Understanding the differences between undergraduate and postgraduate education

Lynette Ryals, Cranfield University and Helen Higson, Aston University

April 2021

As HE professionals, do we truly understand the differences between undergraduate and postgraduate education, both from an academic and from a student support perspective?

Through the collaboration between Cranfield University (postgraduate students only) and Aston University (a large undergraduate student provision) to develop an education offering for a new model technical university in Milton Keynes, MK:U, various differences have come to light.

To explore these differences in depth, we drew together a group of experienced undergraduate teachers and student support staff from Aston and engaged them in a day-long workshop with their postgraduate counterparts from Cranfield. We asked them to examine a range of topics, from academic curriculum and assessment, through to support needs and employability.

This blog summarises our key messages for academic and professional staff in HE.  

Curriculum, Assessment and Problem Based Learning

The range of skills and qualifications with which students come to university is diverse. They might have come to higher education along a ‘traditional academic’ pathway with A levels; or they might have HNCs and HNDs, T levels, a previous apprenticeship, other qualifications, or years of experience in the workplace.

In light of this diversity, we thought about the ‘student as an individual ecosystem’ and the importance of considering both the academic and personal aspects of learning. In practice, this means embedding individualised academic support into the degree content and involving academic support staff in curriculum discussions.

The challenge of ‘unlearning’

There is also a need for level 4 students to do some “unlearning”; in particular, unlearning the expectation that there is one right answer to a question. Level 7 students, by contrast, typically come to their studies with extensive work experience and a greater ability to handle complexity and to apply critical thinking, skills that develop throughout levels 4, 5 and 6.

Easing the transition

Mentoring and peer-to-peer coaching are useful methods for easing the transition, for level 7 as well as level 4 students. With our focus on STEM subjects we thought that maths skills were particularly important in helping students make the transition to HE, which might be delivered in-sessional and peer-assisted (Aston) or pre-sessional (Cranfield).

Good practice ideas for handling the transition to HE:

  • start the transition process before arrival through e.g. taster webinars and online sample classes
  • continue support throughout the student journey
  • look at restructuring student induction so that key information is spread out throughout level 4, rather than in an intensive block induction which can overload students in their anxious early days.

Engaging learners with Problem Based Learning

At MK:U we want all our education to be problem-based learning (PBL) but were unsure whether PBL could be successfully used with undergraduate students. Aston experts revealed how they used PBL at different levels of complexity, selecting current and urgent problems that engage learners and employing a variety of different assessments. Academic oversight and tight classroom management is required when using PBL; as is providing a way to help learners gauge their progress through the problem.

Managing expectations around assessment

When it comes to assessment, degree apprenticeship students can suffer particularly acute anxiety as their academic success is directly linked to their employment success and therefore stakes can be very high for them if they do not make the grade. We noted major differences here between those students coming into undergraduate (rather than postgraduate) study, including expectations of higher grades, and of frequent opportunities to revise and resubmit. Another interesting difference was the importance of effective communication style – in other words, that it’s not just what you say, but how you say it – which is particularly prized by businesses, but is a skill that level 4 students have to learn.

Good practice ideas for assessment:

  • use explicit grade descriptors and discuss them with staff and students
  • don’t correct everything and don’t critique – instead, focus on how the students are meeting expectations and demonstrating skills
  • give specific guidance for improvement, with examples, and point learners to suitable resources (e.g. how to develop a particular skill).

Student Support

As well as providing pre-arrival activities to prepare students, our other recurring theme was the need for continuing support all along the student’s journey. We also noted the importance of language and expectations. In an HE setting, ‘student support’ is not necessarily remedial; it might be about helping a student to get a first! The word ‘support’ might, however, have quite a different resonance to a new undergrad student. Students might also be reluctant to reveal a disability or a personal problem; the Aston team describes itself as an ‘enabling team’ rather than a ‘disability team’.

Communications about support services should be “little and often”, avoiding overload, but flagging up mental health support, in particular, for level 4 students who may be struggling with the transition to university life.

Good practice ideas for student support:

  • being mindful of the different challenges faced by different students (e.g. carer responsibilities or work demands) and flexing their support accordingly.
  • flag support services to part time and degree apprenticeship students within modules as these students spend less time on campus.

Employability and Professional Development

Frequent communications and careful language were themes of our sessions on employability and professional development. To get level 4 students engaged with employability it is better to talk about a ‘chat’ or a ‘meeting’; an ‘appointment’ might be seen as overly formal.

Communications are vital in ensuring level 4 students make the link between academic learning and employability; when introducing a new topic/skill within a module, it’s useful to have a few bullet points to show how this relates to employability and to explain how skills and knowledge are transferable.

Returning alumni can be extremely helpful in underlining to students the kinds of employability skills that they will need. Alums 2 to 5 years out from their degree studies are ideal. Senior leaders and CEOs are better for keynotes and mentoring and have more relevance for postgraduate or post experience students.

A good idea for industry engagement is to get employers to run some of the employability sessions and careers events (such as c.v. building), encouraging them to focus on skills rather than on what that specific employer does. Employers can be wary of careers advice aimed at their apprentices, fearing that they might lose their employees, so getting this kind of engagement right is paramount.


In summary, undergraduate teaching and support does need to be different from postgraduate. Level 4 students need more academic and pastoral support than postgraduate students, especially as they enter higher education. The shift from directed learning at school or college, to self-directed learning at university, seems to be more profoundly challenging than the ‘gear shift’ to level 7 learning.

Level 4 students who continue their education journey straight from school or college will also experience a dramatic change in maturity at this stage in their lives. The transition to university must be accompanied by support to build confidence as students go through these changes. Good practice, we found, involves engaging with students early (before they arrive at university) and embedding support at all levels, not just at the beginning of their degree. Degree Apprenticeship, as well as mature students, need a slightly different approach that allows them to transition back into academic learning and develop their study skills, whilst also appreciating how their new knowledge applies to their work contexts.

With a smooth transition to undergraduate studies, and sound support along the way, we concluded that students will find masters-level work to be a “step up”, rather than a “leap out”. Staff making the transition between teaching levels 4 and 7 will need development and support, too, reflecting on their practice and expectations and adjusting accordingly.

Finally, the onus is on us to design our curriculum, assessment, support and employability correctly. We conclude that ‘if it’s not working, review the curriculum not the student’.

Lynette Ryals and Helen Higson

Professor Lynette Ryals, Chief Executive of MK:U Ltd and Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Cranfield University and Professor Helen Higson, Chair in Higher Education, Learning and Management, Aston University are co-founders of the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Education (CILE). The joint virtual centre aims to develop new knowledge in innovative education, business-engaged educational design and innovative delivery modes in undergraduate provision within UK Higher Education. Through joint research, the sharing of best practice and the design of innovative education pathways, Aston and Cranfield Universities are supporting the proposed development of a new model STEM-focused university in Milton Keynes.

This blog has been produced for the Centre for Innovation and Learning in Education, a Catalyst OfS funded project. 


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