Scottish Learning Festival - Co-operative learning for college students

18th September 2009 at 01:00
So enthusiastic is child care lecturer Louise Wallace, she uses the school technique for all her classes and recommends if for every subject

With more and more secondary pupils attending FE colleges, particularly for vocational courses, should they be expected to "fit in" to the colleges' established teaching methods or should colleges be embracing new approaches to cater for younger students?

It's not a question Louise Wallace, lecturer in childcare and early years at Forth Valley College, is willing to answer - at least not in the abstract. But what she is committed to saying, and enthusiastically so, is that co-operative learning is proving a bonus both to her students' learning experience and to her own teaching practice.

The majority of Ms Wallace's teaching is to secondary school students within the college environment and she believes her adoption of co- operative learning techniques, more commonly used in primary and secondary, is leading to higher retention, more positive relationships and better behaviour and success.

She believes that the students' success and the positive relationships between lecturer and students - even between students - are the result of adopting the principles of co-operative learning: positive interdependence; individual accountability; goal setting; socialisation and face-to-face interaction.

"I've seen the students' learning progress over the last three years since I adopted the approach," says Ms Wallace. "They are learning more. They are more responsive and alert. They contribute more to discussion and are more respectful of each other."

The key to enhancing positive relationships is the socialisation element, she says. "We have academic and social goals for each learning activity. For example, if the students are learning about the seven types of play commonly used in any nursery play unit (the academic goal of the learning activity), the social goals (for the students themselves) might also include sharing, taking turns, building relationships and building confidence.

"There are always two objectives - academic and social."

Initially, the socialisation aspect helps to form a healthy group identity among the students who come from four different secondary schools in the Forth Valley area. Inter-school rivalries tend to dissipate quite quickly as new friendships are formed and sustained.

"This bonding and mutual respect is quite marked and adds to the positive ethos," says Ms Wallace. "The students work in groups or teams and, although there is rivalry between them, it is quite healthy and good fun because each team draws its membership from across all schools."

Each group member is given a specific role or responsibility (individual accountability) for any given activity, such as the "encourager", the "resource manager", the "checker" andor the "timekeeper".

"This promotes both individual accountability and positive inter- dependence. It's more hands-on and it makes the students more active learners. It's motivational because they're more involved in their learning," she says.

"Not only does this increase their knowledge and bring them together in a learning community, but they can retain information for longer and they process it more effectively."

The face-to-face interaction between students ("What have I learnt today?") and between the students and the lecturer ("What do I need to focus on now?") also means that success and areas for improvement are more easily discerned and can be acted on accordingly.

A former nursery manager, and an FE lecturer for the past five years, Ms Wallace was introduced to the principles of co-operative learning at a three-day "academy" led by internationally renowned co-operative learning expert Chris Ward.

"I attended the academy three years ago with no particular expectations, but I could see the benefits immediately," she says.

"It's not just a box-ticking exercise but a rewarding teaching strategy which could be used, I think, across the FE sector in any subject. I use it all the time now - with all my students.

"They have more of a buzz about them. They are more enthusiastic and energised - and it's much more fun and more rewarding for the lecturer. I could never imagine dropping it."

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