A Developmental and Sociocultural Approach to the Transition from High School to College: The Importance of Understanding Student Meaning-Making

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Passive models of learning embodied in higher education courses do not foster knowledge creation. Recent discussion has prompted leaders to consider implementing more engaged learning pedagogies for undergraduate students, though efforts have been difficult to scale. One reason for this is that little work has been focused on students’ meaning-making as they shift from high school to college. Prior work has focused either on student readiness as something located in the student or as something colleges must provide. What has yet to receive significant attention is student perspectives about engaged learning as they shift ecosystems and as they navigate their everyday interactions. The present study focuses on this issue, looking in particular at one student’s attempts at sense-making as she transitions from her high school to college learning environment. Drawing upon a qualitative research method called positioning analysis, we demonstrate how bringing both a developmental and sociocultural lens to the transition process enhances our understanding. Through examining how the student positions herself over developmental time, we begin to understand the student’s developing reflections on high school learning and her academic experiences during her first semester of college. We demonstrate through using positioning analysis how a student makes sense of her own agency and learner identity, as she also considers institutional conditions, spaces, and supports offered in both high school and college. We conclude by discussing the implications of this demonstration both for future research as well as for transformative change needed in higher education today to assure engaged learning is a meaningful activity for all students. © 2023, The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG.

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Human Arenas

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agency, engaged learning, higher education, meaning-making, positioning analysis, student development