College students may not have the basic literacy skills they need to move on to other courses or cope at work, a small-scale study at Anniesland and Perth colleges concludes.
Some lecturers tend to neglect broader writing skills and instead push students through their assessments, "spoon feeding" them.
The study of childcare and accounts students, by staff at both colleges and Stirling University, is part of a wider literacy programme involving two north-west of England colleges. It looks at how students develop literacy at college, work, home and in the community.
Researchers Ian Gibb, Janet Gray, Rosheen Young and June Smith say that moving up from a standard FE course into higher education within the college can be "a step too far".
They say: "While many do progress, for some this transition is so great that they fall not between a crack but down a chasm."
Four childcare students in the study had moved on to an HNC course (level 7 in national qualifications) but still found it a struggle to write freely, even "essays" of 250-300 words.
Three are now working as full-time care workers and one has gone on to a social work degree. The researchers note claims that FE knowledge has been packaged as attainment targets, levels and measurable outcomes. "Under these schemes, learning becomes mechanised and restricted to receiving, memorising and consuming facts," they report.
"Both the students and teacher in this childcare classroom had adopted literacy practices from an instrumental approach to learning."
In one exercise, students merely copied the lecturer's writing from the overhead projector in "a transmission model of teaching".
Meanwhile, the four accounts students at NC level 1 (level 4 in the qualifications framework) were younger, aged 17 and 18, and came straight from school.
Of the four, two girls were Eastern European asylum seekers, one was a Scottish Asian and one a native Scot. They hoped to move on to level 2 or HNC the following year. Three did rise to level 2, one in hairdressing and two continuing on business courses. The fourth opted for work.
Their lecturer's prime focus was different, with self-esteem and confidence high up on her agenda. Although the unit under study was about data, the lecturer, named "Jean" in the study, encouraged the students to keep a logbook to record their progress.
"After a few weeks, Jean noticed that most of the students' entries were brief notes of what the student had completed that day, sometimes amounting to a few words," the researchers observed. "Some weeks they made no entries at all.
"Some of the students would copy from each other rather than write their own ideas. Jean reasoned that, for many of her students, writing a logbook was difficult because English was not their first language and so they were not confident writers."
But at the end of the course, Jean asked them to write about whatever they wanted. "To her surprise, they all wrote long entries of at least one A4 page of print."
The researchers add: "Jean realised that she had to make the purpose, meaning and value of the different texts explicit to students. Without this, the transition was too big for the students."
A step too far - transitions within FE is by June Smith, Stirling University; Ian Gibb, Perth College; Janet Gray and Rosheen Young, Anniesland College.