Students who develop strong ‘soft skills’ may be better placed to navigate Year 12 during the pandemic, say UNSW education experts.

Focusing on cultivating adaptability and positive aspirations will help students achieve their best outcomes, say Scientia Professor Andrew Martin and Associate Professor Jihyun Lee from UNSW Arts & Social Sciences.

Being adaptable to change

This school year has been characterised by unpredictability and change. Prof. Martin, an expert in educational psychology, says adaptability is “important for dealing with uncertainty and change and disruption…

“Disruption has the potential for having negative effects on [students’] wellbeing. But also disruption can be positive if it's navigated effectively,” he says.

Making a conscious effort to adapt to the ‘new normal’ of COVID-19 will allow students greater scope to achieve optimal educational outcomes, he says.

Breaking adaptability down into three parts can be helpful for young people dealing with disruption, Prof. Martin says:

  • Cognitive or attitudinal adaptability: “Thinking about things in a different way. For example, changing your expectations and assumptions about what was going to happen … starting to adjust your thinking and reframing that as best you can,” he says.
  • Behavioural adaptability: This is making “some adjustments to your behaviour. So you might seek out help when you normally wouldn't, look for new resources, or new courses, or [even] different universities if there's more competition for example. And indeed, that'll lead to change. You may need to even change your study habits if you have to go back to remote learning.”
  • Emotional adaptability: “That's regulating or adjusting your emotions. And oftentimes that means actually managing your disappointment when things change,” he says.

“That doesn't mean it's easy, but these are the three response areas that we find [help] people … navigate, change and uncertainty and disruption effectively,” he says.

Promoting self-efficacy, strong aspirations and an internal focus

Associate Professor Jihyun Lee, an expert in educational assessment and measurement in the UNSW School of Education, says self-efficacy – or having a ‘can-do’ attitude – and strong aspirations are two of the best predictors of positive educational outcomes.

Also students who see study at “university as more of an opportunity to do more valuable things, including further study,” are more likely to do well than those that look at study as an end goal, she says.

Parental support more influential than you might think

A/Prof. Lee’s most recent PISA-led research has looked at fifteen-year-old students’ feelings of wellbeing around the world in relationship to variables including peer-support and socio-economic status.

“And the finding was, in a way, really surprising – to me anyhow. The assumption is that when students get to teenagers, … they drift to friendships, and so on. But … [for] every single country, the best predictor of students’ wellbeing was parental support,” A/Prof. Lee says.

During COVID, the relationship with your parents becomes even more important, she says. “You're kind of stuck with your parents, so basically the students who have a good relationship with parents will thrive.”

The impact of cancelling Year 12 celebrations

The cancellation of Year 12 milestone celebrations like school socials, ‘Schoolies’ and graduations is also significant for this year’s school leavers, A/Prof. Lee says.

“That's what we hear anecdotally, from kids – school-aged kids, students – they don't talk about missing out on learning. They talk about peers, all those missing events,” she says.

COVID has revealed how important the friendship aspect is to schooling – an aspect that is often ignored, she says.

“I don't think we can underestimate how important it is to look forward to something,” Prof. Martin says. It helps sustain us through difficult tasks. “When we pull these fun things to do, that part of the drive is gone. And for many students all that's left is the grind, if you like.

“We need to be mindful that your motivation to study is not only academically driven, but also driven by some of the sweeteners that all the other Year 12s had in years gone by ... [and] those sweeteners are either completely eliminated, or they are vastly watered down and diminished. My heart really goes out to them.

“In some ways this gets back to adaptability — being able to adjust your expectations, reframe your situation to the extent you can, and manage your disappointment. Although this doesn’t change the difficult situation you are in, it can help ease you through it.”

Looking forward to 2021

We will know a lot more about how students were academically affected after the final Year 12 and other students’ results are in, Prof. Martin says. An analysis of the data will enable a greater and more nuanced understanding of the impact of COVID-19 on educational outcomes.

“There’s so much uncharted territory,” he says. “So many moving parts, and those parts are so fluid. It'll be really important to reflect on this year, especially if this year's Year 11s need to navigate the same sort of space next year.”

Kay Harrison