considering the transition between school and university

I'm sitting in the sun waiting for the 2017 First-Year Science Educators' Colloquium (FYSEC) to kick off- & it's somewhat embarassing to realise that I hadn't done anything with some of the notes I took at last year's event. However, much of the discussion then is still just as relevant today, & in fact many of this year's discussions will also be about the transition from school to uni. So, here we go: 

One of the nice things about FYSEC (formerly known as FYBEC, where the B = biology) is that it brings university teachers working in the first-year space with secondary school teachers in the various disciplines. This is particularly important because both groups can contribute to an enhanced transition into tertiary study, something that many students struggle with. So last year, it was really interesting to hear my colleague Pru Casey talk about the transition to university in addressing the question: are school biology teachers doing a good job?

If you look at the comments on a news story about education, you'll almost certainly come across someone who thinks that they're an 'expert' in secondary school, because after all we all went there. (I suspect that uni lecturers can be as guilty of this as the next person.) However, the secondary sector is constantly evolving under a combination of pressures from its political masters, the results of international research, and the demands & expectations of schools' wider communities. So it was timely to have Pru remind everyone that only around 1/3 of year 13 students will go on to university study. This means that for any discipline, not just the sciences, teachers are faced with the problem of delivering what they believe their students need to succeed at university while also meeting the needs of the remaining 2/3 of the class. 

Rather than make assumptions about what might (or might not) have been covered in school, Pru asked for lecturers to identify the actual Achievement Standards (ASs) available in their discipline at years 12 & 13. This is relatively easy to do, via Te Kete Ipurangi or the NZ Curriculum and NZ Qualifications Authority web pages). However, that's only part of the story, and it would be unwise of tertiary educators to assume that all schools teach all the standards: in fact, schools will vary in terms of which standards they offer, and in addition students may not choose to attempt the relevant assessments. (When I was the Year 13 Bio examiner, the genetics AS was the one that was attempted by the fewest students, but bear in mind that this particular subject has now moved to the year 12 curriculum.) 

At FYSEC 2016, Pru noted that schools were already starting to drop Level 1 NCEA assessments – she hoped that this would become a nationwide thing, and in that light this article makes for interesting reading. The hope is that reducing the number of ASs that a student takes will result in much better learning outcomes overall.

Why? Well, assessment should not & does not equal curriculum, but the focus on achieving a particular number of credits (each AS carries a small number of credits with it) has meant that NCEA assessment has become a de facto driver of what is actually taught. When the NZ school curriculum was redeveloped, back in 2007, the intention was that schools and communities would use it to develop and deliver tailored, flexible curricula that provide what those communities wanted for their children. However, the relatively narrow focus of NCEA assessment, and the way that University Entrance is determined, actually work against that outcome. (And in fact I'm not convinced that simply reducing the number of ASs & credits available to students will address this issue, if the breadth of curriculum still isn't delivered because of pressure from other subject areas.) 

But to come back to that transition: Pru feels – & I agree – that we shouldn't be asking what schools or universities should leave out; we should be asking, what should students be learning? In that context, she suggested that it would be valuable for all uni first-year lecturers and program convenors to look at the front part of the NZ Curriculum (NZC) document. This sets out the key competencies that have to be delivered, which can then be contextualised within the various disciplines. For example, with her L2 Biology students, Pru uses a local project (e.g. dredging of Otago harbour; surveying passerines in Dunedin's green belt) to provide the context in which she then leads her students to aquire both content knowledge & the process skills and competencies mandated in the NZC. 

She pointed out that most students can master the key competencies very well – but they also need to learn how to learn in order to succeed at university (and universities need to support the mindset that underlies this). There are great on-line opportunities available for self-directed learners, and students who've gained the necessary intellectual skills can excel in biology (or any discipline, really) at both school & at uni – if they have been supported in learning how to learn. That really has to be up there with the most important competencies there are. (However, the need to pass external ASs requires rather a different skill set – there's not necessarily a lot of critical thinking or analysis going on there. Once again, assessment impacts on the curriculum in a negative way.)

Pru concluded by commenting that university staff who deal with first-year students need to be aware that: they're used to a more personal approach (they aren't used to the feeling that they might be 'just a number'); they may find themselves in information overload and don't know how to cope; many don't know how to study on their own: they're unsure where to go or who to ask for help. Many really haven't gained self-management skills or the ability to grasp the big picture (and in this, the fragmentation of learning promoted by a focus on ASs has a role to play). She believed that schools consistently push two key messages: the need to develop the ability to see the whole picture (the breadth of the curriculum), & understanding how one learns. Like Pru, I believe that these are messages that universities should also actively promote and learnings that we should encourage. The question then becomes – how do we actually get students to engage with those messages? Could the sciences learn from the humanities on this one?

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