P7 – Bridging the gap between student expectation and experience: The Lived Experience of Transition to Higher Education

Room A – Monday 15:30-16:30

One hour paper

Dr Martina Crehan

Health Professions Education Centre; Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland

Martina Crehan is Curriculum Innovator, with the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. Her professional roles and research interests have focused on many aspects of the First Year Experience. She has recently completed a doctorate in Trinity College, Dublin focusing on the lived experience of transition to Higher Education.


This paper summarises some key aspects of research centred on what it means to be a student undergoing transition to higher education. As the study was designed to focus on student perceptions of the transition, a phenomenological perspective for inquiry focused on exploring and interpreting data from students’ lived experience


Student retention and success in higher education has become a key international focus of research and practice (Yorke & Longden, 2008; Thomas & Quinn, 2006). Within this body of research, the process of transition to higher education and issues of student engagement and development within the first year experience are key themes (Wintre & Yaffe, 2000; Trotter and Roberts, 2006). There has been little qualitative research into why students remain: what motivates them to persevere with their studies and the factors which differentiate them from those who depart (Lynch et al., 2006). The transition from second level education to higher education, and the readiness of entrants to higher education for the demands of the new learning environment is widely debated (Smyth, Banks & Calvert, 2011; Hyland, 2011). However, outside of a widening participation context, the educational decision-making process and the associated familial and societal norms and expectations are under-conceptualised. Research focusing on the student perspective of the process of transition and adjustment into higher education requires some development.

Within student retention research and practice, the process of transition to higher education and issues of student engagement and development within the first year experience are key themes. This presentation will summarise some key aspects of research centred on what it means to be a student undergoing transition to higher education. As the study was designed to focus on student perceptions of the transition, a phenomenological perspective for inquiry focused on exploring and interpreting data from students’ lived experience and articulating the essences of meaning in their experience. Interviews conducted with first year students from three discipline areas focused on factors perceived by the students as influencing their educational decision – making process; the students’ perception and experiences of the transition process to higher education, and the development of the students’ perceptions of tertiary education and their own learning over the course of the first year of study. Amongst other findings, the research reveals that students experienced a disjuncture between expectations of higher education and lived reality. The discipline network also emerged as a key site and facilitator of acclimatisation. Whilst focused on a single institution, the process of analysis does contribute to the consideration of potential implications for first year higher education transition policy and practice. The narrative from the study also highlights the need to take account of the disciplinary context of learning, and the need for institutions to consider more closely the development of generic skills in harmony with subject-matter learning.

Broader aspects of higher education preparedness, such as socio-emotional readiness or the process of decision making in which a student has engaged require consideration pre and post entry, particularly in relation to more reflexive and metacognitive approaches to career counselling.


Hyland, A. (2011).Entry to Higher Education in Ireland in the 21stCentury: A discussion Paper for the NCCA/HEA Seminar. Dublin: HEA/NCCA.

Lynch, K., Frame, P., Harwood, T., Hoult, L., Jenkins, M., & Volpe, G. (2006). Transitions into higher education: Processes, outcomes and collaborations. In G. Grigg& C. Bond (Eds.), Supporting learning in the 21st century. Refereed proceedings of the 2005 Association of Tertiary Learning Advisors of Aotearoa New Zealand Conference, (pp. 32-46). Auckland: ATLAANZ.

Smyth, E., Banks, J. & Calvert, E. (2011).From Leaving Certificate to leaving school. Dublin: The Liffey Press/ESRI

Thomas, L., & Quinn, J. (2007).First generation entry into higher education: An international study. Maidenhead: Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press

Trotter, E., & Roberts, C. A. (2006).Enhancing the early student experience. Higher Education Research and Development, 25(4), 371–386.

Wintre, M.G., & Yaffe, M. (2000). First-year students’ adjustment to university life as a function of relationships with parents. Journal of Adolescent Research, 15(1), 9–37.

Yorke, M., & Longden, B. 2008.The first year experience of higher education in the UK: Final report. York: The Higher Education Academy.

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