How pre-arrival courses can support students’ transition into higher education

Dave Briggs explains how a pre-arrival course at the University of Essex is driving engagement and retention and giving students greater confidence

David Briggs's avatar
University of Essex
1 Dec 2023
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Students sitting outside Siberrad Student Centre

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Unprecedented disruption to education during the pandemic was the catalyst for developing the Essex Preparation Programme (EPP). Our aim was to offer a tool that would help our students transition to university life, ensuring they would not only be active in their learning, but also inspired, willing and engaged throughout their time at university. This resource covers the steps we took to create the course and the benefits of its use.

Why develop a pre-arrival course?

With students operating outside of the traditional educational setting for such a prolonged period of time during the pandemic, we decided it was important to ensure that students developed and were confident in using the skills required for higher education.

Developing a pre-arrival course encourages students to engage with staff and other students prior to starting university. This helps them to develop learning communities as early as possible and reduces feelings of anxiety and uncertainty before they arrive.

These kinds of courses can equip students with the skills they need to take ownership of their education and become confident and proactive in the learning process.

Effective collaboration for developing a pre-arrival course

Producing an online preparation programme requires a collaborative effort using skills from across the university. We adopted a one-university approach from the outset and sought leadership from academic and technology departments. Highly skilled project management support ensured that we were able to source the right resources and expertise to bring the aims of the course to fruition both on time and on budget. We sought support from learning technologists, study skills tutors, marketing and communications teams and library staff.

Principles underlining the EPP’s design

At its core, the EPP is designed to prepare students not only for university but specifically for the University of Essex. Therefore, it is important to use the platform our students use (Moodle). This allowed us to provide students with an introduction to the skills and attributes required for higher education more generally and help them acclimatise to our digital system.

When designing a pre-arrival course, the goal is not to attempt to reinvent the wheel in terms of pedagogic delivery. The emphasis should be on taking the classroom experience online, therefore leading to the development of a learning cycle that mirrors the traditional classroom experience, ensuring that students are ready to join.

Four principles underlined the design of the delivery of the EPP:

Inspiration: ensuring the students understood the significance and importance of the content and were therefore motivated to learn.

Intuitiveness: developing a clear structure for the learning content to reduce cognitive overload and ease the process of navigating the learning journey in the online setting (noting that online learning platforms such as Moodle are novel for most students who are new to higher education). For the EPP, the standard learning cycle is structured as follows: a delivered lecture, requisite reading and research, an interactive activity and further learning opportunities.

Interactivity and engagement: encouraging deeper levels of student engagement, creating a participatory mindset and reducing the risk of students becoming passive in the learning process. To ensure this, delivered content, such as lectures, is broken down into bite-sized chunks that students must click their way through.

Accessibility: embedding the Essex ethos of inclusivity, diversity and equality, ensuring that the course is available and beneficial to all individuals and communities. We ensure that the delivery format is accessible on a range of devices, from computers to smartphones. Content is also primarily embedded, rather than requiring download.

A further key inclusion with the delivery of such courses should be the opportunity for students to provide feedback. In our case, this informed us that applicants wished to feel a connection not only to the university, but also to the people within it. We therefore linked the skills development content contained within the EPP to a series of webinars run by the schools and departments, introducing them to their departmental teams and the subject-specific aspects of their chosen course of study.

The impact of the EPP

Students completed feedback surveys at the end of each topic and then at the end of the overall course. The feedback provided was overwhelmingly positive. Of the 731 students who completed the survey, 98.8 per cent said that the content adequately explained the concepts, knowledge and skills presented, 94.3 per cent said completing the course made them feel more confident and 96.3 per cent of respondents said they enjoyed completing it.

Ongoing student data further showed that those who completed the EPP were more engaged in their studies, had higher continuation rates and received higher average marks in their assessments than their peers who did not complete the programme.

Ongoing development of the EPP

The EPP course design is inherently scalable and, with such positive outcome data, its success has generated a suite of additional preparatory programmes tailored to specific audiences including school leavers, A-level students and post-graduate applicants. This is something that can be replicated in other institutions to improve outreach and recruitment.

Students want opportunities to fully prepare themselves for university life and study and, when tailor-made courses like ours are available, they can transform a student’s living and learning journey. 

David Briggs is the deputy dean of partnerships (Europe) at the University of Essex.

The University of Essex has been shortlisted for the Outstanding Support for Students award in the Times Higher Education Awards 2023 #THEAwards. A full list of shortlisted candidates can be found here.



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