Trinity Academic Leads Landmark Study into Student Perceptions on Commencing Higher Education

Posted on: 28 August 2015

Professor Eleanor Denny in the Department of Economics at Trinity College Dublin recently led a landmark study on students’ views on the transition from secondary school and further education into higher education. The research was funded by the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education and was conducted in partnership with University of Limerick, Mary Immaculate College, and Limerick Institute of Technology.

The research involved a large student survey with over 1,500 responses and ten focus groups across these four higher-level institutions. There were a wide range of issues and recommendations arising from the students’ responses which point to important factors that students see as enabling their effective transition to higher education.

Time management was identified by the students as the most significant challenge of the transition from second level to higher education. This was followed by a change in the requirements for written assessments, critical thinking and conducting independent research. Other areas identified as challenging included increased personal responsibility, financial and social challenges.

Older students were found to be statistically significantly more likely to be challenged with the transition to higher education. Commuting distances were also found to have a significant impact on transition, with those commuting longer distances finding the transition more challenging than those living closer to campus. Those students who undertook further education courses prior to commencing in higher education found these courses particularly helpful in assisting the transition.

Time management was found to have the greatest impact on academic performance at higher education and was identified as the challenge which took the longest to overcome.

The students made over 1,100 suggestions on measures which would help future students in the transition process. These suggestions fall broadly into following four categories: more higher education supports, better academic skills preparation at secondary level, better management of expectations and engagement; and improved general skills preparation. There was also acknowledgement by the students that some existing measures are highly beneficial. In particular, the supports and skills provided in access programmes and further education courses; the general skills and opportunities developed in good Transition Year programmes; the academic and critical thinking skills nurtured in some programmes at leaving certificate, such as the History curriculum; higher education student ‘shadowing’ programmes at second level; and student to student programmes and staff mentoring at higher education.

Commenting on the publication of the final report, Professor Denny said "This was an exciting and unique research project to be involved in which allowed the student voice to be communicated in a clear and meaningful way.  While the students reported a number of challenges encountered when transitioning from second level and further education into higher education there were also a range of measures which the students acknowledge as being particularly helpful in the transition and they recommend increased use of these measures as well as a host of other suggestions for both the secondary and higher education sectors, many of which are likely to be relatively simple and inexpensive to implement.  I am optimistic that the findings of this study will prove to be extremely useful to policy makers across the education spectrum in providing future students with the skills and supports required to successfully transition to higher education."

The final report of the project is available here: