Preparing secondary students for university

New research published by Flinders University suggests self-regulated learning is a valuable tool that could help ease the transition to university for senior secondary students.

Author of the report, Dr Stella Vosniadou, a Strategic Professor in the College of Education, Psychology and Social Work at the university in South Australia, says that the transition to higher education can be facilitated by improving students' capabilities for independent, self-directed and self-regulated learning (SRL).

‘University learning places high demands on students for complex and independent learning, namely learning that requires the ability to plan, monitor and evaluate one's work and to control one's motivation and emotion,' she writes in a special issue of the journal European Review.

Drawing on existing literature, Vosniadou says that many secondary school students lack the skills of an independent and self-regulated learner when they enter higher education, something that contributes to considerable student attrition during the first year of university study.

‘[More] attention should be paid to the promotion of self-regulated learning in secondary schools. This can be achieved by helping teachers understand how to enrich students' knowledge about learning and strategies to manage it,' she writes in Self-education Bridging Secondary and Higher Education – The Importance of Self-regulated Learning.

Self-regulated learning

Self-regulated learning is a conceptual framework for understanding the cognitive, motivational, and emotional aspects of learning.

‘The self-regulation of learning is being increasingly recognised as an important factor when investigating barriers in the transition from secondary to higher education,' Vosniadou writes.

The academic cites a 2005 study (Krause et al) that found many students do not have adequate knowledge of SRL and have not developed the necessary strategies to manage it. The study involved a survey of first-year students at an Australian university and found one-third of students felt ill-prepared to choose a university course on leaving school, and they experienced an early ‘reality shock' when their first semester marks came in.

She cites another survey of teacher practices in Australia (Harding et al., 2017) that found 98.8 per cent of teachers said SRL skills are important, yet only 32 per cent said they specifically included elements of SRL when planning a lesson.

‘Teachers seem to recognise the importance of teaching their students how to become self-regulated learners. However, when they are explicitly asked, they say that they do not feel confident to teach SRL or that they do not have the time to do so,' Vosniadou says.

Overcoming the challenges

There are challenges that arise when developing skills of SRL, but Vosniadou suggests they should be a priority for secondary school teachers.

‘Although students usually undertake difficult background knowledge tests in the disciplines to demonstrate that they have the subject knowledge necessary for their studies, they are not, or are very rarely assessed on whether they possess the skills necessary to manage their learning in an effective way,' Vosniadou says of university entrance exams.

‘Establishing such tests at university entrance can be one of the ways to influence secondary schools to engage in actions directed at the development of these skills in their students.'

Vosniadou acknowledges that teaching the skills of independent learning is not easy, and requires substantial changes in the traditional way of teaching. ‘For one thing it requires giving students more independence and control over their learning, something that teachers are often reluctant to do. Keeping control of the classroom is important for many teachers who do not know how to manage a more open and student-centred learning environment.'

She adds it also requires teachers to design constructive and interactive tasks that students can use to process content critically, and teaching them strategies needed for the successful completion of such tasks.

A school example

Vosniadou says some secondary schools have succeeded in fostering SRL skills in students and cites the Australian Science and Mathematics School (ASMS) as an example. ASMS is a state school based on the Flinders University campus in Adelaide, and offers an interdisciplinary, student-centred curriculum for Years 10–12 in Science and Mathematics.

‘ASMS has developed a new understanding of the transition from secondary to tertiary education, by creating a learning environment which, like a university learning environment, demands a great deal of independent learning, but which also offers a lot of support and guidance to students to learn how to be independent learners. This is done through the school's Learning Studies Programme,' Vosniadou writes.

The paper notes that the Learning Studies Programme is designed to help students become aware of themselves as learners by developing their knowledge about learning and the strategies needed to manage and control their learning.

‘The emphasis is to support the students to become independent learners in order to do well at ASMS but also in order to make a successful transition to tertiary education and plan their life beyond ASMS.'


Krause, K. L., Hartley, R., James, R., & McInnis, C. (2005). The first year experience in Australian universities: Findings from a decade of national studies.

Harding, S. M., Nibali, N., Griffin, P., Graham, L., & English, N. (2017). Teaching Self-regulated Learning in Victorian Classrooms. In Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) conference as part of a symposium: Beliefs and Knowledge about Learning and Teaching in Teachers and Students, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

Vosniadou, S. (2020). Bridging Secondary and Higher Education. The Importance of Self-regulated Learning. European Review, 28(S1), S94-S103.

How do you build skills of independence and self-regulation into your students, in order to prepare them for life after school? What impact does this have on their feelings towards tertiary study?

Have you reconnected with former students to ask them about their transition to university? How did they find the experience? Did they feel well prepared for the challenges they faced? Did they offer any suggestions on how they could have been better supported while still at school?