills 18 2 Library staff 1 1 ALLU workshops/ 1:1 6 6 Table 1: Students use of transition supports available at university most helpful Students expected university to be different from TAFE, with greater independence and less interaction with lecturers; a heavier workload, especially with more reading and writing and higher standards to meet; different skills and learning styles for different types of assessments, different marking systems; and greater focus on theory. Once embarked upon their course, just under a third (21) found university more challenging than they expected. All the expected differences were confirmed, and the surveys and focus groups identified, in addition, some more technical or procedural challenges, including time management/ organizational skills; administrative arrangements; managing web-based components of subjects; group work; online lectures; research; and referencing.

3 Recommendations from students Because they had not received transition support at their TAFEs, these students were aware of the importance of information provided in Orientation ( O ) Week. However, they recommended that much more be done in this time, particularly with an introduction to the online learning environment (LMS) they were expected to use. They emphasised that the first few weeks of university were critical for them. Many had used the support systems the university offered, but they found that asking for help can be hard and recommended more inclass support. In addition to the general program of academic skills support, the students recommended workshops about group assessment tasks that were causing them concern and were not encountered when they studied at TAFE. What we are doing In sharing their experience with us, the 2012 student respondents impelled us to think of improvements for subsequent years. A range of interventions is currently being trialled at the regional campuses, in response to two broad themes emerging from the students comments: (1) they wanted the university to recognise them and their particular situation; and (2) they needed support at every stage: from TAFE, through commencing studies, and into their first university semester. An online resource for students at every stage of the transition We successfully applied for a grant from the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program to create a TAFE to Uni Survival Guide for 2013 that specifically addresses the challenges facing this cohort. Much of this Guide is in the voices of students, as each challenge is introduced with a relevant quotation from the focus groups. Advice (in a friendly, rather than a bureaucratic tone) responds to each quotation, with links to relevant information on the university s website. The Guide has been distributed in paper form to transitioning students this year, and will be available in electronic form next year so that students can access it at any time, location, and stage of their studies. It will be shared with local TAFEs, so TAFE staff and students can be more aware of the nature of university study and the resources and supports available to commencing students; and students who commence partway through their degree course will have quick, compact access to the information and resources they miss by not attending orientation and first semester subjects. A different kind of Orientation At Shepparton Campus significant changes were made to Orientation which involved all commencing students, not just the TAFE articulation cohort. Where in 2012, the emphasis was on social events, in 2013 the program had much more focus on academic orientation. Students were grouped by faculty with academic peer advisers present in all sessions. Explicit instruction was given about the Learning Management System with Subject Learning Guides displayed and discussed. There were still opportunities to socialise but also time to talk with more experienced students, about what is expected at university, for example group assessment (which our respondents had highlighted as problematic).

4 This change of focus also extended to a specific orientation program for Nursing students from TAFE, who are given credits for the first year of university and commence in second year. These students have in the past had poor retention rates. Here again peer mentors who had entered university from the same pathway were employed to assist the new students. At a debrief meeting after Orientation, Health Sciences lecturers noted that this year the students were beautifully prepared in that they were already familiar with some university teaching and learning conventions. A social connection for members of this cohort At Bendigo Campus students who self-identified as coming to university from TAFE were invited to a meeting during 2013 Orientation Week. Ten students came along, the Survival Guide was distributed and they got to know each other. They were appreciative and reassured that their needs were being taken into consideration. Times for Study Circles were offered but attendance was poor. Because of timetable clashes, and both students and staff simply being too busy in the early weeks of semester, the group was being suspended due to lack of critical mass. Interestingly, those same students have been spotted around campus and in the library studying together; that initial meeting must have prompted them to convene their own study group times, which is an even better outcome. At mid-semester another invitation will be issued for a meeting to assess how they are adapting to university life. Liaison with TAFE At Mildura campus the ALL staff member will speak to TAFE management and the Education Business Managers (Faculty leaders) at TAFE regarding what was learned from our research about transition to La Trobe. From this meeting, opportunities will be arranged for Latrobe lecturers to visit TAFE classes and speak with students about La Trobe options, credits and pathways. Moreover, the experience of liaising with relevant staff in TAFE to share this resource will develop networks to facilitate communications for supporting students from the beginning of their pathway from TAFE to university Discussion Questions Anecdotal evidence suggests our interventions are improving retention. Have any other universities worked with a similar cohort and put in place specific programs? How can we better meet the needs of those moving from TAFE to university without singling them out as a group, given that they are hard to identify administratively? Currently the numbers in regional areas making this transition are not high. How can we demystify university and increase TAFE students confidence to think of university as a viable option? Improving liaison between university and TAFE seems a critical area to focus on. Does anyone have experience or advice in this area?

5 References Aird, R., Miller, E., van Megen, K., & Buys, L. (2010) Adult Learner Social Inclusion Project: Issues for students navigating alternative pathways to higher education: Barriers, access and equity: A literature review. Brisbane: Queensland University of Technology. Aitchison, C., Catterall, J., Dockett, S. & Perry, B. (2006). Making it mainstream: engaging students who articulate from Vocational Education and Training (VET). Paper presented at the 9 th Pacific Rim First Year in Higher Education Conference held at Griffith University, Gold Coast Campus. Retrieved November 26, 2012, from Australian Qualifications Framework Council (2012). Australian Qualifications Framework. Retrieved December 9, 2012 from Brown, M., Withers, E., Down, C., Figgis, J. & McManus, J. (2011). Pedagogical practices across the tertiary sector: Summarising the literature on the pedagogical support for students moving from VET into universities. AVETRA 14th Annual Conference: Research in VET: Janus- Reflecting Back, Projecting Forward. Retrieved December 11, 2012 from 2011/2011-conference-papers Brunken, A. & Delly, P. (2010). Access to success. In G. Tchibozo (Ed.). Proceedings of the 2nd Paris International Conference on Education, Economy and Society, Vol. 1. Strasbourg (France): Analytrics. Retrieved December 11, 2012 from Cameron, H. (2004). Paving the way? The path to uni for TAFE students. Paper presented to the First Year in Higher Education Conference Retrieved December 11, 2012 from Parliament of Victoria, Education and Training Committee (2009). Inquiry into Geographical Differences in the Rate in which Victorian Students Participate in Higher Education Final Report East Melbourne, Vic, Victorian Government Printer. Retrieved November 20, 2012 from eliminaries.pdf Watson, L. (2006). Barriers to successful transitions from VET to HE: A case study of student pathways in early childhood education and care. Paper presented to the Ninth Australian VET Research Association Conference, April

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