Successful transitions: Transnational transitions

Image Credit: University of Edinburgh Collections. Catalogue No. 0054696

In this post, Senior Lecturer and Director of Quality in the Deanery of Biomedical Sciences Michael Daw and Teaching Fellow in MSc Education at Moray House School of Education and Sports Sofia Shan, compare the transition experiences of Biomedical sciences students in Edinburgh and students on the joint programme in Zhejiang and reveal key universal issues of higher education… 

In 2015 I was appointed as one of four lecturers developing a new Integrative Biomedical Sciences undergraduate degree programme to be delivered jointly with Zhejiang University in China. The programme is delivered entirely in English whilst the majority of students (>90%) are Chinese nationals. This degree programme is part of two rapidly expanding sectors in global higher education: the use of English medium instruction (EMI) in countries that do not have English as a first language and transnational education in which universities typically from developed western countries deliver degrees on sites outside the home country.

When I started I wanted to know if we needed to do anything differently to help students transition to university education in this context. Unsurprisingly, these expanding fields have attracted a good deal of research. When I looked at some of the research studying the challenges faced by students taking part in EMI programmes in Asia I was struck by the fact that many of the issues seemed universal issues of higher education rather than just a result of the specific educational context. For example Asian students were reported to struggle with using appropriate academic style and understanding specialist vocabulary (Evans and Morrison, 2011) and one study suggested that such students “expect the tutors to spoon-feed them” (Wong, 2004). This contrasted with many studies of domestic UK student transitions which often focus on social and life aspects of transition. I wondered whether these differences truly reflect differences in the transition experiences of different students or whether they simply reflect the focus of researchers.

To address the extent to which reported differences in the transition experiences of domestic UK students and Asian students on EMI programmes depend on the focus of researchers I initiated a project to compare the transition experiences of Biomedical sciences students in Edinburgh and students on the joint programme in Zhejiang. I chose two key time points for study: the start of first year to gauge student expectations and the start of second year to reflect back on how the reality of first year compared to those expectations. Student views were studied through surveys and one-on-one interviews carried out by Sofia Shan, then a PhD student studying the experiences of Chinese students in Edinburgh (now a teaching fellow at Moray House).

Some of the perceived differences between student cohorts were confirmed. Students in Edinburgh were more likely to rate making new friends as the most satisfying aspect of first year and more likely to be concerned about moving away from home, friends and family. This appears partly to reflect a different attitude to university which could be summed up (and over-simplified!) as Edinburgh students go to university to live whilst Zhejiang students go to university to study. It also reflects different life situations: many Zhejiang students were in boarding schools for the end of their school education and all currently live on campus and eat meals in the campus cafeteria. The lifestyle difference is much less than many Edinburgh students.

The aspect of their first year at university that students found most satisfying or enjoyable



In contrast some academic aspects were viewed very similarly by the students. In particular both cohorts struggled with independent learning and managing their own time. Although we did not investigate this in detail, the idea that UK domestic students arrive at university as developed autonomous learners was not supported by our findings. Perhaps most surprisingly, however, the focus and motivation for study was different between the cohorts. Students in Edinburgh were typically focused on getting the grades they need to get a good job whilst students in Zhejiang were much more motivated to learn new academic and scientific skills.

Furthermore, the two cohorts of students have different preferences in terms of their learning methods. Mostly due to the language barrier, many students in Zhejiang spend a lot of time preparing before lectures and tutorials – they need to familiarise themselves with the terms. They also review the lecture notes and rewrite them, an approach they also use for exam revision. Students in Edinburgh, on the other hand, rarely preview lecture notes. Some, however, consolidate notes after lectures, or before exams, adding their own understanding and resources sought from outside the lectures rather than just rewriting them. However students in Zhejiang have very effective student-led collaborative learning, which is rarely found among UoE participants.

Aspects of their first year at university that students found challenging


Overall our study suggests that Zhejiang and Edinburgh students truly differ in the relative importance they place on study vs social life but that both cohorts experience similar challenges in adapting to university-style education.

Our thanks to all the students who took part, Dr Debbie Shaw for assistance and guidance and to the Principal’s Teaching Award Scheme for funding the project.

  • Evans, S., and Morrison, B. (2011). The first term at university: implications for EAP. ELT Journal 65, 387-397.
  • Wong, J.K.-K. (2004). Are the Learning Styles of Asian International Students Culturally or Contextually Based? International Education Journal 4, 154-166.

Sofia Shan

Dr Sofia Shan is a Teaching Fellow in MSc Education at   Moray House School of Education and Sports. She   always has a passion in teaching and learning in HE and   has just finished her PhD study about Chinese MSc   students’ transition and learner identities in the UK.

Michael Daw

Dr Michael Daw is a Senior Lecturer and Director of        Quality in the Deanery of Biomedical Sciences. He was an   Edinburgh graduate in 1998 and returned in 2010              as  a   Research Fellow before developing an increasing            interest in teaching and learning.

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