Skip to Content


Large Image
Photograph: CollegeDegrees360 via flickr

Preparing for University

This next month I will be giving talks at several sixth form events around the country, some to teachers and some to school pupils. These events give me a chance to talk about my Preuniversity Skills Programme, ensuring its continued relevance to schools in preparing students for university.

The large gap between sixth form and university learning is now widely accepted. There is a vague possibility that proposed changes to A levels may help lessen the gap. However, I feel it is really important not to assume the changes will make any difference. There will still be school league tables, which drive teaching to the test. The internet culture is ever-growing and removing teenagers further from the expectations of academic staff who still expect students to ‘read’ for a degree.

Launched over six years ago, the Preuniversity Skills Programme has, in the last two years, become a three-stage process: a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), a teacher-led series of lessons and a residential course. While any of the skills universities are looking for are generic, and are covered by the programme, a premise of the whole programme is to help students understand the differences in studying arts and sciences at university. Such differences are not always apparent from the corresponding A level courses.

The first stage of the programme is a MOOC, which is run on the Futurelearn platform. This MOOC, called ‘Preparing for University’, explores the most basic skills that universities value, such as questioning and independent study. It works through some exercises to demonstrate what universities mean by these processes. The course also explores data and textual analysis, asking students to think about what approach to study inspires them most.

The second stage of the programme involves school teachers attending a Continuous Professional Development training course that provides material for eight lessons for them to deliver to their pupils. The course is run in association with AQA. These lessons take the skills from the MOOC, develop them, and give pupils more of an appreciation of the level of  expectations they will be exposed to at university. The course has been shown to help with the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) and with general subject study.

The third and final stage is a three-day residential course at University of East Anglia, Skills for Uni, which uses debates to help students develop skills in evidence-based arguments, and also works on interview skills. This course shows students how to unpick an assignment title, how to find sources and how to use sources effectively in building an argument. These are demanding skills, but really beneficial for the EPQ and clearly demonstrate what universities will require if students are aspiring towards a good degree.

Any one part of this course will help with applications to university, university interviews, the EPQ and A level study, or equivalent.

The gap between school study and university is, at present, showing no signs of reducing – and is possibly still widening. Muddling through with no preparation is an option, but undergraduates who have assisted on parts of this programme have told me that they wished they had this instruction before they began their courses.

I believe that the role of the Preuniversity Skills Programme will remain relevant, through all the proposed changes to post-16 education, in preparing pupils for university academic life. The increasing university fees also make it even more important to pick the right course and know what is expected before making the leap. Preparation is the key to success.

Register now for the free online course – Preparing for University – run by FutureLearn in partnership with UEA.

Posted by Harriet Jones on Thu, 2 Feb 2017



comments powered by Disqus

Harriet is a Senior Lecturer in the University of East Anglia's School of Biological Sciences. She has a deep interest is the process of transition into Higher Education and how to make the move from school-based learning to higher education learning as smooth as possible. She researches effective assessment and feedback in undergraduates, specialising in first years in the transition into HE.

View Profile