Stimulation skills required;Viewpoint;Opinion;FE Focus

26th June 1998 at 01:00
IFWE suddenly discovered that food critics carried out "inspections" and awarded "grades" to restaurants without ever eating the food, we would challenge the validity of their final "assessments".

Perhaps then the Further Education Funding Council could take a leaf out of the book of the food and catering industry and send inspectors out incognito not only to observe but to experience what it's like to be a student in FE.

Phrases such as learner support, progression and internal quality assurance sit well in the confines of meeting rooms where the strategic development of FE provision is discussed. These terms, however, take on new meaning when the senior lecturer, manager or inspector sits on the other side of the fence as an FE student.

In true keeping with the spirit of lifelong learning, I enrolled on an FE computer-based course with the primary learning goal of acquiring skills in a subject I found interesting. However, I ended up being among what the funding council's "Quality and Standards in FE" report calls the "significant proportion of students" who "fail to achieve awards because they drop out before completing their courses".

After seven years of monitoring and assessing the quality of various types of FE provision, I learnt from my own abbreviated experience what students mean when they cite "unsuitability" or "dissatisfaction" as a reason for withdrawing from a course.

The first signpost to disaster was when a third of the first three-hour lesson was spent hanging around waiting for sufficient bums on seats to arrive. Once that criteria had been met, more time-wasting occurred as students, such as myself, who didn't have admission slips, had to take a 25-minute hike to and fro the administration block of the main college to enrol. Typical of many evening courses in FE, the course was delivered by a part-time lecturer who knew little about the college's administration procedures and the layout of the buildings.

According to the funding council report, some lecturers "depend too much on presenting material without checking whether their students are learning". In practice, this means that the lecturer uses the anachronistic content-led style of delivery where the focus is on teaching rather than learning. For example, I was aware of what would be covered at the start of each lesson but I had no learning outcomes to aim towards nor any criteria by which I could assess my achievement and progress. For that matter, neither did the lecturer.

After distributing handouts, as a matter of routine the class (13 in all) would be invited by the lecturer to gather round one computer for a very long and painful hour watching a CD-Rom presentation - or rather, not watching it.

During one lesson, for example, I drafted an article, another student sorted out her diary, another had body and head turned in the opposite direction, and two others sat at the back chatting.

Meanwhile, the lecturer sat, back turned to the class, captivated by the CD-Rom. Every so often, he would check that we were not comatose by asking if we wanted a rewind of a particular section. I had to restrain myself from asking whether he had heard of LCD tablets or laptopdata projector combinations.

The funding council identifies "careful guidance and support" as being necessary to student retention. On my course, asking about such resources as recommended reading lists, library provision or access to computer facilities promoted looks of incredulity.

As a matter of principle, I should ask for a refund of the course fee as the college failed to meet its contractual obligation to deliver the "learning" I paid for. However, I did learn something from the course. That is, that if colleges, and the Government, are sincere and serious about widening participation and increasing student retention, heavy investment will have to be made in the primary resource of colleges - the teaching staff.

Staff need the support of a credit-based system like the Open College Network that facilitates quality curriculum design requiring learning outcomes to be transparent and encouraging progression.

Meanwhile, the FEFC should adopt "the employment of lecturers skilled at stimulating learning" as a performance indicator. Lecturers who create and sustain in students a desire to learn, by default, encourage progression and build in their students a life-long commitment to learning.

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