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Smoothing secondary school transition in STEM

Published: Jun 15, 2020 3 min read

STEM learning

All Year 7 teachers know that new cohorts arrive from primary school with varying levels of knowledge, skills and confidence. These variations are compounded by multiple feeder schools all having different approaches.


How can this be managed at the point of transition, so all students make progress, not just those who have the most catching-up to do? Some students in lower key stage 3, when repeating aspects of their primary education, lose motivation; how can this be avoided?

What can you do?

For all secondary schools it is important to clearly define the body of knowledge that comprises each subject, and to consider the learning journey from leaving primary towards expertise that supports further study.

Ask yourself, for each subject, what are the Big Ideas? How can these best be sequenced to gradually build the knowledge of each child? In science the big ideas have been established over many years while in the more recent subject of computing they are emerging, as exemplified through the National Centre for Computing Education resource collection.

It is also worth making the connections with what students already know by bringing familiar concepts and context from primary school.

What do they already know?

The primary curriculum is well defined in the core STEM subjects of maths and science, but much more loosely defined in D&T and computing aims and subject content. What can teachers of Y7 subjects expect all children to know, and be able to do? The answer to these questions are difficult in normal years, and much more so in the current context.

To test or not to test? It is tempting to check the knowledge of incoming Y7 students through testing, but this has its limitations. It is difficult, for instance, to determine the depth, richness and flexibility of knowledge through simple tests.

Recall of ‘core’ knowledge might be measured, but may simply indicate rote learning that is less useful for problem-solving and inference. Furthermore, tests - especially ‘baseline’ tests that relate to content not yet studied - can be demotivating, especially for those with low confidence.

To develop a richer view of students, teacher questioning is a powerful tool. Consider making use of the following:

  • Information recall
  • Higher-order questions that gently challenge young people to explain their answers
  • A ‘no hands-up’ approach that puts everyone on an equal footing
  • Think-pair-share, allowing time to explore ideas

Correcting misconceptions

Whatever approach you use, it is vital to draw out misconceptions, acknowledge gaps in knowledge, and correct them. Research shows that beginning this conversation with the correct concept makes reinforcement of the misconception less likely.

Classroom talk provides a way to dig into core knowledge, and also to explore further knowledge that enriches the curriculum, and develops interest. 

The feedback you give students in the moment can have a huge impact on their progress.

This knowledge of students has little value without adapted teaching that acknowledges the strengths and weaknesses. Fading of worked examples (as seen in computing here) are a manageable classroom approach and have been shown to be effective for supporting novices while stretching the more knowledgeable. They also avoid the expertise reversal effect – where some teaching strategies become less effective as students grow in expertise.

Additional support can be provided to students at risk of struggling by pre-teaching key vocabulary, and by providing knowledge organisers that map out the domain of knowledge and key learning outcomes.