14 SES 06 B, From Preschool to Primary and beyond: School Transitions in Ireland, Finland and Spain
This study explored student engagement of the first-year students in vocational education in Finland. The concept of student engagement can be described as an umbrella, which connects a broad range of research (Fredricks, Blumenfeld, & Paris, 2004). In brief, engagement refers to the time and effort the student devotes to studying both in and outside the classroom (Kuh, 2003). Current studies accent dynamic, contextualized and collective aspect of student engagement and criticize the view of engagement being student’s personal and stable feature (Sinha, Rogat, Adams-Wiggins, & Hmelo-Silver, 2015). Student engagement is a matter of common concern throughout the organization, the responsibility that applies to all members of the community: teachers, students, administration, staff and other partners (Buskist & Groccia, 2018).
Student engagement is related to wider commitment and investment in learning and school life, better achievement and school completion (Appleton, Christenson, & Furlong, 2008). Furthermore, student engagement plays a significant role in the development of personality and supports lifelong learning (e.g. Kuh, 2003). It is regarded as having longitudinal effects influencing education and career choices later in life (Abbott-Chapman, Martin, Ollington, Venn, Dwyer, & Gall, 2014).
The transition from one educational level to the next can be problematic and stressful for the student (e.g. Catterall, Davis, & Yang, 2014; Jäppinen & Maunonen-Eskelinen, 2012). By studying the development of first-year students’ engagement, we can also find ways to support transition processes. In Barber and Netherton’s (2018) study students experienced transition as a shock, but accepted this, and managed to adapt to the new learning environment. Successful transitions help students to continuously develop their competencies, which is beneficial for the student, the school and for the labour market (Biemans, Marien, Fleur, Tobi, Nieuwenhuis, & Runhaar, 2016).
In this study, we are interested in how the student engagement of the Finnish first-year students evolves in vocational education. We assume that it has been constructed in various social environments. This study focuses on a time period when the students are first time exploring their career choices and personal ways to learn and study in the vocational education programme. Career-decision process is one element affecting transition process (Winters, 2012). Thus, the focus of this study was on the certainty of students’ career choice, how they experienced the social environment in vocational education, and the relationship of these factors to student engagement. We address the following research questions:
1. How is the certainty of a student’s career choice related to student engagement?
2. How is social environment related to student engagement?
This was a mixed-methods study. Firstly, 364 first-year students (age 15-17) from two different vocational institutions participated in the quantitative survey. They were studying a range of subjects that included business and administration, metalwork and machinery, and social studies and welfare. A questionnaire was developed to suit the research questions and the participants. In this study, the items were inspired by previous research literature and a group interview of four students from a vocational institution. The IBM SPSS version 23.0 was used for the statistical analyses. The relationships between different aspects of social environment and student engagement were analysed with cross-tabulation and chi-square analysis, the Mann-Whitney U-test and the Kruskal-Wallis test. Secondly, seventeen students were selected for an interview. The purpose was to capture the voices of actual, young students. The themes covered in interviews included career choice, learning activities and environment in vocational education, received support in and outside school and future plans. The qualitative data were analysed using thematic analysis inspired by Braun and Clarkes’s (2006) model. Firstly, the data was transcribed to 100 pages of text and read through several times. Secondly, the interesting features of the data were coded based on a research interest “How does the engagement of the first-year student evolve? “ Atlas.ti version 8.0 was used in coding. The patterns of data were identified without imposing any preconceived categories. Both these studies are part of a larger longitudinal study of student engagement in vocational education in Finland.
According to the results, students deal with a variety of feelings of insecurity at the beginning of their vocational education studies. It is not just a question of ‘Do I like this?’. It also involves questions like ‘Am I up to this?’ and ‘Do I want to do this for the rest of my life?’ This is in line with previous researchers, who claim that career orientation and guidance should require more attention in schools (e.g., Winters, 2012). Students who were more confident about the career choice they had made ranked higher in terms of active effort and reciprocal relationships with teachers and therefore may receive more attention from the teachers. Thus, it might be beneficial at the beginning of studies to take particular notice of quieter students. In line with previous research (Elffers, Oort & Karsten, 2012; Li, Lynch, Kalvin, Liu & Lerner, 2011), peer support was an important issue. Having friends at school diminished feelings of insecurity and co-operating with friends eased the sense of inadequacy. Also, students’ contact with adults outside school supports engagement. In relation to the issue of school transition, results give picture from the students’ perspective to the first year in vocational education. Students in this study talked openly about the insecurity and were actively seeking confirmation and support from several social environments. This process continued throughout the first year of studies. The study highlights that individual ways of learning and teachers’ abilities to use various teaching methods were appreciated as they promoted students’ perceptions of adequacy and capacity, which is in line with previous studies (Barber & Netherton, 2018).
Abbott-Chapman, J., Martin, K., Ollington, N., Venn, A., Dwyer, T., & Gall, S. (2014). The longitudinal association of childhood school engagement with adult educational and occupational achievement: findings from Australian national study. British Educational Research journal, 40(1), 102-120. Appleton, J. J., Christenson, S. L., & Furlong, M. J. (2008). Student engagement with school: Critical conceptual and methodological issues on the construct. Psychology in the Schools, 45(5), 369-386. Barber, T., & Netherton, S. (2018). Transition between vocational and university education in Australia: the impact of the vocational education experience on becoming a university student. Journal of Vocational Education & Training, 70(4), 600-618. Biemans, H., Marien, H., Fleur, E., Tobi, H., Nieuwenhuis, L., & Runhaar, P. (2016). Students’ learning performance and transitions in different learning pathways to higher vocational education. Vocations and Learning, 9, 315-332. Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3(2), 77-101. Buskist, W., & Groccia, J. E. (2018). The Future of Student Engagement. New Directions for Teaching & Learning, 154, 109-111. Catterall, J., Davis, J., & Yang, D. F. (2014). Facilitating the learning journey from vocational education and training to higher education. Higher Education Research & Development, 33(2), 242–255. Elffers, L., Oort, F. J., & Karsten, S. (2012). Making the connection: The role of social and academic school experiences in students’ emotional engagement with school in post-secondary vocational education. Learning and Individual Differences, 22, 242-250. Fredricks, J. A., Blumenfeld, P. C., & Paris, A. H. (2004). School engagement: Potential of the concept, state of the evidence. Review of Educational Research, 74(1), 59-109. Jäppinen, A.-K. (2010). Preventing early leaving in VET: Distributed pedagogical leadership in characterizing five types of successful organizations. Journal of Vocational Education & Training, 62(3), 297–312. Kuh, G. D. (2003). What we’re learning about student engagement from NNSE? Benchmarks for effective educational practices. Change, March/April, 24-32. Li, Y., Lynch, A.D., Kalvin, C., Liu J., & Lerner, R.M. (2011). Peer relationships as a context for the development of school engagement during early adolescence. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 35(4), 329–342 . Sinha, S., Rogat, T.K., Adams-Wiggins, K.R., & Hmelo-Silver, C.E. (2015). Collaborative group engagement in a computer-supported inquiry learning environment. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 10(3), 273–307. Winters, A. (2012). Career learning in vocational education: Guiding conversations for career development. Leuven: KU Leuven.
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