Enabling academic literacy: Smoothing the transition to tertiary learning

Funding year: 
2 years
Massey University
School sector
Project start date: 
January 2013
Project end date: 
March 2015
Principal investigator(s): 
Assoc. Professor. Lisa Emerson
Research team members: 
Angela Feekery, Ken Kilpin
Research partners: 
Lead teachers from seven mid-low decile secondary schools in three disciplines: social sciences, business and science - reflective practitioners Tertiary teachers in the disciplines (science, business and social science) - reflective practitioners Undergraduate peer tutors (emerging researcher-practitioners- Massey University)


Project Description

This action research project investigates how to more effectively enable students’ transition to tertiary learning through academic literacy learning interventions at senior secondary school and first-year tertiary study.


The aim of this project was to improve the retention of university students by supporting academic literacy during their transition from high school (year 13) to first year university.
Our objectives were to:

  • Investigate how current methods of preparing students for academic literacy through the senior secondary programme and tertiary transition strategies impact on transitioning students
  • Develop, implement and assess a revised approach to the development/embedding of academic literacy skills in the senior high school curriculum and first year of university study
  • Model sustained partnership and collaboration between secondary and tertiary teachers in the development of academic literacy pedagogy and resources to facilitate more effective strategies for transitioning students into academic literacy

Why is this research important?

Academic literacy is critical to student retention and tertiary learning. Despite the plethora of research into literacy in schools and universities in New Zealand, and a strong strategic interest in transition, prior to this research, no-one had effectively put the two together.

We identified a clear gap in the research which has major implications for practice concerning the transition students make between school and academic literacy in New Zealand education. Discussions with principals and secondary teachers in a range of disciplines, including science, revealed a real concern about both the challenges for students when they transition into academic literacy at tertiary level, and the lack of communication between the secondary and tertiary sectors. By developing a school-to-university programme focused on academic literacy, and researching the implementation of this programme, this project addressed a key gap in our understanding/facilitation of students’ successful transition to university study, while modelling sustainable partnerships with secondary and tertiary teachers.

What we did

Our project team, comprising secondary and tertiary teachers, literacy advisors and peer tutors, worked together over two years using participatory action research (PAR) to research and develop a school-to-university academic literacy strategy. Our programme was based around three platforms:

  • Resourcing teachers, by providing workshops on current thinking around literacy and information literacy
  • Peer support for students, using undergraduate peer mentors
  • Peer support for teachers

We collected qualitative and quantitative style data from both the secondary and tertiary contexts, using several methods. Data sources included surveys of teachers and students, focus groups and individual interviews, reflective journals and assignments. The data were analysed through a range of qualitative and quantitative methods.

What we found

The following key findings emerged from our research:

  • Secondary teachers’ understanding of the university sector needed urgent revision. With the exception of recently-graduating teachers, or teachers who had recently upskilled through graduate study, secondary teachers were largely unaware of the extent to which tertiary education has changed (pedagogy, tertiary teachers’ literacy and IL expectations, learning delivery methods, and assessment) over the last 20 years. They were largely unaware of the range and complexity of assessment forms in tertiary education and the increased demands on students’ ability to independently interpret and manage complex tasks.
  • Teachers under-estimate the centrality of information literacy in the transition. Information literacy emerged as a central theme in our research, and we subsequently adopted the ANCIL framework as a way of integrating information literacy into the curriculum.
  • The impact of NCEA on the transition space is complex. A key finding of this research is that, while teacher perceptions of the management of NCEA have potentially detrimental impacts on the integration of literacy and independent learning strategies in classrooms, the NZ Curriculum and NCEA, particularly following the realignment, have the potential to realise and support the aims of this project.
  • The sole focus of many senior secondary students is passing NCEA: while school-based success is obviously important, teachers also need to encourage their students to look past school qualifications to the skills they will need to develop in preparation for tertiary study.
  • Providing a peer tutor makes a difference to students’ perceptions of the transition. We initiated a peer-support system, using young university students, trained in non-directive peer tutoring methods, to support student learning. However, students perceived the greatest value of this initiative lay in unscheduled discussions about what university was like, the skills required, and how to overcome obstacles.

What we recommend

Secondary schools

  • There is a need for in-service PLD for senior teachers of text rich secondary school subjects focusing on contemporary academic and information skills teaching within the NCEA context, using the ANCIL framework. 
  • Pre-service programmes should introduce compulsory instruction in literacy pedagogic content knowledge required for effective instructional practice.
  • Measures should be taken to promote NCEA as a qualification that requires teachers to explicitly instruct students in the processes that nurture critically literate thinkers in disciplinary settings, reading and writing skills at advanced academic levels for academic success, and efficient and effective researchers.
  • Further exploration is needed into ways to promote the flexibility of NCEA as a tool within which teachers can plan safely for programmes of learning in the context of annual accountability and performativity protocols.

Tertiary institutions

  • A mechanism for educating tertiary teachers about the NCEA and the NZ curriculum is needed.
  • Tertiary institutions need to actively engage with their catchments’ secondary institutions, beyond promotion, recruitment and induction days, in order to reach common understandings about each other’s educational setting, pedagogic practices , expectations and academic demands.
  • Tertiary institutions consider using academic induction and peer tutors as a way of supporting transitioning students who are at risk (eg first in family) during the senior high school years.

Across sectors

  • More pedagogical consistency is needed across the sectors.
  • At a policy level, a smoother transition between sectors needs to be considered. We recommend the use of the ANCIL framework to achieve this.
  • At a local level, we need to find new ways to bring schools and tertiary institutions together, to share information, expectations, practices, and pedagogy.


  • Further investigation into teacher identity, attitudes and beliefs related to literacy is needed across sectors.
  • Further research is needed to extend the methods of this research into a broader range of schools
  • Further research into the ANCIL framework as a way of enabling transition is needed, particularly within the tertiary sector.
  • Future research is needed to extend our findings into the tertiary sector.



Project Contact

Associate Professor Lisa Emerson
Massey University
Private Bag 11 222
Palmerston North