The move from GCSE to ‘A’ Level (or BTEC National Level 3) can be a big challenge for many teenagers making the transition.

Like all people, students are creatures of habit and tend to stick to their tried and tested methods of study. When advancing up from GCSE to A’Level or BTEC however, they are often quickly faced with the sharp reality that they will need to know how to master a new, much deeper knowledge of their chosen subjects. They find out that they have moved away from a more ‘blanket’ learning GCSE type approach (where principles often have been simplified to make them easier to grasp) to suddenly having to understand complex concepts and then know how to actually apply them.

They need to do all this whilst at the same time embracing new, often more autonomous, styles of learning that may not come naturally. Add to this the question, ‘Why did you choose this course?’ and if the learning curve is steep and the motivation flagging, then trouble may be on the horizon and intervention of some kind will be needed soonest.


A question of motivation
The reason for choosing a subject often underpins an individual’s motivation throughout their course. Do they have a specific dream career in mind? Do they like the subject? Do they want to go to university? Did they like the teacher at GCSE because they made learning fun? Are they doing it because their friend is on the course? Did they chose the apparently ‘easy’ courses just so that they could stay on? Did they pick their courses purely because they felt they had to?

Ask the question then write it down.
It is important that the students really take time to think about and write down the real reasons for doing the courseHaving this close to hand for when the going gets tough, as a poster on the wall or the front page of their journal or even just a supportive adult reminding them of their reasons, can often be all that is needed to help. This is especially true as the teenage mind naturally ‘lives in the now’ and so it can really help them to visualise just why they are persevering with all this hard work now and how it will pay off in the future.

Some motivations just naturally support success and some don’t.
Interestingly the development of the 16 to 18 year old student means that their main motivation and task in life is to find out socially who they are. People of this age are more emotional and consequently, as said previously, tend to live in the present moment. As a result of this they can often be easily distracted from their studies by their social and emotional needs.

Saying that, having a social need can be a very strong motivation for doing a course, but when it all goes a bit array socially / emotionally, they may be also asking for trouble trying to stick with their intended course. It is important therefore to also focus on some personal motivations, such as a career path, in order to have a motivation that can’t be taken away due to social changes or disruptions.

The trials and tribulations of the teenage years

Teenage Rollercoaster

Empowering teenagers with the tools and language to be more socially intelligent, plus helping both them and their parent/teacher/carer to be able to ride the teenage emotional roller coaster,  can also be of enormous help during this time.

Some teenagers develop their emotional intelligence quicker than others, but being able to have the tools and framework in place to process strong emotions healthily can really help anyone to be successful with their studies during testing times.

Introducing new learning styles and scientific research
The most successful students are already independent learners, i.e. they are self motivated, they assess their own performance / attainment, they successfully adapt to new learning styles in order to be able to grasp more detailed information. They also take remedial action when necessary i.e. they look things up, work on tasks with peers, ask questions in class and always try to solve a problem to the best of their ability, etc. These are the skills that are required at A’Level/BTEC as well as for university. They also make for a strong foundation for most careers and for life. The issue arises when some of the brightest students at GCSE level hit their A’levels, i.e. those who perhaps previously needed to do little work to succeed and who find themselves faced by an unknown challenge. They have never had to ‘work hard’ and therefore they don’t have the habitual study skills that they now need to call on if they are to succeed.

In cases like these it is important that they try to find and try new learning methods as soon as possible. These should be tried out and then reflected back on during the first half term. What worked best for them? What didn’t work so well? What would work better? It is too easy for some individual students to build a culture of learning around their new course based on the familiarity of their GCSE experience, but this really will not allow them to progress at A’Level/BTEC or let them reach their full potential in later life.

Examples of some learning tactics to try:

1. Testing or quizzing yourself.
Although most people prefer not to take tests, study has shown that self-testing improves learning retention (Scientific American Mind Sept/Oct 2013). It creates stronger neural networks in the brain, networks which help link pieces of information together and this in turn helps the process of retrieval.

2. For the best results spread your study over time rather than cramming just before a test. This gives more time to link new information to what is already known and to synthesize a deeper understanding (Scientific American Mind Sept/Oct 2013).

3. Be verbally tested on the material. In a scientific test at an American university students were given 50 words of Swahili to learn. One group studied as per normal without being verbally tested and the other was verbally tested. The students in the group which was verbally tested got 85% of the questions right, compared to about 25% for the group who were not verbally tested.

4. After about 15 minutes stop and internally review what has just been covered. The more of your senses you use, the better. Hear what was being said, look at diagrams, study the page of text again, create an image / internal video of what has just been ‘taught.’ All of this enhances the neural network in your brain by laying down stronger memories i.e. you are actually creating your own individual internal memory about when you learnt these facts, concepts or experiences and then recalling these memories in order to recall the fact.

5. Work as a group to raise each individual’s understanding and gain new insights. At the prestigious American University, MIT, many of their students are coming from Japan & China, where a group culture is more prevalent. After a lecture they will gather in a cafe or room at the University and go through the lecture discussing the work and helping each individual to understand. In many cases they are now showing more success at their chosen subjects than their less ‘social’ fellow American students. Why? My thoughts are that the students in the group who already understand gain by clarifying what they know to others and therefore make stronger memories as a result. Those who are unsure or don’t yet understand something get the work explained by their peers, who will often use a similar level of language or explanations, mostly due to a common age or cultural background. Understanding is often not enough, the work needs to be absorbed and applied and group discussion allows for this.

What ever tactic(s) is(are) chosen, in all cases it is important that each individual learner gives each new method a good trial and review afterwards. Everyone has different ways of learning and absorbing information. The change from A’Level to BTEC empowers teenagers to investigate and lay down the learning habits that will give them the success they deserve now and in later life.

Coming soon, Synthesis Learning’s next post:
Coping with stress, anxiety and depression.

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Nigel F Huddleston is a learning coach and therapist with over 23 years of experience teaching teenagers and young adults. 

To discuss individual needs or explore creating your own personalised strategy, Nigel is available to book for a Skype or 1-to-1 session. Please call Nigel now on 07916148002 or complete a contact form

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