Skills give students a spring in their step

January 9, 2004

A hunger for knowledge has opened doors for aspiring learners in York with few or no qualifications, say Leila Roberts and Linda Pritchard.

Can you take students, many without any qualifications, almost off the street and prepare them for degree studies in eight short sessions? Yes - at York St John College, we've done it. In 2001, as part of our widening access policy, we advertised a free course, "Opening doors: Writing for success", in shops, newsagents, advice centres and the local press. The course was to run two hours a week for eight weeks. It covered writing and study skills as general preparation for arts or social sciences courses.

There was no subject content at all.

In the beginning, we never imagined we would be preparing students for undergraduate study based on this course alone. We soon realised, however, that many students were very able. Most had never considered higher education because they did not know what it entailed. They may have lacked confidence, but they had a hunger for learning.

The syllabus focused on the purpose and intended readership of a piece of writing and how these affect content, structure, vocabulary and register.

Through exercises in autobiography, journalism and persuasive writing, students were introduced to the elements of effective writing and structuring an argument.

Sessions on other study skills, such as note-taking, library use and Harvard referencing, prepared them for research and essay writing. They worked in small groups to tackle a difficult comprehension text and to build trust needed to prepare for presentations. Assessment included a portfolio of work, such as a short academic essay, properly researched and referenced.

Prospective entrants were mostly underemployed - people who were finding their prospects limited or were experiencing life changes such as redundancy or retirement. They were looking for mental stimulation and a challenge. Ages ranged from 20s to 50s. The course was first run in a local school, as it was felt some potential students would be daunted by coming on campus. But we are now teaching in college with no appreciable fall in numbers, and there is a waiting list for places.

Most students are apprehensive when they arrive. The sessions follow a pattern: an introduction followed by a practical exercise, usually working in small groups of three or four people, then a plenary presentation and discussion of problems and discoveries. The teaching is deliberately informal, with plenty of jokes and opportunities to ask questions, interrupt and make suggestions. The brief classroom contact is supplemented by short workbooks given out after each class that require about two hours' "homework" a week.

To date, 168 people have done the course. Sixty have enrolled for degree courses at York St John College and 20 are doing courses in other institutions. Of the ones who have matriculated in our college, only three have dropped out. Many are doing very well indeed: one student, with only a single CSE to his name, is getting As and is in line for postgraduate study. Two of the first students to do the course are in their third year of study. Recruitment is via the college's access and lifelong learning office, which does outreach work in York and the surrounding region. Demand has been high enough to introduce study skills days every sixth Saturday.

These have attracted interest from as far afield as Bradford and Devon.

There is no formal entry requirement but, wherever possible, office staff arrange to meet all those who are interested. This helps them find out more about each person, their plans as regards future training, their existing qualifications and whether "Opening doors" is the right course for them.

The students are invariably a delight to teach, with managing and organising skills developed through life experience. The ones for whom academic learning is inappropriate tend to realise this early. They drop out or do not pass the course and are given help in looking for other opportunities.

As access manager and tutor, the greatest reward has been the feedback and the confirmation that education can still change lives. As the student with one CSE on course for a first told us: "Without your support and guidance, I would be dragging my heels in a dead-end job as I have for the past 20 years. Now I have a new spring in my step, and eagerness to learn."

Leila Roberts is course tutor and Linda Pritchard is manager of the access and lifelong learning office at York St John College.

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