'D' stands for a delicate touch

March 11, 2005

Going back to basics to support students in need of extra help must be handled sensitively. Remember, you are not teaching stroppy teenagers, says Harriet Swain

He's a student with a fantastic brain - inquiring, inspiring and original.

The problem is that although mathematics forms an essential part of his degree, he seems to have barely a rudimentary knowledge of calculus. And he can't spell it either.

At least you've spotted what's wrong. Early diagnosis is crucial if students are not to become discouraged and abandon their degrees, says Janet Anderson, director of the Move On Project, which offers help in literacy and numeracy for adults.

It may therefore be a good idea to set diagnostic tests for all students when they first arrive - particularly if your subject demands a reasonably high level of maths. Otherwise, you will have to rely on students asking for help. You will also need to be aware that, for some, this help will be more than simply filling in gaps left by a substandard school or failure to pay attention in a crucial lesson: they will have specific problems, such as dyslexia or dyspraxia, that need attention.

This attention should not include mutterings from certain quarters about how badly educated students are these days, and how dyslexia never existed in your day. "You need to develop an environment in which students feel safe and secure in stating that they are having problems," says Tony Croft, director of the Mathematics Education Centre at Loughborough University. He says that first impressions are vital. When students come for the first time to seek help they must not be rebuffed or made to feel small or stupid.

Once you've diagnosed that someone needs help you should get help yourself - either by involving someone specialist in this area or by having training. Teaching basic skills is a very different proposition to university lecturing, and demands particular expertise, as well as other qualities, Croft says. "You need an experienced teacher who has a lot of empathy and time - and time to give to students is something universities are very short of." Often students will be weak in those areas that they have struggled to learn in the past, which is another reason for ensuring that the quality of teaching in catch-up classes is first rate.

Even if you do feel that your teaching is up to scratch, you will still have to recognise that while you are passing on school-level skills, your pupils will need very different handling from stroppy teenagers.

Helen Casey, associate director of the National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy, says that the Government has recently brought in standards related to teaching literacy and numeracy post-16, with qualifications based on those standards. "If someone came to me and said, 'I have undergraduates in need of help with their maths or literacy', I would say, 'find someone who has done those qualifications, or get them yourself'." She says that anyone teaching adults is taking on a complex package, dealing with people who are experts in some areas of their lives but need help in other areas. "They need to be treated with respect for all the strengths that they have while being able to learn all the things they haven't got."

When students are being taught something they have already studied at school, they must feel that they have moved on, says Tom Roper, a former schoolteacher who now lectures in the School of Education at Leeds University and presents videos designed to help students having difficulties with mathematics. "They mustn't be made to feel thick in any way. They are intelligent people who just don't know the things the system would like them to know."

One way of being sympathetic to their needs as adults is to ensure that they feel involved in the learning process. "I don't lecture, I ask questions," Roper says. "You have to try to draw them in more than you might otherwise do in a normal university lecture."

Also worth bearing in mind is that your classes will not be the only things on their minds, or in their timetables. Croft says that it is essential to provide good-quality resources for them to take away and work on by themselves when they have a spare moment, while giving them the opportunity to come back and discuss any problems they may have.

Casey recommends making use of the many resources freely available on the web, offering everything from diagnostic assessments to videoed lectures and online courses.

Anderson says that you have to get across at an early stage how important it is to have the particular skills they lack, while being positive about their previous achievements. Those with the learning skills to get into higher education should pick things up relatively quickly, she says, provided they have access to proper resources.

She says that it is important to tailor support to the needs of the student. Some people relate well to having it built into the course they are doing, for example, while others want it separated. "There is still a certain embarrassment in needing this kind of help and people may not want to access it when their friends doing the same thing don't need it," she says.

Further information:
www.mathcentre.ac.uk  offers self-study resources for students and study materials for use by staff www.nrdc.org.uk : The National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy conducts research into adult literacy and numeracy
www.move-on.org.uk   offers free resources for teaching and training in English and maths, targeting those who do not see themselves as needing help with basic skills web.apu.ac.uk/english/speakwrite: The Speak-Write Programme, based in the English department at Anglia Polytechnic University, creates resources for use in developing advanced communication skills for higher education.

TOP TIPS

Diagnose problems early

Don't think that just because you can lecture you can teach the basics

Be generous with time and empathy

Offer support through independent learning

Investigate resources on the web

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