Bookended by puberty and culturally defined adult roles, it is now established that adolescence extends from age 10 to age 24. The inner workings of the adolescent brain and how these workings develop and are expressed in behaviours and engagement with the external world have been the focus of an explosion of research inquiry. Seated in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, cognitive abilities such as decision-making, planning, self-control, social interaction and self-awareness only develop by the mid-twenties. In addition, the brain regions governing risk-taking and reward are intensely active in adolescence, and so influence behaviour, which is also shaped by context and expectations of others.
To realise student success, higher education institutions must take into account that the majority (88% in 2017/2018) (HEA, 2018) of their students are still adolescents, without fully developed cognitive, social, emotional and self-regulatory capacities, living and learning in a socio-cultural environment that offers less external regulation than ever before. The knowledge that many students in higher education are in developmental transition spotlights opportunities to construct academic and campus contexts that supports this transition.
Drawing on this knowledge, and expertise in occupational science/therapy, psychology and neuroscience, we held ‘DOTS – Developing Opportunities for Transitions in Students’ Seminar to inform stakeholders of the biobehavioural transitions that influence undergraduate wellbeing and academic achievement in the current socio-cultural climate. The seminar was led by Dr. Eithne Hunt (Dept. Occupational Science & Occupational Therapy), Dr. Samantha Dockray (School of Applied Psychology), and Prof. Yvonne Nolan (Dept. Anatomy & Neuroscience), and 64 attendees gathered across academic and professional services and HEIs nationally. Presentation topics ranged from brain development in adolescence, to risks and opportunities relating to student life, and practical strategies for enhancing student success. Cross-sector participation was facilitated through panel discussion on learning, teaching, assessment and student support strategies. Opportunities for HE staff and structures to leverage the potential of developmental transitions that influence academic experiences and graduate attributes were discussed. The seminar was well received by staff across a range of disciplines, in particular, attendees commented on the range of perspectives presented, the strong evidence-base, and the applied value of the content presented, as it relates to the students’ experience in HEIs.