A lot has been written recently about GCSE resits within the FE sector. For the past few years, I have taught GCSE English to both 16- to 19-year-olds and adult learners. It is often those adult students returning to college who have the greatest desire to pass, but they also have some of the more challenging barriers to their learning.
I love teaching adult learners for this very reason: you get to know them as individuals, you get to know their hopes and ambitions, as well as their fears and any hurdles they may have to overcome. Moreover, with post-19 learners there is much more freedom to discuss complex issues and allow them to draw on their own life experiences. As a new academic year dawns on us, it’s important that we draw on our past experiences and the voice of our students to help shape our teaching.
Background: GCSE resits: 'Look how far you have come'
Due to a change of employer, I was unable to access my previous students’ results on GCSE results day, but was delighted to be contacted by one of my adult learners, Clara*. Her story is one that will be familiar to many of us in FE.
GCSE resits: building confidence
Some of the barriers adult learners face are self-doubt, busy home lives and childcare. Clara was no different. “When my friend mentioned wanting to do it too, we went along to an open evening and signed up,” she said. “I felt I was finally doing what I wanted and was excited but also nervous. In the first few classes, I thought, 'There's no way I can do this.'”
When she told me this, it wasn't a surprise. During the first few weeks, Clara was quiet and shy, but clearly had an ability to write creatively and draw inference from texts. And yet, she was convinced she wasn’t capable and she struggled to cope. Clara didn’t feel comfortable getting involved in discussion or answering questions and was considering leaving the course.
After giving her some reassurances, I was overjoyed to see her back in class the following week as normal. For the next month or so, Clara absorbed everything and completed all the work needed but contributed very little to the rest of the group. It was through positive feedback, encouragement and allowing her to feel comfortable that eventually Clara began to actively participate in group discussion and activities.
“As I took more classes, I felt more confident that I might get a grade 4 and pass,” Clara said. “The more I was revising at home, the more I also wanted to do at home. I really started to enjoy English language."
Preparing for the exam
The exam itself is another barrier that faces resit learners. Nobody looks forward to exams, do they? Coping with this can be challenging, and regular timed assessment is one mechanism often employed. It has the dual benefit of giving teachers an opportunity to assess a student’s progress, enabling targets to be set, and it also gives students the opportunity to work on time-management and handling pressure situations. Still, not all learners will cope with this.
“When exam time came, I had trouble sleeping,” Clara said. “Again, I doubted that I’d be able to pass.”
How do we manage this in our classroom? One argument would be to do more of these timed assessments, but is there a better way? Giving clear timings to complete a comprehension task, for example, can build time-management skills, and deep questioning can embolden a student under pressure and give them confidence. There is no one-size-fits-all approach and, as we get to know our learners over the coming weeks, we can examine how we can build resilience.
However, it’s not all challenge. Adult learners often have a much clearer end goal in mind, which can give them greater intrinsic motivation. Clara said: “When I opened my envelope, I was shocked. All my time and effort was worth it – I had got a grade 6! This has boosted how I feel about being able to achieve my goals, and I have signed up for an access-to-health course, and can’t wait to start."
Through her hard work – and because I treated her as an individual – she decided that returning to education was a viable option. To see her grow over the academic year, from shy and nervous to confident and successful, is the essence of why we become teachers – to make a difference to people.
So how do we encourage more adults to participate in education? We can make learning relevant, listen to what they need, become their cheerleader (especially when they can’t be their own) and understand how to stretch them without causing stress.
Obviously this isn’t confined to adult learners, but for someone returning to education it is often more important to recognise their own experiences and create a strategy that enables them to take responsibility for their own learning. Clara is proof of this. As she puts it: “I wish I had done the GCSE years ago and had a little more faith in myself. No matter how hectic home life is, if you want to achieve something, it’s possible to do so.”
Matt Corke is a lecturer in English and teacher education at a college in the West Midlands
*Clara’s name has been changed