How can we create realistic expectations of university life for widening participation students?

By Samira Salam, Intern at the King’s College London Widening Participation team

Starting university is a crucial time for students as an important transition is taking place in their lives – the move away from school into higher education. With this, students often bring in core expectations about what university ‘should’ be like which can differ to the lived reality. Bridging this expectation-reality gap is pivotal as many students who face problems adapting to university life encounter a disparity between their imagined life as an undergraduate and their actual experience[i] (meaning they may disengage from university life early on and as a result could perform poorly[ii]).

KCLWP are currently designing a new transition intervention, which will support widening participation learners in the summer before they enrol. As part of a week-long internship, I contributed to the facilitation of focus groups with year 13 K+ students, our flagship widening participation programme. The focus groups focused on students’ expectations of university pre-arrival. Within this blog piece I highlight some key findings and reflections.

Finding 1: Students understood university would be more independent than school, and interestingly some believed the pandemic would help with this

There was a general consensus amongst the students we interviewed that life at university would be more independent than at school. Students understood that there would be a lot more independent reading involved and they would have to conduct research for their assignments on their own. They often voiced feelings of “not knowing your lecturers as well as your teachers”. One student particularly stated “you need to chase your lecturers up, not the other way round”. Another student commented they did not expect to be “spoon-fed” as they had been at school. This finding suggests that the K+ students interviewed had a good understanding of the autonomy needed when entering university and anticipated this change.

Some students made reference to the pandemic making it much, “easier to adapt to the independence of university” due to learning taking place online. Online teaching meant there was less teacher supervision than in-person so they relied more on themselves to complete the work given to them as would more likely be the case at university.

Finding 2: Students vaguely understood the support available to them and had mixed feelings about approaching academics

The students interviewed generally had a vague understanding of the support available to them at university, mostly referring to bursaries, help with budgeting and mental health support. Personal tutors were also pointed out as individuals students could talk to about any struggles e.g. coping with assignments and more generally the transition to university. Whilst all students did not name the title ‘personal tutor’ per se, they knew there was a designated person allocated to each of them for support.

However, some confusion came to light from the discussions about whether personal tutors were academics or not. This is significant because there were mixed feelings amongst our interviewees about approaching academics and their potential relationships with them.  All students expressed the feeling that there would not be as much support available to them academically because of the larger class sizes typically found at university, meaning their questions may go unanswered. Students also indicated that they felt academics, “don’t care if you do work or not” and that, “professors just teach you”.  As a result, most agreed that the relationship between students and academics would be weaker than with their school teachers and because of this would feel more inclined to talk their peers about struggles they may be facing as this seemed easier to do.

It is important for students to be aware of the different types of support available to them as these support systems contribute to their academic success and personal development. As well as supporting student’s mental wellbeing.  Departments that are student facing should continue working together to signpost such support, otherwise the implications of not knowing this or being uncomfortable when reaching out for help could mean students do not feel as connected to the institution and as a result may be more likely to give up their studies [iii].

Finding 3: Students understood the importance of social connections but there was a difference in how close student’s believed these relationships would be

There was heavy emphasis placed on social relationships at university and how important it is to be able to form these, as one student put: “learning is more fun with friends and you’ll become burnt out without them”. However, what I found particularly striking was the difference in perceptions between the students who planned to live at home vs those who planned to live in student accommodation.

Those wanting to live in student halls were more explicit in stating they wanted their potential friends and flatmates to be, “like a family” and felt they would be able to form “deeper connections” and have “a home away from home”.  This was different to the types of relationships students living at home expected to form. Some students expected to stay close to their existing social circle, citing reasons such as knowing these friends for longer, whilst others hoped to form stronger relationships at university as they viewed sixth-form friendships as “playground friendships” and not as meaningful. Students who planned to live at home communicated the need to put more effort into forming relationships at university because they did not have flatmates, they would be close to and so expected their student experience to differ socially to their peers living on campus.

My Reflections: provide information on what to expect

The focus groups highlighted a number of interesting themes (all of which have not been able to be discussed within this blog post). However, it is important to note that the individuals within these focus groups were widening participation students that took part in the summer school and so arguably would have more knowledge about a normal day at university through the K+ programme explaining how they were (in my opinion) relatively in touch with expectations of university life.

To solidify their understandings of university further, I believe these students would benefit from knowing more specifics about the organisational structure of the university and the breadth of support available to them. For example, information and guidance sessions could be useful to present the balance of independence whilst also highlighting the support out there to avoid students internalising feelings of ‘lecturers aren’t there to help me’.  In addition to this, whilst it was great to see students being enthusiastic about making friends, it is crucial to manage expectations of how quickly they would be able to form these friendships and perceptions of having very close-knit friends as this is not always the case.

Overall, it’s been a privilege working on the transitions project and getting to meet such motivated and ambitious students on the K+ programme – I’m looking forward to seeing how the project evolves further!

*Quotes from the focus groups with K+ students have been used in this blog to support the findings.


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[i] Smith, K. and Hopkins, C. (2005) ‘Great expectations: sixth-formers’ perceptions of teaching and learning in degree-level English’, Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 4(3), pp. 304–18 ; Longden, B. (2006) ‘An Institutional Response to Changing Student Expectations and their Impact on Retention Rates’, Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 28(2), pp. 173-187.

[ii]  Lowe, H., & Cook, A. (2003). Mind the gap, are students prepared for higher education? Journal of Further and Higher Education, 27(1), 53-76; Pitkethly, A., & Prosser, M. (2001). The First Year Experience Project: A model for university- wide change. Journal of Higher Education Research & Development , 20(2), 185-1.

[iii] Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition, 2nd ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.


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