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Education Fellowships

The transition to university: the challenges of knowledge (re)packaging

20 September 2023
Student studying

Welcome to the Education Fellowships monthly themes.

Throughout the academic year we will be recognising and engaging a range of teaching and learning themes throughout our blog posts, top tips videos, CPD and World Café’s. We will be reflecting on how the themes impact our teaching practice and sharing evidence-based tips on how they can be used to further enhance learning and teaching.

To start the year, we are looking at the theme Induction and Transition.


This blog post was written by Dr Katy Jones, Senior Lecturer in the Centre for Language and Communication Research, the founder and Director of the Writing Development Centre in the School of English, Communication and Philosophy and the Academic Lead for the Cardiff University Senior Fellowship Programme.

The transition from secondary education to university can be a challenging time.

  • […] the move to university is a personal investment of the cultural capital accrued through school and college education. It is also a significant social displacement, which may be intensified where the student is mature, is the first in their family to attend university, or is from an ethnic group under-represented in the university population (Briggs et al. 2012, p3-4)

More specifically:

  • Increasingly, students, particularly those from backgrounds traditionally under-represented in HE, find the shift from a more controlled learning environment to independent study difficult (Kyndt et al. 2017; Thompson et al. 2021)​
  • Students feel unprepared for the expectations of proactive engagement and responsibility, and for unfamiliar writing styles, assessment-types, and grading standards (Thompson et al. 2021)​
  • Students increasingly feel pressure to be ‘successful’ during university (and beyond), likely due to concerns over fees, the cost-of-living crisis, and long-term debt (Thompson et al. 2021)​

Clearly, much of the above is outside our control as educators, but let’s consider the first two points. Baker (2018) discusses differences between A-levels and university in the way knowledge is packaged and valued, and in the impact this shift has on reading and writing as students transition to university. At A-level, knowledge is packaged neatly in a textbook, offering an accessible, controllable and convenient source of information with ‘correct’ answers. Demonstration of knowledge, usually in the form of writing, involves highly prescribed structure and content. Fast forward four months, students are faced with:

  • an increase in the volume, difficulty, and depth of knowledge ​
  • an increase in the range of text types
  • changes in writing at ‘surface’ level (e.g. level of formality)​
  • changes in ‘habitual’ writing practices (e.g. making detailed notes about sources)​
  • changes in engagement with knowledge (e.g. expectations to do wider reading and develop their own understanding, working with the knowledge of others)

(Baker 2018)

This shift, from knowledge as given to knowledge as something to be located and constructed (Baker 2018, p405) is something we, as university educators, can be aware of and actively support in our students.

Predominantly, our assessment of student knowledge is conducted through writing. Therefore, writing ‘well’ becomes an indicator of ‘success’ – what Lillis and Scott (2007) call ‘high-stakes’ writing. Developing student literacies should therefore be our priority from day 1.

How? Here are just some ideas:

  • encourage talk: talking helps unpack/repackage knowledge and organise/clarify ideas, so offer opportunities for student talk about writing before writing
  • show what ‘good’ looks like: work with exemplars, good and bad. Encourage students to ‘notice’ what writing looks like in their subject/discipline
  • remove the fear: make space in class for short and varied ‘low-stakes’ writing
  • encourage peer-support/feedback writing activities
  • offer early opportunities for formative feedback
  • encourage self-reflection and student response to feedback

We need to move away from the expectation that pre-university schooling should prepare students for the rigours of university thinking and writing. We need to meet students where they’re at, not where they ‘should’ be, thus easing the transition to university life.


Baker, S. 2018. Shifts in the treatment of knowledge in academic reading and writing: Adding complexity to students’ transitions between A-levels and university in the UK.  Arts & Humanities in Higher Education, 17(4), 388–409.

Briggs, A.R.J., Clark, J. a Hall, I. 2012. Building bridges: understanding student transition to university. Quality in Higher Education, 18(1), 3–21.

Kyndt, E., Donche, V., Trigwell, K. a Lindblom-Ylanne, S. 2017. Higher Education Transitions: Theory and Research. Llundain: Routledge.

Lillis, T. a Scott, M. 2007. Defining academic literacies research: Issues of epistemology, ideology and strategy. Journal of Applied Linguistics, 4(1), 5–32.

Thompson, M., Pawson, C. ac Evans, B. 2021. Navigating entry into higher education: the transition to independent learning and living. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 45(10), 1398-1410.

Continuing Professional Development

The Cardiff Learning and Teaching Academy host a range of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) opportunities throughout the academic year open to all staff, including those supporting online and blended learning.

Our CPD programme complements our Advance HE accredited Education Fellowships Programme and our online and asynchronous resources and all workshops are mapped to the UK Professional Standards Framework (UK PSF).

Next month’s theme will be: Student engagement