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College and Career Readiness: Why Student Transitions Take a Village

  • 5 Min Read

Effectively managing student transitions is essential to producing lifelong learners. Set students up for success with these best practices.


For a student to be a successful lifelong learner, they need to be able to transition through the different stages of their learning journey: from elementary and middle school to high school, high school to college, college to career.

The research tells us this is true. Smooth student transitions from middle school to high school are a strong predictor of student success in ninth grade and beyond. For students with disabilities, more comprehensive high school transition plans lead to increased social involvement and increased feelings of empowerment in academic learning. In one survey, a lack of preparation and transition planning led to 52% of community college students feeling unprepared for higher education courses.

So, we know that effectively managing student transitions is essential, but there is a challenge. With many transitional periods in a student’s learning journey, each one involving different stakeholders from different organizations, how do we align ourselves in order to create holistic transition programs? What should these programs look like?

First Up: What’s Going Wrong?

Let’s look first at student transitions that are not done effectively. A strategy brief out of Barkley Center (with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln) looking at the middle school to high school transitional period found three main reasons why student transition programs fail:

  1. Lack of consideration for the social and developmental adjustments required of freshmen, who are facing new social circumstances and relationships that often take precedence over academic changes. Students entering college are also undergoing huge changes, with many being away from home for the very first time. If we fail to consider this in our transitional planning, we fail to support our students.
  2. Students feeling overwhelmed or surprised by the structural changes that come with transitioning to a new type of schooling. Specifically, students struggle when transitioning from middle school to high school or from high school to postsecondary because of the shifts in how courses and learning paths are organized. If transition plans don’t provide students with the foundational skills they need to manage this change, they will be unsuccessful.
  3. An increase in academic rigor that students feel unprepared for, coupled with increased requirements for independence, both of which lead to a natural dip in test scores as students get used to new expectations. This can particularly impact certain groups of students. For instance, in the Barkley Center strategy brief it was found that “up to 40% of students in low-income schools drop out after ninth grade. Additionally, these freshmen experience higher rates of course failure, declining test scores, and increased behavioral problems.” Students who don’t perform as they expected to on academic assessments early in a transitional period are more likely to drop out.

And this brings us to a fourth reason student transitions fail: A feeling of disengagement. Researchers exploring the reasons for high school dropout rates found that almost 50% of high school dropouts claimed they left school primarily due to lack of interest in their courses. More than 80% said they would have been more likely to stay if they had experienced more real-world opportunities that connected their learning to their future goals.

So, How Do We Do Transitions the Right Way?

Regardless of the transitional stage, there are some general best practices we can use to ensure success for students moving between phases in their educational journey:

  1. Build strong transition programs
    Transition programs should be available to all students, but with additional support for students who use accommodations or require specialized help (e.g., first generation college students). Students should be active participants in transition planning, and regular transition workshops should focus on high school, college and career readiness skills like self-advocacy and self-determination.
  2. Use early data intervention for student engagement and performance
    Knowing that students who struggle academically and feel disinterested in their learning are more likely to drop out in their first year, the earlier we can identify signs of disengagement, the better. One solution is using technology tools that collect data on student engagement and early academic performance quickly and provide educators with reports so that they can intervene.
  3. Manage parental involvement
    As students progress through their learning journey, parental involvement shifts. Helping to manage this element of transitions is important, especially as we help students to build their own foundational skills and independence.
  4. Increase communication between educators at different institutions
    Effective student transitions require involvement from the educators on both sides of a transition, and the more we collaborate between institutions, the better our students will be prepared. For example, postsecondary staff should be invited to attend and participate in transition workshops being hosted at secondary schools. This is particularly important for disability personnel who will be supporting students who need to transition their accommodations and learning plans across institutions.

British Columbia: A Great Example of Student Transition Planning

The province of British Columbia in Canada has taken a state-level approach to student transitions, creating the Student Transitions Project to look at various demographic and program factors that impact student success. Every student from K-12 to postsecondary is given a personal identification number to support tracking their progress throughout their student career. These numbers are used to track the factors influencing student success and consequent program planning decisions needed for student transitions at different stages. Through a careful look at the data, the project has explored specific areas including transitions for international students and longitudinal trends related to enrollment and success. The data is shared publicly to support transition planning broadly across the entire province.

By employing best practices in our student transition programs, we can ensure every student is set up for success.

If you’d like to learn more about how different educators and leaders are approaching student transitions between elementary school, high school, postsecondary and beyond, join VP of Academic Affairs Dr. Cristi Ford and a panel of esteemed experts on Oct. 19 for “Successful Transitions: Guiding Students From Kindergarten to College and Beyond,” a webinar on student transitions.

Written by:

Kassia Gandhi (née Kukurudza)

Kassia Gandhi (née Kukurudza) is currently the academic affairs director at D2L. She has worked in education for over a decade, beginning as an elementary teacher. Specializing in technology-enabled learning and teaching, Gandhi helps education organizations around the globe create effective learning ecosystems that put teachers and students at the center. Gandhi has a Master of Education with a research focus in Haitian school systems and the role of education in fragile contexts. In her free time, she acts as a mentor for Faculties of Education and volunteers with Family and Child Services, working with foster children.

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Table of Contents
  1. First Up: What’s Going Wrong?
  2. So, How Do We Do Transitions the Right Way?
  3. British Columbia: A Great Example of Student Transition Planning