Bridging the gap between school and college study

New FE learners need to be able to manage their time and work independently – and these skills don’t grow naturally in the summer holidays, says Matt Bromley
5th May 2017, 12:01am
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Matt Bromley


Bridging the gap between school and college study

Last year, I wrote a book on transition, and, like most literature on this subject, it focused on pupils' transfer from primary to secondary school, as well as between the various years and key stages of compulsory schooling. But, in working with FE colleges across the country, it's struck me just how important the transition from school to FE is and just how unprepared students are to make this change.

A common mistake that FE teachers make, particularly when planning assignments, is to assume that in the six weeks between leaving school and starting college, students have - somehow, somewhere - acquired an armoury of study skills and, perhaps by a process of osmosis, become adept at working independently. Study skills are not innate; they must be taught - and this is about making the implicit explicit, the invisible visible.

Teaching study skills is about breaking down complex processes into their constituent parts, modelling each element, then providing multiple opportunities for students to practise and refine them.

For example, if an assignment requires students to research information for an essay, we must explicitly teach them how to use multiple sources, how to skim and scan for key facts, and how to distinguish between fact and opinion and detect bias. We must then teach them how to use evidence to support an argument, including how to embed quotations and how to write a bibliography citing their sources.

If we expect students to work independently, perhaps drafting and redrafting work based on feedback, and to do so outside of lessons without our support, we must teach them how to manage and organise their time, how to revise (avoiding cramming by distributing and spacing practice, and interleaving topics), and how to self-assess then redraft, referring back to the success criteria.

If we expect students to engage in classroom debates, we must teach them active listening skills and turn-taking, as well as how to agree or disagree with someone else's contributions without it becoming personal.

If we expect students to adopt a growth mindset, willingly accepting and acting on feedback, taking risks and regarding mistakes as an integral part of the learning process, then we must teach and model resilience.

Ongoing development

Explicitly teaching and modelling study skills is certainly one means of bridging the gap between school and college, but we shouldn't just teach skills at the start of a student's first year. Instead, we should teach skills on a sliding scale as students progress from one year to the next and from one level of qualification to the next.

For example, although we might start by teaching students how to write a simple bibliography, as they progress towards level 3 and HE programmes, we must move on to Harvard referencing.

A useful starting point when planning the teaching of skills is to map the skills students need and when they need them.

This should be done for every programme and for every level of qualification, noting the difference between a skill required by a student at level 1 and a similar skill - albeit more developed and complex - that may be required at levels 2 and 3.

To get you started with your skills map, I asked FE teachers on Twitter which skills they required their students to develop. The top five answers that came out of this were: resilience and growth mindset; emotional intelligence and grit; speaking and listening; independence; and problem-solving.

In addition, teachers pointed out the importance of literacy and numeracy, as well as digital literacy.

Next, we should carry out an audit of students' existing skills and identify any gaps. This will inform us where to start and on which skills we should spend most of our time.

Once we have a skills map, we need to decide how and by whom these skills will be taught. For example, will it be each teacher's responsibility to explicitly teach and model skills before students are required to use them? Or will a personal tutor be responsible for delivering study skills tutorials in standalone sessions?

Once a skill has been taught for the first time, we need to decide if it should be retaught again the next time it is needed (and, if so, whether we should completely reteach it or just recap and practise).

There are, of course, other considerations when helping students to bridge the gap between school and FE.

We need to decide what additional support to provide for students who require more explicit instruction than others. We need to decide whether to set aside study rooms for students to use for independent study and homework, and how to staff this facility so that students can access appropriate support if it's absent at home.

In short, we need to be mindful that the transition from school to FE is separated by a mere six weeks and that students are not immediately ready for the adult world of independence and responsibility.

Rather, we must enable them to slowly adjust to college life and we must explicitly teach the skills and aptitudes required of them, not assume that these grow naturally.

Matt Bromley is an education journalist, author, consultant and trainer. He tweets @mj_bromley

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