HMIE teams visited six colleges - Dundee, Elmwood, Cardonald, Reid Kerr, Lauder and Dumfries and Galloway - in preparing their report, Overcoming Barriers; Enabling Learners. It also drew on previous college inspections.
The report states that most of the six colleges "were of the view that the majority of school-leavers entering full-time further education programmes did not have the required level of communication and independent learning skills.
"The learning and assessment gradient was, therefore, often too steep, especially at the early stages of their programme."
But the inspectors praised colleges for making courses more attractive in an effort to remedy the weaknesses of students, many of whom were not confident learners and whose experience of formal learning was often negative.
Among other steps, colleges have placed units to develop defective skills earlier on in programmes, started youngsters on part-time studies, and incorporated practical activities at the beginning of courses before attending to core skills.
HMIE found that the position of units in courses was often driven by the availability of staff, which meant that students did not always learn things in "an appropriate order". But the measures that were being taken, by integrating core skills within vocational activities, "had helped increase learner confidence and ability to apply these skills in different contexts".
Students said they felt the difference. Inspectors talked to learners in each of the six colleges and all cited the development of core skills within practical activities as the key to helping their performance. "Some described it as 'learning without knowing you're learning'," the report stated.
Although the inspectors said some staff took an "insular" approach to removing learning barriers, the students praised staff for their support and feedback.
Some commented that staff got in touch quickly when students failed to turn up for class, even using text messages. "This had helped to make sure they didn't develop a pattern of erratic attendance," the HMIE report said.
The importance of colleges getting it right so students did not drop out was evident in the students' responses. Some commented on the importance of courses having the right mix of practical work, theory, personal development, core skills and work experience.
Induction was also seen as important, and the view was that students left because they had enrolled on courses which did not fit their needs or interests. Yet in most cases, induction programmes did not take sufficient account of learners' needs, the inspectors said.