The Transition from Sixth Form to Undergraduate
Mike Price and Jeremy Levesley
The aims of this research are:
- To investigate the the extent of continuity or discontinuity
between sixth form and first year university experience of
- To identify effective and ineffective conditions of learning
during the first year at university
- To identify issues to be addressed by schools and universities
to help students in the transition from sixth form to
There is a shortage of students choosing to study mathematics at
university level. Those that do are frequently criticised for their
inability to cope with higher level mathematics. This perceived
inability is due to changes in schools' mathematics. Over the past
- the sixth form mathematics syllabus has changed considerably
containing less pure mathematics,
- modular exams have become popular, and
- the combinations of subjects taken by any one student has
The evidence shows that there has been little acknowledgement or
response by university departments to these changes in schools.
- teaching methods have not changed
- university courses take little account of student prior
- liaison between school and university tutors has been minimal
When students pass from secondary to tertiary education they have
- shift from intuitive and contextualised to formal and abstract
- encounter for the first time an emphasis on formal proof, and
- change from teacher-directed to student-directed learning.
The first goal of this research is to identify issues of concern
about transition which can be addressed by school and university
The second goal is to instigate liaison meetings between school
and university tutors, and between sixth form students and university
This research is a pilot study based on one university department
in the UK. The 61 students in the study were all enrolled on the
first year of a three year degree course in mathematics, mathematics
with astronomy, mathematics with computing, or were enrolled on a
four year M.Mathematics course. There was a balance of male and
Background data of the students was collected from the UCAS forms.
The following data were collected using questionnaires :-
Prior to the start of the university course:
- Pre-course experiences of teaching styles
- Preferred ways of learning.
After a two-week induction period:
- Students experiences during the induction period at university
At the end of Semester 1 exams:
- Perceptions about course content
- Preferences for types of teaching groups
- Development of study skills
- Preparedness for exams
At the end of the first year of study:
- Reflections on the first year as a whole.
One liaison meeting between sixth form tutors and university
tutors has taken place at the university site to discuss 'A' level
syllabuses and 'mixed ability' teaching. The researchers attended to
observe the discussions and workgroups which took place.
There were wide differences between the students in terms of:
- The age range was from 18 to 44 years, but with the majority
being 18-19 year olds.
- Some students had built up the number of their 'A' level
points over several years of taking exams.
- The combinations of subjects taken at 'A' level were varied,
with the natural sciences being favoured but also a substantial
number taking business subjects, social sciences and English.
- Students applied for the course because they felt they had
some ability in the subject, and thought it useful for future
careers in accountancy or teaching
Comparison of learning experiences at school and university
- At school, students were used to two mathematics teachers at
'A' level, and up to six over all 'A' level subjects. In their
first year at university, the students were taught by at least ten
tutors in mathematics alone.
- At school the preferred teaching approach was class teaching
followed by individual working through examples. This style was
the least preferred at university, while the lecture was ranked
- At university, there was a preference for teaching groups led
by university academic staff rather than those led by students in
a higher year of study.
- Students put emphasis on teaching approaches which were
directed towards passing examinations. This was true both at
school and at university.
- Students felt generally satisfied with the course. Some
reported that the starting level had been too high but tended to
blame the inadequacy of 'A' level courses in preparing them for
- A third of all students found the course to be different to
what they had been expecting, particularly in the amount of course
work and homework given.
- By Semester Two, a substantial number of students had felt
some reservations about going to university to study mathematics,
mainly because of difficulties with their ability to copy with the
- Time spent on private study ranged from 2 to 22 hours per
week, while the university department recommended a weekly private
study time of 12 to 13 hours.
- Many students felt a lack of self-motivation for private
- Students felt well prepared to write lecture notes, use
textbooks and prepare for tutorials.
- Students felt ill-prepared for examinations.
- One meeting has taken place bringing together university
lecturers and sixth form teachers to discuss 'A' level syllabuses
and mixed ability teaching.
- Close liaison is planned between sixth form teachers and
university tutors. The group will address difficulties associated
with curriculum content and private study on transfer to
The Mathematics department will be addressing:
- Presentation styles of modules identified by students as
- Provision of support, prior to the start of the course, for
students lacking in basic knowledge and understanding due to
syllabus and course differences
- Study skills guidance for private study
- Improvement in the different groupings employed in the
Cavendish, S.J., Price, M. & Levesley, J. (1996) Effective
learning and individual preferences in undergraduate study in
mathematics. A study of one UK university department. Paper presented
at the ECER '96 conference, Seville.