A voyage of discovery

2nd June 1995 at 01:00
Ivor Morgan finds sixth-form college students get more out of doing their own research in their own time.

The sociology department at Long Road Sixth Form College, Cambridge, has been developing approaches to flexible-learning since September 1991. Students tackle two self-supporting units in stratification and education as part of their A-level sociology course. The key themes of each topic area are first introduced in class over a five to six week period. Students are then divided into small groups of three or four, and have three weeks to complete a number of designated assignments. These include a number of specific exercises and a long essay. Tutors continue to be available for individual advice and guidance, but students are expected to work independently on library research, selected reading, computer assignments, analysis of media material such as video and newspapers, and study of handout material.

The period spent on flexible-learning enables students to gain experience of both working on their own and reporting back to their group. David Evans, head of sociology, describes it as "continuing good teaching practice by providing students with an alternative approach to learning which improves a variety of skills and builds student confidence. However it is important that it is used alongside more traditional teaching rather than being seen as a magical substitute for it". The move towards flexible-learning at Long Road was largely initiated by sociology lecturer Carole Waugh. She sees it as "enabling students to acquire skills essential for progression into employment or higher education. Our linking of flexible-learning with IT skills provides hands-on experience in computer aided learning, which seems to have been neglected in 11 to 16 schools". Carole Waugh hopes to develop a third self-supporting unit for the A-level sociology course, but adds: "While the benefits of our approach far outweigh the costs, the initial setting-up period is labour-intensive, and where possible staff should be given remission time. " Long Road Sixth Form College is relatively well resourced in terms of computers, library support and study areas. This has certainly helped innovation in student-centred approaches to study. In the view of sociology lecturer Paul Hughes, "flexible-learning enables students to mould the social world and find for themselves a sociological voice".

Thirty-four A-level students completed a short questionnaire on flexible learning. Given a choice between "a course in which most time was spent working in a classroom with a tutor" and "a course in which most time was spent working independently (but with tutor support when you required it)" twenty opted for the former, eleven for the latter, with three being undecided.

When asked to describe "the main advantages of your flexible learning course" seventeen mentioned developing research skills. "You understand the work in more depth if you research it independently. " Students appreciated the process of self-discovery that was involved. "It is a chance to see if you can work without direct teaching from the lecturer ". "It teaches you to find things out for yourself".

Fifteen referred to the value of working at your own pace, of "setting your own goals and deadlines". Seven felt that flexible-learning improved their organisational and time-management skills. "It enables you to plan your own time more effectively." "It gives more responsibility to the individual. " Five welcomed the opportunity to "get away from the classroom". This added "variety and change" to the course.

When asked to "describe the main disadvantages of your flexible learning course" nine focused on problems of motivation. "You may not work as hard because there isn't someone watching you." "You have to be self-motivated for it to work." "lt is easy to waste time."

Nine reported problems working with their group. For example you could be "put in a group where people don't pull their weight". "Others may leave you to do all the work." Six missed constant guidance from tutors when carrying out research. One student spent "a lot of time barking up the wrong tree". Finally six found that time-management was more difficult than they had anticipated.

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