Supporting students through the transition from GCSE to A level

Making the transition from GCSE to A level study can be challenging for students. Bradley Busch reviews the research into how students, parents and schools can help bridge the gap

Author details

Bradley Busch is a psychologist and the director of InnerDrive. InnerDrive run workshops that helps students develop a successful mindset and perform under pressure. This is based on...

Let’s start with a quick experiment. You are playing a memory and learning game. Which of these conditions would you find most stressful?

  • Get any answers wrong and the game leader will give you an electric shock.
  • Get any answers wrong and the game leader might give you an electric shock.

The impact of uncertainty

If you chose option 2, you are in good company. Recent research from University College London mocked up this experiment and found that students in the uncertain scenario felt significantly more stressed.  It turns out it’s not the worst-case scenario that stresses us most – it’s the not knowing. So if we want to reduce stress, we have to reduce uncertainty.

Students experience a number of transitions as they move through the educational system. Uncertainty accompanies many of these moves and research shows it can have a detrimental impact on student wellbeing and outcomes.

There’s a range of research that shows structural transitions – i.e. where you move through the school system, rather than experiencing a personal change – can lead to an initial reduction in student grades, self-esteem, satisfaction at school and attitude towards teachers (among other effects).

It turns out it’s not the worst-case scenario that stresses us most – it’s the not knowing

Each transition has its own challenges and uncertainties. As students get older, there is an increasing emphasis on independent study. The gap between Year 11 and Year 12 sees students studying fewer subjects but in more depth. This, coupled with the fact that the teenage brain is undergoing large changes, means transition and the way students learn and work can be different.

Fortunately, there is a growing body of research into how students, parents and schools can help students make this transition. 

1. Provide bridging material

If uncertainty causes stress, then one way to minimise its impact is to provide students with information so that they know what to expect. This includes taster days, where students can experience a day in the life of sixth form whilst in Year 11. We have seen many schools we work with adopt this approach to great success.

Another way to reduce ambiguity is to have clear rules and guidelines so that students know exactly what is expected of them. These should be communicated at the start of the year as part of an induction. For example, clarify how much independent work students need to do and how to spend their free study sessions. This provides a firm platform that can be returned to over the course of the year.

2. Develop resilient learners

A recent overview of psychological resilience by leading researchers highlights that for an environment to facilitate resilience, it needs to be high in both challenge and support.

Too much challenge and no support results in excessive stress, burnout and isolation. Too much support but not enough challenge can lead to complacency and boredom.

It therefore seems if we want to help students cope with change, we shouldn’t rush to do too much for them whilst also being aware that being available for support is essential.

Teaching students proactive coping strategies will help them in their teenage years

How teachers can gauge when a student is struggling under too much challenge is an art not a science. Knowing the difference between a stumbling block and an insurmountable barrier often comes with time and experience. Repeated failure, excessive and repeated emotional responses and withdrawing and disengaging from the tasks are often signs that more support may be needed.

3. Encourage a growth mindset

Researchers from Columbia University and Stanford University have examined why some students cope better with changes and uncertainties than others. They tracked teenagers over two years and found that a student’s mindset affected how well they managed these transitions.

Students with an incremental mindset (i.e. a growth mindset) were more likely to get higher grades, adopt learning goals, value effort, adopt positive coping strategies and were less likely to feel helpless than students with an entity mindset (i.e. a fixed mindset). If you believe you have a set amount of ability or intelligence, new situations are stressful because you don’t know if you will be able to cope.

The good news for teachers is that the same researchers conducted a follow-up study which found that this attitude can be taught and developed, reversing the previous decline in students with a fixed mindset. One of the main problems is how to effectively teach growth mindset – in fact, a recent survey from the US found that teachers wanted more support on how to do so.

These articles offer a good starting point.

4. Maintain a sense of perspective and social support

A recent study on undergraduates offered some clues about how to manage transition and develop resilience during change.

The researchers found that keeping a sense of perspective was a key factor in how students developed their resilience. The trick is to keep an eye on the big picture as well as the small details. The end goal helps maintain motivation on tough days, while focusing on the smaller details helps maintain focus and concentration.

This study also highlighted the importance of creating and maintaining support networks, as when students (and indeed anyone) feels isolated they are more likely to brood over things and feel stressed.

In summary

  • Uncertainty breeds stress: equipping students with knowledge and information and offering taster days will help.
  • Teaching students proactive coping strategies and developing a growth mindset culture will help them in their teenage years.
  • Providing both high expectations and high levels of support – alongside balancing that with a sense of perspective and a wide social support – will help equip students with the skills needed to be resilient learners.
  • Start early and revisit. Schools that we have worked with not only adopt these approaches at the start of Year 12, but often introduce them to Year 11 students and revisit them with sixth form students over the course of the year.

Read more articles from Bradley on developing resilience and a growth mindset 

Last Updated: 
10 Sep 2018