Broadening their horizons

15th January 2010 at 00:00
A Europe-wide partnership project to develop strategies to keep students on course is benefiting them - and college staff

When Angus College students were asked to write reports on the teaching staff, the students drew their teachers with mile-wide smiles.

Teachers could have been forgiven for being apprehensive about reading the reports, but the students have been very positive.

"Nicola teaches really well, we have good materials and a lot of support and I've learnt lots with this lesson," says one English student on the arts and social science National Certificate course.

"Sometimes I feel a bit like some things in this class need explained a wee bit more. But do like this class a lot and is one I look forward to," says a sociology student.

These student reports flag up any problem areas for teachers, and the positive words and smiley portraits on the cover are an encouraging reward for their efforts. The reports also shift the traditional balance of power in the classroom.

On a wintry afternoon at Angus College in Arbroath, social sciences course leader Cherry Hopton describes how this and other co- operative learning techniques are being used to encourage student retention. It is part of a partnership project with educational establishments across Europe, working collaboratively to develop wide-ranging strategies to keep students on course.

This is just one aspect of a range of European-funded partnership ventures at the college to broaden students' horizons and encourage awareness of work, travel and cultural opportunities across Europe. It is valuable in this community, where job opportunities are limited and some youngsters have never travelled outside Scotland.

Angus students and staff in a range of disciplines are travelling to work and study in Europe, thanks to more than pound;300,000 worth of European Commission funding awarded to college projects. Staff are working collaboratively with European partners, sharing good practice and researching and developing new educational strategies.

"We have a lot of mature students and the thing that gets in the way of their achieving is lack of faith in their own ability," says Ms Hopton. "They are very able, but they think they are not because they've often had bad experiences in schools a few decades ago or been written off."

Two years ago, Ms Hopton travelled to Iceland on a Grundtvig-funded course on intercultural education and co-operative learning with sociologist Gudrun Petursdottir, who runs Intercultural Iceland. The visit proved inspirational and gave her new direction in trying to tackle some of the educational issues which concern her. "There are several areas I am interested in; one is the teacher-student relationship, and how that affects learning and student enjoyment," she says.

"I am also interested in removing hierarchies in the classroom and very interested in finding creative ways of assessing students and keying into students who may not have traditional academic skills, but who need their confidence boosting to then go on and do that."

The course impressed her so much, she organised a conference on co- operative learning for delegates from across Europe and ran training sessions at home and abroad.

Ms Hopton and colleagues are currently working on a Leonardo-funded project called SERVE (strategies to encourage retention in vocational education). Their Iceland partners are developing teaching methods to retain students with non-traditional skills; Belgian colleagues are exploring informal and formal counselling strategies, and in Finland, France and Turkey partners are helping develop this teachers' toolkit to raise retention levels.

"Our strength is probably related to the teaching methods and the teacher- student relationship work that we do," Ms Hopton explains.

One of their successes has been with a students' social networking site, which is also used by college graduates who have continued to university.

"Students can be at home at midnight, trying to do a bit of work and they get stuck. They can go onto the site, ask for help and within five minutes they have five people helping them with their essay."

Another development has been a fresh approach to assessments, to encourage students who need help with traditional academic skills.

"We tend to reward students who are good at traditional academic skills. In the classroom, you get a hierarchy: the students who are good academically are at the top, and those who are not are at the bottom."

They are now being encouraged to express themselves through art, music and dance in class. "How do you use dance to portray, say, Marxist theory? That would seem completely mad, but ballet or dance is about conveying information," Ms Hopton says.

Students have worked on collages using visual images instead of texts in the run-up to their criminology assessments, and history students working towards their written assessment are developing a musical about the 1916 Dublin Easter Rising.

"If you assess students in different ways and you allow the skills of those at the bottom to shine through, their self-esteem becomes raised and then they are much more confident moving on to the traditional skills," she says.

Colleagues have also been working collaboratively across the curriculum, studying topics such as gender from a sociological, psychological and literary perspective.

It's not only these teachers at Angus College who are smiling; students are happy with the changes - 99 per cent of everything they have said in the students' report has been absolutely positive, says Ms Hopton.

"One of the things they focused on was how much they enjoyed co-operative learning - how different it is from school, and how they feel that the relationships with the teaching staff are fundamental to their success."

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