Making the Change:
Students Experiences
of the Transition to Primary School


Denise Kirkpatrick




We regularly acknowledge the importance of first impressions in our everyday life. So when we consider students' responses to the academic environment of secondary school we need to remember and take note of the importance of these initial experiences as well. Students actively interpret the worlds of the school and classroom and these interpretations play an important role in structuring their actions within those worlds. What students think about secondary school and the things that happen to them there are important and this affects the way that they behave both academically and socially in that context. Their initial impressions and experiences establish important educational beliefs and behaviours which may be difficult to change.

There is much disturbing anecdotal evidence that suggests that the transition to secondary school is accompanied by declines in students' academic performance and attitude towards school. This is clearly a problematic issue. Many current middle school initiatives actually bring the time of transition to secondary school forward, although there is little to support such decisions. In fact, results of overseas studies suggest that early transition to secondary school is more difficult than late transition. Thornburg and Jones found that students who moved to secondary school in Year 6 exhibited lower self esteem than those who did not change schools, but that at Year 7 there was no difference between those who moved and those who did not. A recent response to the problem has been the development of the middle school which changes the timing of transitions and seeks to address some of the curriculum issues which may be relevant.

Changes in the size and structure of secondary schools have also been suggested as factors contributing to the decline in academic performance and motivation. However, unless the resulting middle school context is significantly different to the current situation then its potential for success will be limited. What may result is simply a shifting of the stage at which the problem occurs and at worst the introduction of yet another stage at which discontinuities can emerge. Clearly if appropriate interventions are to be implemented then we need to develop a thorough understanding of what is happening during this transition. A 'snapshot' of the perceptions and interpretation of the students themselves will go some way towards providing us with a picture of transition as experienced by the participants and the ways in which they make sense of their experiences. A recent investigation of the transition experiences of a group of Western Australian students goes some way towards providing such a 'snapshot'.

Too often teachers and academics forget that learning has an important affective component, that students have affective responses to teachers, peers, the context, and all of the academic aspects of school life. These affective responses along with their expectations, and beliefs influence students' motivation and academic performance.

The prospect of leaving primary school and moving on and up to secondary school is one which most children approach with a mixture of anticipation and apprehension. For many, secondary school is an unknown place - a set of buildings which they may have seen but do not know. Most children, however, see secondary school as a challenge, an opportunity for a new start, new friends and to learn new and exciting subjects. They will enter secondary school with expectations based on their own aspirations and goals, those of their parents and the stories they have heard from friends, siblings and primary school teachers.

The first experiences of secondary school would appear to be very important for these children as they discover what secondary school will require of them and how it will meet their expectations. Their academic success at secondary school can play a significant role in their later educational success as it establishes the foundation for subsequent academic performance and knowledge acquisition. It also plays an important role in establishing or confirming children's own perceptions of their performance and ability and of the expectations of the school system and their teachers.

This Western Australian study explored children's expectations prior to secondary school and their experiences and perceptions when they entered secondary school. While its central focus was on the experiences of the children involved it also investigated changes in students' academic performance during the transition from primary to secondary school.

Over a twelve month period of school this study showed that most students' performance remained at the same level in relation to the syllabus description for the final year of primary school. It would be reasonable to expect that most children's academic performance would have improved after three terms of secondary school, however there was little improvement and in some cases students' academic performance actually declined. The future consequences of this, of course, are serious. It means that not only were these children 'marking time' for a significant period of their first year of secondary school but that they were missing valuable learning which would provide a basis for future learning.

In order to discover possible explanations for this pattern of academic performance, the children in this study were asked to talk about their expectations and experiences during the transition because their interpretations and responses to the situation played a major role, affecting what they saw as important what they valued and how they behaved as learners.

Generally, the students were looking forward to moving to secondary school. They believed that the work in secondary school would be more challenging and interesting, that they would have the opportunity to make new friends and learn new subjects. It was common in this study for children to talk about secondary school as offering them the opportunity to make a 'fresh start', and they expressed good intentions about implementing regular study and homework practices and about 'doing well at school'. It was, however, obvious that these children had little accurate information about what secondary school would be like and were unaware of the range of specific subjects that they would study or of choices that they may be able to make. At primary school children also believed that school was important and that doing well in school was important. They enjoyed school and talked about trying hard at academic tasks and wanting to do well. They had extensive knowledge about themselves as learners; the way they went about academic tasks; the criteria against which their work was judged; and about their own and their peers' academic performance. Their teachers played a positive role in their educational lives.

Students' initial responses to secondary school were mainly positive. In the first few weeks most of their attention was focused on the organisational aspects of the school, things such as following timetables, and finding their way around the school grounds. Just as the social dimensions of the new school context had featured strongly in their expectations, their first reactions were related to issues of friendships. They expressed satisfaction (and some trepidation) at the new social opportunities - the organisation of form classes and subject classes meant that they met many new students both of their own age and older. All of the children in this study were in classes with some of their peers from primary school and reported that they had made new friends in their classes while maintaining their existing friendships. Many children separated the development of friendship networks in class time from existing and new networks that functioned outside of class time. However, as they became familiar with the procedural and social aspects of the school academic issues took on greater significance. The honeymoon was over.

Students expressed increasing disappointment at the lack of academic challenge they encountered. In some cases this appeared to be a consequence of inappropriate or inaccurate expectations relating to the nature of the subjects that they would study but the result was disillusionment. Particularly in first semester children found that the work that they were doing was no more difficult (and at times easier) than the work that they had been doing in primary school. This was contrary to their expectations that the academic work at secondary school would be harder and more challenging to them. This caused some children to believe that teachers at secondary school did not have secondary expectations for their academic performance and consequently they restricted their effort believing that if they had done the work before they did not need to try very hard in order to be successful. This was accompanied by an increasing sense of boredom.

While experiencing work that they believed was easier than they had previously experienced students also found that the volume of work increased and that there was increased pressure on submission of work for assessment. While they did not have clear ideas about the academic standards that were required, students interpreted strong messages about the importance of handing work in on time. This was seen as the most important aspect of academic work as marks would be deducted for late submission. Students admitted that they had submitted work that they would have previously considered unacceptable. While they acknowledged this they pointed out that it was unlikely that they would be able to gain back the deducted marks by working on their tasks for longer.

As the first year progressed a sense that they had a lack of control over what was happening to them developed. Students saw this as the 'way that school was', that it was the teachers who controlled the way in which they went about their work. While they expressed disappointment and some frustration at the lack of challenge and interest this was accepted with resignation. There was no sense of outrage or anger on the part of students that they were not being challenged. Motivation can be seen as a function of the extent to which a learner expects to be successful on a task and the value they attach to that task. Students had little information on which to base decisions about how likely they were to be successful and were developing a view that the tasks themselves were of little 'value'. Features of the secondary learning environment were, in this way, combining to create a situation which undermined students' motivation to learn.

Peer pressure is often suggested as the reason for measurable declines in students' academic performance when they reach secondary school. It is argued that there is little incentive for students to want to achieve because adolescents are anti-school and the peer group holds negative attitudes towards academic achievement. These students described their peer groups as holding strong beliefs about the importance of doing well in school, and all students wanted to achieve at a satisfactory level. However, this was accompanied by a strong desire not to be singled out for academic performance or to 'show off' about secondary levels of academic performance. A peer group which derided doing well was the exception rather than the rule. Most students wanted to do well and were proud when they did, although none of them would advertise this to their friends. The prevailing culture valued doing well in an unassuming way. Students wanted to be told when they were doing well but preferred this to be done privately. The fact that there was limited opportunity for private interactions with teachers at secondary school affected these students' willingness to ask for help or their ability to inform the teacher when they were having trouble with work. Students did not report difficulties in dealing with a number of different teachers because they had dealt with multiple teachers in the primary school - it was, in fact, already common for them to have a number of specialist teachers - so it was not the number of teachers that presented them with the problems but the difficulty of gaining access to teachers in a non-public manner. This made it more difficult for students to check their understandings of teachers' expectations and task requirements or to get assistance from the teacher.

For such students it is clear that the transition to secondary school did not meet their expectations in a number of ways that related to academic aspects of school, not simply to peer pressure. Children found academic work less challenging than they expected and interpreted this to mean that their teachers did not hold secondary performance expectations. In addition to this they responded to the emphasis on submission of work for assessment in a way that resulted in inferior quality work being submitted on time in order to avoid the imposition of marks penalty for late submission. The increased volume of work also affected students' application of effort and their view of the importance of getting work completed. Students did not have a clear idea of the criteria that would be used for assessment nor of the standards that teachers required. These factors meant that students were not able to operate strategically or in a way that gave them control over their learning. Instead they responded to these factors by reducing their efforts and adopting an increasingly negative attitude towards school.

The experiences of these students suggest that there is much that can be done to make the transition from primary to secondary school a more positive educational experience. The study demonstrates, however, that the keys to changing the transition experience and outcomes are well within the control of teachers. More accurate and specific information during the final years in primary school about what secondary school will be like would certainly assist students in forming more realistic expectations. In the secondary school changed teacher beliefs about these students and more effective teaching practices will create an environment which encourages more self-regulated and motivated learners. The provision of more information relating to standards and criteria for academic task performance will allow students to tackle tasks in a more informed way. Provision of informative feedback about task performance gives students the opportunity to understand how to go about tasks, how to improve performance and encourages the belief that success is possible in similar future situations. Similarly, more attention to academic processes and articulation of teachers' expectations will give students a more informed knowledge base from which to operate. In addition, strategies that allow easier or increased student access to teachers will provide students with more opportunities to gain necessary information. Curriculum or subject integration is a feature of many middle school initiatives. It may be that a powerful effect of this is increasing students' access to teachers so that they can develop a greater understanding of what teachers require. However, simply increasing students' access to teachers will not solve the problem. It requires more action on the part of the teacher.

The way in which teachers interpret the curriculum is also salient. Teachers need to have a clear understanding of all aspects of desired outcomes and the ways in which these outcomes relate to previous work. It is important to draw students' attention to the ways in which the work is different from that which they have done previously, to exploit the interest and anticipation with which children approach secondary school. This requires secondary teachers to be familiar with the work which students have previously covered and to acknowledge the value of previous learning and experience. Attention to these features will allow secondary teachers to capitalise on the positive expectations that students hold for secondary school.

Denise Kirkpatrick, Centre for Learning and Teaching, University of Technology, Sydney

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