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Lecturers need to get inside a student's head

Further education lecturers of the future will need to become more aware of how students learn.

This message was relayed last week from the latest HMI report on student learning in colleges and reinforced at the annual conference of FE human resource practitioners.

The report, which is based on findings from college inspections during 2000-03, concludes: "While the learning experience of students in FE colleges is predominantly positive, further progress is needed if all learners are to receive consistently high-quality learning experiences."

Inspectors found "a serious deficiency" in that many students who may know what they want from FE do not know how to set about getting it. Their lecturers do not have a systematic enough understanding of how students learn to be of much assistance.

The report continues: "Where colleges have instituted lesson observation as part of their arrangements to evaluate teaching and learning, the focus, particularly where performance management is involved, is on the lecturer.

There is less consideration of issues such as students' learning styles, dialogue between learners, negotiations between the lecturer and learners and the quality of learning."

HMI praises the collaborative initiative on learning approaches involving Cardonald, Angus, Cumbernauld and Falkirk colleges. It is described as a valuable example of a project led by management and developed by staff.

The inspectors call for the project's findings and good practice to be made more widely known, and also urge staff development to make lecturers more aware of how learners learn both on campus and remotely. The report says this is particularly necessary in FE because of the great significance students attach to their relationships with staff.

Students themselves need more immediate help, HMI states, and this could be done by a "learning processes, styles and skills" component in induction programmes.

The human resource conference, organised by the Scottish Further Education Unit, heard remarks on a similar theme from Rob Wallen, associate principal of Aberdeen College, who presented the conclusions of an SFEU working group. Its report called for lecturers to have "a better knowledge of learning and a range of teaching strategies".

There had been a huge amount of research on multiple intelligences, how learning happens and the context in which it happens, Mr Wallen said, yet "virtually none is impacting on FE".

"Do staff consider how learners learn, or only how they teach?" Mr Wallen asked. The lecturer of 2014, he suggested, should be flexible, responsive and self-reflective. He or she should also have less of a focus on subject knowledge and more on generic skills.

Mr Wallen questioned whether all lecturers need to be graduates. An in-service BA in professional studies could be made available to non-graduates and there might be an introductory teaching qualification for those who do not hold the specialist teaching qualification in FE (TQFE).

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