Successful student transition into higher education (HE) is dependent on the possession of a positive learner identity, the development of which is a complex longitudinal process of change. The development of HE learner identity is believed to be essential to student achievement and is initially encouraged where schools, colleges and universities adopt integrated systems of transition. Exploring the growth of learner identity within the transition between school and university is therefore apposite.
This article explores the findings of a Scottish study involving 30 students who took part in a unique widening participation programme based on immersing learners in the university environment whilst still at school.
Learner identity was nurtured via the opportunity to develop academic skills and become independent learners, social relations and networks with new friends and a less formal relationship with teaching staff than participants were used to at school. Personal and social skills including confidence, independence and motivation were facilitated from the experience of studying HE level qualifications within a university environment and had a positive impact in terms of readiness for the transition. Different teaching styles, including the ‘flipped classroom’ approach engaged learners who drew comparisons with preparation for university tutorials. A sense of belonging in HE was fostered by having full use of the facilities, being around likeminded people, having student cards and not having to wear uniform. Taken together, these key factors facilitated the development of a positive learner identity as HE student prior to entry: the vast majority (87%) of participants reported that the transition from school ‘pupil’ to university ‘student’ started before they made the transition to university.
This study found that, for learners from disadvantaged backgrounds, immersion in HE whilst still at school facilitates the development of a positive HE leaner identity. While the research draws on only one case and generalisations from such a sample size should be cautioned, evidence from those who took part in the programme indicates that developing a learner identity as an HE student prior to university entry contributes to successful student transition.
A model for HE learning identity formation is suggested. In the context of the current dialogue on fair access and widening participation to HE internationally, findings point policy makers to the benefits of long-term immersion in HE prior to entry for successful transition to university.