The strongest links

May 23, 2003

As the government continues to promote its widening-participation agenda, further education colleges are trumpeting their ability to tailor study to individual needs. But not everyone is wholly convinced by their claims, reports Tony Tysome

After years of falling status, further education colleges have landed on their feet with the white paper for higher education’s long-awaited official recognition of their role in widening participation.

Nearly all colleges regard widening participation as their home territory: it is what they are all about. After decades of working to open up access to further and higher education in their regions and local communities, they have grown accustomed to the so-called student-centred approach to learning.

This means not only tailoring courses to meet individual needs but also providing student support. If a student is to be encouraged and equipped to progress to higher education, a good deal of that support must help them hone the necessary study skills.

George Sweeney, principal of Knowsley Community College, says colleges’ flexibility and their ability to take what he calls “differential approaches to learning” make it easier to tailor support. “Deep in our culture we have a one-size-doesn’t-fit-all approach. That is what a college will build its support around. It is the real strength of our business and it is not always recognised,” he says.

But such claims need to be backed by hard evidence. Gareth Parry, professor of education at Sheffield University, who is leading research into what is distinctive about higher education in colleges, says: “The evidence base for this does not exist. You can show figures on contact hours, but we have not had a systematic study. The claim seems reasonably robust, but there’s a lot more to it than simply student support.”

Maggie Greenwood, research manager for the Learning and Skills Development Agency, points out that the former Further Education Funding Council led the way in providing extra funding for study skills support. But she adds: “What is very difficult to do is to link study-skills support to an outcome. There are so many variables that it’s hard to pin down the benefits.

“If you are talking about non-traditional students, then they probably have support needs that must be addressed. But there are learners who are not in this group who also need extra support.”

City and Islington College curriculum designers have found some individuals are far from stereotypical “widening participation students”. The college has been using funding from the government’s Excellence Challenge initiative to target academically gifted students.

While some might consider that these are the last students in need of support to develop study skills, Jonathan Swift, City and Islington’s director of curriculum and quality, disagrees. It all depends on how you define study skills, he says.

“One aspect of study skills is about presentation and oral communication. These students may be able to write a good essay, but if they are going to progress they are going to have to be able to hold their own in seminars and take the initiative in research. They need to start seeing themselves as proactive and taking a professional approach to being a student,” he says.

Confidence-building as a key part of the study-skills development package is a common theme, whatever the academic abilities of the students.

Martin Davis, study skills tutor at Norwich City College, says: “Many adult students who have returned to learning may be nervous about writing an essay and may end up trying too hard. Part of the job is to get them to relax and have confidence, as well as developing the knowledge to plan a piece of written work and actually answer the questions.”

Norwich City College runs a learner centre that developed out of its library services, offering study skills and other support to students. The range of problems it addresses is wide.

Some students have problems with managing something as apparently straightforward as note-taking, attempting to record everything that is said rather than sometimes sitting back and listening or taking part in a debate. Others have trouble getting to grips with academic conventions and protocols.

Davis says: “Some students worry that they might be accused of plagiarism and are reluctant to use material they have found, while others copy everything without observing rules on acknowledging sources.”

College staff who were once opposed to what they saw as “hand-holding” have changed their attitude, he adds. “Several years ago there was a lot of resistance from tutors who felt they were almost being asked to write the students’ essays for them. Now, some of those who were most resistant are the first to refer students to us for support,” he says.

Further education teachers and curriculum planners agree that the weakest part of colleges’ provision for study skills is on vocational courses. Unfortunately, this is the very area where most expansion and widening participation is going to have to take place.

Foundation degrees may help solve the problem, according to Kevin Smith, director of curriculum development at Newcastle College. He says: “Foundation degrees are helping students to become more aware of the study skills they possess and are giving them the confidence to take them on to the next level.”

Whether there is research evidence supporting it or not, Davis is in no doubt that without colleges’ support for study skills, making it to the next level would never even figure as an aspiration in the minds of many students. “Many would have dropped out if it were not for our support in helping them to develop those vital skills,” he says.   

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