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  • Writer's pictureAnna Widlund

Transitioning through lower and upper secondary school – Changes in adolescents’ academic well-being

Updated: Aug 18, 2021

Transitioning through the lower and upper secondary school years while at the same time going through adolescence may often involve several changes and challenges for students: increased academic demands, emphasised competition and social comparison, focus on performance goal orientation, and changing peer groups and teachers. Therefore, it is not surprising that students seem to experience some declining feelings towards school and lowered motivation during this time. Although individual variations in such changes likely exist, any signs of declining feelings towards school and studying, and experiences of school-related strain are something that we should take seriously, as positive academic well-being is thought to be important for various educational outcomes.

Still, relatively little is known about how students’ academic well-being develops and co-occurs with educational outcomes across the lower and upper secondary school years.

Still, relatively little is known about how students’ academic well-being develops and co-occurs with educational outcomes over time and across the lower and upper secondary school years. In our previous studies (e.g., Korhonen et al., 2014; Tuominen-Soini & Salmela-Aro, 2014; Widlund et al., 2018), we have demonstrated that the relation between well-being and educational outcomes may not always be straightforward. Although positive well-being often goes hand in hand with higher performance and motivation, some students might perform well and be highly motivated, yet still feel exhausted by schoolwork. Similarly, lowered performance and motivation may not make all students burned out. Consequently, it seems important to also investigate the individual differences in how academic well-being develops across the adolescent years, as it does not seem likely that all students would handle the potential challenges and changes during adolescence in the same way.

In our recent accelerated longitudinal study (Widlund et al., 2021), we used a growth mixture modeling technique to investigate whether distinct developmental profiles of school engagement and burnout could be identified among students during the lower and upper secondary school years, and how students with different profiles may differ in their concurrent mathematics performance and overall educational aspirations.

Different but relatively stable academic well-being profiles during adolescence

We identified four different developmental profiles of academic well-being: Positive academic well-being (31,4%), Negative academic well-being (32,4%), Disengaged (21,2%), and Declining academic well-being (15%).

Image by Daniel Reche from Pixabay

Students in the Positive academic well-being profile were highly engaged in school, did not experience school burnout, performed well and had high educational aspirations in the course of both lower and upper secondary education. This indicates that students with initial positive academic well-being might be better equipped to handle possible challenges and changes occurring during adolescence.

Students in the Negative academic well-being group expressed a rather reversed profile: they continued to disengage from school, and became slightly more burned out during lower secondary school. They performed rather low in mathematics, and had one of the lowest aspirations for their future education.

Students in the Disengaged group also expressed low and decreasing levels of school engagement, but interestingly, they also became less exhausted in school over time. They still performed relatively well in mathematics, but their performance progressed at the slowest rate of all student groups, and their educational aspirations were constantly rather low. It might be that simply high academic performance and a lack of school burnout does not necessarily lead to continued educational success, if one does not also value and feel emotionally connected to the educational environment.

Lastly, students in the Declining academic well-being profile were initially highly engaged in school and did not show signs of school burnout. However, during lower secondary school, they became increasingly less engaged, and their levels of exhaustion and feelings of inadequacy increased from being one of the lowest to one of the highest compared to the other groups. Furthermore, they still performed well in mathematics and aspired for high educational degrees, but their performance progressed at a relatively slow rate.

Transitioning to post-comprehensive education: offering opportunities for positive change

Most students experienced a shift in their school engagement and burnout trajectories as they transitioned to post-comprehensive education, but for the majority, the change was positive. When transitioning to upper secondary education, Finnish students get to choose their study track (vocational or academic), and they have an increased possibility to influence their study program and to find peers with similar interests.

Following up students’ well-being in school is important

Although changes seem to occur in both school engagement and burnout during adolescence, the results also show that many students cope with and adjust to normative life transitions quite well. Nevertheless, it is important to realise that students show various patterns and trajectories of academic well-being, and that these seem to be related to their progression in mathematics performance in meaningful ways, as well as appearing to have some impact on their aspired educational degrees. It would be important for schools to learn to be aware of the risks, and attempt to identify groups of students with various types of problems.

It would be important for schools to learn to be aware of the risks, and attempt to identify groups of students with various types of problems.

Some students might need support and interventions targeting their low valuing of school and negative feelings towards school by creating more motivation-enhancing learning environments in schools (i.e., Disengaged group), others might benefit more from interventions targeting psychological stress and exhaustion, and be offered student welfare services and school counselling (i.e., Declining academic well-being group), whereas some would benefit from both types of interventions (i.e., Negative academic well-being group).

These findings also demonstrate the importance of following up students’ well-being more systematically, considering that the most pronounced changes were found among students who, initially, were highly engaged and performed well, and may therefore likely get overlooked in school and their potential problems go unnoticed. Consequently, we argue that all students would benefit from support targeting not only their learning, but also, their emotional well-being in school.

Our article is open access and you can read it from here:

Widlund, A., Tuominen, H., & Korhonen, J. (2021). Development of school engagement and burnout across lower and upper secondary education: Trajectory profiles and educational outcomes. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 66, 101997.

See also our previous studies:

Korhonen, J., Linnanmäki, K., & Aunio, P. (2014). Learning difficulties, academic well-being and educational dropout: A person-centred approach. Learning and Individual Differences, 31, 1–10.

Tuominen-Soini, H., & Salmela-Aro, K. (2014). Schoolwork engagement and burnout among Finnish high school students and young adults: Profiles, progressions, and educational outcomes. Developmental Psychology, 50, 649–662.

Widlund, A., Tuominen, H., & Korhonen, J. (2018). Academic well-being, mathematics performance, and educational aspirations in lower secondary education: Changes within a school year. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 297.

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