Supporting the first year experience in higher education in Ireland: impact on student engagement, teaching practice and institutional policy

Ginty, Carina and Boland, Josephine (2016) Supporting the first year experience in higher education in Ireland: impact on student engagement, teaching practice and institutional policy. Student Engagement and Experience Journal.


Many students are not prepared for the demands of third level education and first year experience programmes are designed to support this transition and supplement the necessary academic and life skills. In 2009, a first year experience package was introduced in two higher education institutions following strategic innovation funding, which was awarded by the Higher Education Authority in Ireland. This package consisted of: a Learning With Peers (LWP) programme led by trained senior student leaders; and a Skills Development Module (SDM) which is led by lecturers and is worth 5 ECTS.

The main aim of this research study was to explore the first year experience over two higher education institution sites. It investigated how two initiatives (i.e. the LWP and the SDM) impact student engagement, teaching practice and institutional policy. The major themes discussed in the literature review included: the first year experience; student engagement; teaching, learning and assessment strategies; and change management.

The paradigm chosen for this study was mixed methods. The research strategy is a case study, exploring and explaining the first year experience initiatives across two higher education sites including an Institute of Technology and a University in Ireland. The data collection tools included a first year student survey and semi structured interviews with lecturers and senior managers. Challenges encountered during the research process included survey design, data collection approach, doing insider research and conducting interviews.

A number of major themes emerged from the data analysis including: creating connections; making friends; understanding expectations; creating learning communities; teaching challenges; and resourcing and supporting the first year experience. Furthermore, this study found that first year students want to make connections with their learning experiences. Institutions need to establish ‘student learning communities’ from day one, which will enable first year students to connect and belong while lecturers enjoy collaborating and sharing resources that support students’ development. Finally, there seems to be a lack of understanding among senior managers’ in what is the ‘ideal operational resource team’ that would support first years effectively and ultimately meet an institution’s financial and strategic objectives.

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