Preparing kids for tertiary education

Schools must play an active role in preparing – socially and emotionally - young people for tertiary education. And such preparation should not merely be ad-hoc but rather part of an active strategy that encompasses everything from how content is taught to the way in which days are structured, says education expert Dr Felicity Coughlan.

In order to address the high drop-out rates of new students, tactics must be put in place to aid a successful transition into higher education, she says.

“There is a reason it’s called ‘making’ a transition and not ‘surviving’ a transition. Success is built on the former, not the latter. The transition has to be consciously approached and structured, not just muddled through.”

Coughlan, education commentator and Director of the Independent Institute of Education, says that by understanding the attributes and behaviours of students who are successful in higher education, schools can structure the experiences of their students to maximise the chances of success and ease the transition.

“Aptitude counts, but it is not enough. Schools must consider how they can build on ability.”

Addressing the local chapter national conference of  International Boys’ Schools Coalition, an independent not-for-profit global body dedicated to the education and development of boys worldwide, Coughlan this week said that young people did not wake up “all grown up” one morning.

“Thinking through things is a learned habit and schools need to constantly facilitate the process of making connections between how impulses are acted upon and consequences of the chosen behaviour.”

She says four elements must be present to ensure a successful transition:

•    personal-emotional adjustment (confidence, ambition, clarity of purpose, resilience, persistence, and self direction)
•    social adjustment (the ability to appropriately and responsibly interact with peers and educators)
•    academic adjustment (the ability to conceptualise tasks and structure answers), and
•    institutional attachment (the ability to adjust to the size, independence, diversity, and culture of a tertiary institution).

“Educators must deliberately create opportunities for young people to succeed, by creating opportunities for them to manage their own time relative to deadlines and with meaningful consequence, and demonstrating the value of balancing effort by steering clear of ‘test and exam’-milestone chasing. Teach learners to communicate their thoughts and not just their recollection, and develop an understanding in them of their individual abilities and ways in which they can improve.”

Coping at a tertiary institution also requires strong interpersonal skills – for working with one’s peers as well as the academic staff, says Coughlan. 

“Balance is needed between respect and a lack of assertiveness, as with the latter the student will not be able to engage in the debate required in most higher learning spaces.  And while ‘old fashioned’ skills like competent writing, note-taking, reading and synthesizing information are positively associated with success, they remain under-developed in too many schools.”

Coughlan says it was essential that ambition was sparked in learners.

“To spark ambition, young people should be exposed to career opportunities in a field of possibility; rather than being presented with a list of jobs. Provide real knowledge about careers and don’t rely on boring career days or job shadowing, which is often viewed only as a chance to dodge the classroom. Ensure that the curriculum is linked to careers, and that content is enriched in the classroom by people who actually use it in their line of work,” she says.

But Coughlan says that, while schools have a responsibility to ensure the readiness of matriculants to head out into real life and higher education, matriculants also have the responsibility to come to grips with a few hard facts.

“Life is not always fair, and there is not always a straight line between effort and reward. Success is hard-earned, and the world out there is far less concerned about your self esteem than it is about your contribution.” 

A bit of “tough love” at school, backed up by sound teaching that is focused beyond the final exams, create a more solid platform for success than coaching, spoon feeding and protection can do alone, Coughlan says.

“The best outcomes arise when a balance between support and challenge is achieved.”

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Do you think your child will cope with the transition from high school to tertiary education?
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