Skip to main content

The Transition to Higher Education Course

To make students transition into university as smooth as possible, we’ve worked with current students to create an online course for all incoming undergraduate and foundation students.

The Transition to Higher Education course is made available via Learn Ultra, the Virtual Learning Environment during the pre-arrival period (August). This course remains available to students through out their first year and is designed to be dipped into and revisited multiple times.

Students as partners

To avoid a scattergun approach to supporting students, Winstone and Hulme (2019) recommend practitioners develop a deeper understanding of students lived experiences of transition to university.

It is widely reported that students from traditional educational backgrounds may posses greater knowledge and experience of university, whether this is from family members attending or personal experiences of visiting or engaging with friends and influencers who have attended university themselves. For those from non-traditional backgrounds such as first-generation scholars, those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, or those with protected characteristics they may have less experience or expectation of what university life may be like (Winstone and Hulme, 2019).

Students from non-traditional backgrounds may have little to no expectation of what university life may be like and this could be advantageous, as those who come to university with prior expectations, lived experiences or who have already formulated personal beliefs about university, can experience unrealistic expectations (Winstone and Hulme, 2019). Rowley, Hartley and Larking (2008) reported these unrealistic expectations as problematic as they create discrepancies between lived and expected university experience and therefore may detrimentally affect academic engagement (Bayne et al., 2020). 

To support students in their academic transition and alleviate the outlined potential expectation – reality gap, the Transition to Higher Education course works with current students as partners and subject matter experts to create a course filled with ‘insider knowledge’ that provides a contextualised introduction to being a Durham University student.

A team of eight student developers were recruited to work alongside DCADs digital developers and learning designer to develop new content based on their own experiences of transitioning into Higher Education. This course has been going through an iterative review cycle for the 10 years it has been developed and the 2023/24 iteration was no different. Evaluation and further student involvement came in various forms, from attending focus groups, reviewing plans for new content and feeding into the development of videos to name a few.

About the course

As a new Durham University student there are an exciting few years ahead. To make the transition to university as smooth as possible for students, we worked collaboratively as a team of student and staff developers to create an online asynchronous course. 

The includes loads of information to help students to get a feel for Durham and resources to take advantage of everything being a Durham University student has to offer. Using our Learn Ultra our Virtual Learning Environment, students can explore the five main areas, as follows: 

Student life at Durham: Here students can find out information about being a Durham student. It includes an interactive map (including our student developers favourite spots to visit!) and guidance of the campus and surrounding locations, information about the colleges, societies, sports, personal development and finally some signposting to the Students Union.

Learning at Durham: We’re aware that the academic transition can feel daunting. This academic introduction contains taster activities focussed on academic skills including lectures, seminars and tutorials, reading lists and labs and practicals to demystify what being a student is really like. There is also information about the library and collections – ever heard of journal stacks? There’s a video in here that shows how they work!

Skills for studying at Durham: Alongside the academic introduction, the activities in this section focus around study skills. There are resources relating to critical thinking, time management, referencing and the important digital tools you will need. Finally, some signposting is in here relating to our Computing and Information Service (CIS).

Looking after yourself: Coming to university can feel overwhelming. We hope that working through this section will help students to learn the skills needed to make the transition into university easier for them.

Next steps: This final section contains guidance on key things to focus on in the first few weeks on campus including Welcome and Orientation Week (also known as Freshers week), guidance for international students and looking beyond induction.

Students can access the Transition to Higher Education course by logging into Blackboard Learn Ultra. It can be found by selecting the ‘Activity Stream’ or ‘Courses’ links on the left-hand side. This can be accessed through out students first year and can be revisited an unlimited number of times. We highly recommend using this course during the first year.

Staff can access a walkthrough of the entire Transition to HE course which gives you an insight into the course and the decisions behind the way in which we’ve built it.


Bayne, S., Evans, P., Ewins, R., Knox, J., Lamb, J., Macleod, H., O’Shea, C., Ross, J., Sheail, P., & Sinclair, C. (2020). The Manifesto for Teaching Online. The MIT Press: London.  

Rowley, M., Hartley, J., & Larkin, D. (2008). Learning from experience: The expectations and experiences of first-year undergraduate psychology students. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 32(4), 399–413.   

Winstone, N., and Hulme, J, A. (2019). ‘Duck to Water’ or ‘Fish Out of Water’? in Diversity in the Experience of Negotiating the Transition to University in Engaging Student Voices in Higher Education. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.