A SERIES of projects aimed at improving students' learning and attainment has proved so successful in four colleges that others are being invited to learn from them too.
A dissemination seminar was held on Tuesday at the offices of the Scottish Further Education Unit in Stirling and the reports will be made available to all colleges through the SFEU website, including training materials for staff.
A total of 14 "focus on learning" projects involving almost 300 students were spread throughout the four colleges - eight in Cardonald and two each in Angus, Falkirk and Cumbernauld - backed by pound;355,000 from the Scottish Further Education Funding Council.
They ranged widely from the use of piped music and water fountains to an emphasis on thinking skills, mind-mapping and emotional intelligence in order to find out "what works" in improving student achievement.
It is believed to be the first attempt in the UK to apply these ideas systematically to older learners and it follows a call by Graham Donaldson, the senior chief inspector of schools, for colleges to be much more innovative in their approaches to teaching and learning (TESS, November 15).
The projects are now being evaluated but Ros Micklem, principal of Cardonald College in Glasgow, believes it has "confirmed our conviction that improving student achievement is not just a pious aspiration: we can make a difference".
She added: "The first thing that we picked up was the value of giving staff time and opportunity to reflect on new ideas and try them. Simple as it seems, trying out new ideas takes time, and reflecting on practice and sharing findings with colleagues has paid off."
John Laird, assistant principal at the college, said there had been cases where classes had gone from having serious drop-out problems to 100 per cent retention. But he cautioned that this could be due to all kinds of complex reasons, including changes in learning styles.
Mr Laird said one of the major findings has been the importance of improving staff and student awareness of emotional intelligence, in terms of boosting students' confidence and their interaction with each other. "In many ways this is what good teachers have always done - encouraging quiet youngsters to speak, putting students into groups and checking the interaction between them," he said.
Sally Jamieson, a lecturer in graphic design at Cardonald, used emotional intelligence techniques with HND students. All 40 achieved the qualification. "This is not necessarily because they attended emotional intelligence classes," she said.
"But there are always a few who find it easier to give up towards the end of a course than to struggle on and I think the project gave them that extra edge to stay the course."
Ms Jamieson said the approach had involved attempts to get students to recognise their own emotions and encourage staff to recognise emotion in students. The feedback from students had been "very positive".
Emotional intelligence has also been used, less predictably, with business administration students at Cardonald to help them with "personal effectiveness", working on their self-confidence, motivation and awareness of others.
A key aim was to improve student retention past the Christmas "danger point" when many drop out.
The students involved encompassed a massive range - young people and adults, those with learning difficulties, who were disaffected and who were on advanced courses. Ms Micklem says this was "hugely ambitious" and the staff involved say they have probably only scratched the surface.
She adds: "We do not expect that there will be clear-cut conclusions about particular techniques that would be successful in improving achievement across all groups of students, but we think there will be challenging ideas emerging that will encourage new ways of thinking about teaching and learning in FE."
FACTORS FOR SUCCESSFUL OUTCOMES
* Students' self-esteem;
* Students' awareness of their own learning styles;
* Empowerment of students to manage and assess their own learning;
* Lecturers' perception of themselves as learners;
* Lecturers' ownership of the learning process;
* Team approach;
* Emotional intelligence of both staff and students;
* Willingness to think "outside the box" and to challenge convention.