Transition from School to University

University views of priorities in school education in preparation for university study in STEM subjects

This study was funded by the Scottish Government in 2004-5, designed to support their own comprehensive review olf the school curriculum, which resulted in their Curriculum for Excellence reforms.  Moira Finlayson was the Project Coordinator.

Our work researched the views of academics in science, engineering, medical, mathematics and computing departments across 13 universities in Scotland. Cross-disciplinary group discussions at every separate institution came to remarkably similar conclusions.

Main Conclusions

Enhancing learner attitudes was regarded as the single most important priority.  Education across STEM subjects should be designed to be engaging and its delivery style should be as learner-active as possible.

Key scientific skills enhancement came next in priority, looking  for considerable strengthening, with carefully planned  progressive and coherent development, throughout primary and secondary education, with systematic cross-referencing of their application in the different STEM subjects.  The key skills areas were listed as Numeracy, Mathematical skills, Literacy, Problem Solving and Practical skills.

University Views on the School Curriculum. Key aeas included

  • the importance of mathematics across the STEM curriculum, noting for instance its vital in modern Biology
  • knowledge within the Science curriculum, where the key priority is on the ability to apply knowledge and understanding of the key ideas and concepts of science to new contexts, and to recognise the cross-disciplinary relevance of these ideas
  • in the specilist sciences the thrust of our recommendations were to "declutter" heavy content detail and to give teachers more scope and space to introduce relevant or topical topics or novel approaches to a standard topic designed to enthuse their learners; the importance of extended practical work and good demonstrations was emphaised; and the need to include more open discussions and studies withan aim to develop general "science literacy"

Technological Studies was identified as an area deserving much strengthened recognition and status.  Its links to the sciences should be better empahasised (in both areas), and the importance of engineering, which received little recognition in Scottish schooling, needed urgently to be addresed.

Computing and Information Sciences were highlighted as a very important area requiring a thoroughly reviewed approach; learning in this area (distinct from "IT training") should build skills to think analytically, think abstractly, attack an everyday problem by breaking it into smaller parts, look at different ways to solve a problem, and to fault find.

Assessment design ws identified as a major concern: established practice was over-burdensome and depended overwhelmingly on recall of detailed factual information and of standard short and specific "problem" procedures.  There was a need to develop a lighter touch, and for this to focus more on application of knowledge and understanding in more extended exerciises and open contexts. 

There were further sections of the reports, welcoming the "Curriculum for Excellence" vision as entirely conducive towards taking forward the recommendations from the university study. and reviewing cross-curricula links, "Science for all" and gender issues.


The full Report of the Study is available in two PDF files:

A separate publication was subsequently commisioned, providing a shorter description of the findings and recommendations.  Paper copies of this were sent to Principal Teachers in Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Mathematics and Technologies in all secondary schools across Scotland.

The university views reported by this original study have remained consistently held since the above publications were issued.  See for instance the more recent statement from by the Deans of Science & Engineering in Scotland.

This note was sent to the Scottish Government's Science & Engineering Education Advisory Group and was later followed up by an invited supplementary note covering some of the issues in more detail.  See