Preparing sixth-form students for the transition into higher education: developing key research skills through the EPQ


  • Emma Thompson University of Southampton, Uk



EPQ, extended project qualification, widening participation, access and participation plan


The Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) is a Level 3 qualification which allows students to develop an independent research project on a topic outside of their A-Level studies, culminating in either a dissertation or artefact final product (both research-based, with a written component) (AQA, 2023). The University of Southampton Learn with US Transition Programme provides free interactive workshops and guidance to sixth-form students in state schools undertaking the EPQ, particularly targeting schools that meet our widening participation (WP) criteria (The Learn with US Transition Programme, 2023).

The persistence of long-standing awarding gaps at university, especially for WP and minoritised students, demonstrates the importance of improving equality, diversity, and inclusion at all stages of the student lifecycle, including the transition into higher education (Harrison and Waller, 2018; Matheson, 2018). Research from the University of Southampton observes that higher proportions of students with an EPQ achieve first class and 2:1 degree awards compared to the proportion of students that don’t have an EPQ. In addition, an exploratory analysis of our most recent research (as yet unpublished) indicates that the EPQ may also contribute to reduced awarding gaps for students from underrepresented backgrounds in HE.

Our approach to developing interventions targeted to address specific milestones of the EPQ project can be used to inform practice for other Learning Developer practitioners, including:

  • Embedding interactive activities into workshops to maintain interest and build confidence.
  • Emphasising the transferability of research skills in a range of contexts.
  • Encouraging students to direct their own learning through developing dialogue and asking questions, instead of providing a ‘right’ answer.
  • Linking up to post-entry academic skills support to enable a smooth transition to university (Stoten, 2014; Cripps et al., 2018; Gill, 2018; Stephenson and Isaacs, 2019).

Feedback from students and teachers consistently demonstrates that this approach develops key research skills, and student confidence in viewing themselves as potential members of a university community (Cripps et al., 2018).

Author Biography

Emma Thompson, University of Southampton, Uk

Emma Thompson is Head of Enhancement at the University of Southampton. The Enhancement team sits within the directorate of Widening Participation and Social Mobility, with oversight of Academic Skills provision for current and prospective students. The Enhancement team provides a service at point of need for all students, simultaneously targeting activity towards Access and Participation Plan objectives, supporting the access, success and progression for students from underrepresented backgrounds. Emma’s background is in teaching and learning in the social sciences.


AQA (2023) What is the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ)? Available at: (Accessed: 21 February 2023).

Cripps, E., Anderson, C., Strauss, P. and Wheeler, R. (2018) ‘Fostering independent research skills and critical enquiry among school students: a case study of a school-university partnership to support the Extended Project Qualification’, Research for All, 2(2), pp.323-34.

Gill, T. (2016) ‘An analysis of the effect of taking the EPQ on performance in other Level 3 qualifications’, Cambridge Assessment, pp.1-19.

Gill, T. (2017) ‘An analysis of the effect of taking the EPQ on performance in other Level 3 qualifications’, Research Matters, 23, pp.27-34.

Gill, T. (2018) ‘Preparing students for university study: a statistical comparison of different post-16 qualifications’, Research Papers in Education, 33(3), pp.301-19.

Harrison, N. and Waller, R. (2018) ‘Challenging discourses of aspiration: the role of expectations and attainment in access to higher education’, British Educational Research Journal, 44(5), pp.914-38.

Jones, B. (2015) Does the Extended Project Qualification enhance students’ GCE A-level performance? Manchester: AQA Centre for Education Research and Policy. Available at: (Accessed: 10 October 2023).

The Learn with US Transition Programme (2023) Talks and individual guidance for Project Qualifications. Available at: (Accessed: 21 February 2023).

Matheson, R. (2018) ‘Transition through the student lifecycle’, in R. Matheson, S. Tangney, and M. Sutcliffe, (eds.) Transition in, through and out of higher education: international case studies and best practice. Abingdon: Routledge, pp.5-16.

Office for Students (OfS) (2023a) ‘Access and participation plans’, 29 March. Available at: (Accessed: 29 March 2023).

Stephenson, C. and Isaacs, T. (2019) ‘The role of the Extended Project Qualification in developing self-regulated learners: exploring students’ and teachers’ experiences’, The Curriculum Journal, 30(4), pp.392-421.

Stoten, D. W. (2014) ‘The Extended Project Qualification: an example of self-regulated learning in sixth form colleges’, International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies, 3(1), pp.66-77.




How to Cite

Thompson, E. (2023) “Preparing sixth-form students for the transition into higher education: developing key research skills through the EPQ”, Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education, (29). doi: 10.47408/jldhe.vi29.1086.

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