Pupils who chose a nature-related subject cluster do better at university, even in the arts and social sciences. As this has never been the aim of the different VWO (pre-university education) subject clusters, PhD student Els van Rooij calls in her thesis for the topic to be discussed afresh. She believes that if pupils are to be properly prepared for a university programme, there must also be more university-educated VWO teachers in secondary schools. Van Rooij will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 15 March.
In her research Van Rooij first looked at the role of the pupil. She discovered that VWO pupils’ curiosity and motivation, work ethic and use of learning strategies is linked to how well they do at university. For all pupils it is important that curiosity, academic interest and the effective use of learning strategies such as self-regulation are already stimulated at school.
Teachers in the final years of VWO also think it is important to stimulate these aspects, but in practice only a minority pay explicit attention to them. Van Rooij believes that this is due to a number of barriers that many teachers face. They do not know what universities expect of first-year students and thus what to focus on when preparing pupils. They also spend a lot of time preparing pupils for their school-leaving exams, because schools are ranked on these results. Some teachers believe that if pupils pass the VWO exam they are automatically prepared for university. Van Rooij says, ‘To prepare pupils for university it is important that as many teachers as possible in the final years of VWO have themselves been to university. However, this is at risk because many university-educated teachers will be retiring in the coming years and there are not huge numbers of new teachers coming from the universities.’
Pupils who choose a nature-related subject cluster do better at university, even in arts and social sciences. ‘The question is whether the nature-related subject clusters prepare pupils better for university or whether the better pupils choose a nature-related subject cluster,’ says Van Rooij. Her research shows that science pupils are more curious, have greater academic interest and consequently appear to be better prepared for university. She argues that the reason could also be the negative image of the arts and social sciences compared to the natural sciences. If a clever pupil chooses a society-related subject cluster the school often thinks this is a shame, also because you can study almost anything with a nature-related subject cluster, so it does not rule out anything.
According to Van Rooij, the negative image means that few clever pupils choose a social science subject cluster at VWO, despite the subject clusters being meant to prepare pupils for a programme that is a continuation of that subject cluster. However, as pupils who have chosen a society-related subject cluster do not do better in arts or social science programmes than those who have chosen a nature-related subject cluster, Van Rooij thinks it is important to restore the value of society-related subject clusters in secondary education. ‘Society-related VWO subject clusters should develop more links with university arts and social science programmes, introduce more depth to the subject cluster and teach pupils to think and act like academics,’ says Van Rooij.
Els van Rooij conducted her PhD research in the Department of Teacher Education at the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences, where she now works as a postdoc researcher. The title of her thesis is Secondary School Students’ University Readiness and their Transition to University.
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