Student success can't be bought

10th June 2005 at 01:00
Financial problems are not the main reason for students dropping out of college.

This is one of the main conclusions from a study by the Scottish Further Education Unit, presented on Monday to the first in a week-long series of ground-breaking events which brought together some 200 lecturers from 19 subject networks.

The purpose of the discussions at the SFEU's centre in Stirling, supported by The TES Scotland, is to investigate the factors behind student success in FE. These are said by the unit to be fundamental in securing a return on the "very considerable amounts of public funding spent on Scotland's colleges".

The unit is also anxious to encourage colleges to do more in spreading best practice, and the aim of the week was to draw up plans for action on promoting student success.

But Nancy Cooper, the SFEU's leading specialist in quality and workforce development, told the opening session: "Disseminating good practice is one thing. But it's not just a case of saying, 'we did this and it worked'.

What we need to know is why it worked."

One factor said to hinder students' progress is inadequate funding, whether in the form of bursaries, awards or childcare support. Research has shown, however, that financial circumstances are "not a primary causal factor", according to a paper presented by Ms Cooper. The most recent figure for FE students failing to complete their course was 16 per cent in 2002-03, rising to 22 per cent for full-time students.

The paper noted a 1999 study which suggested that "although financial difficulties are a common trigger of student drop-out, in general withdrawal appears to result only in cases where students have doubts they are on the right course, are concerned about the quality of teaching and are unhappy about the support they are receiving for progression".

The study concluded: "Though many are convinced of a vital link between financial circumstances, participation and successful completion, hard statistical evidence is slight." This finding was reinforced by recent research from the unit which indicated that the most important factor for students was the quality of teaching.

John McCann, deputy chief executive of the SFEU, stressed that colleges can always do better. "Quality is not static: you either do better or you do worse. There is no such thing as doing OK. Sharing practice helps that process."

Successful learners said the 10 most important factors behind completing an award were (in order of importance): * gaining a qualification * the quality of teaching * learning exam techniques * teaching styles * a positive working atmosphere * choice of course * having a good relationship with lecturers * receiving enough guidance * the relevance of the course to the job students hoped to do * the desire to advance skills and knowledge.

A sense of purpose was ranked 11th - possibly "because students saw it as solely their responsibility and not something lecturers played a part in".

The paper acknowledged that "colleges can always do better" and added: "For every college meeting a challenge in student success, another has addressed it - if only we could share more effectively."

Lecturers were urged to make sure they explain what they are doing more clearly so students understand - and, if they do not, to explain things in a different way. Students, the paper stated, should be more involved - they should "speak up, speak out and move around". The "Velcro technique" would help students to connect what they already know to what they are about to be taught and should learn.

The key message for lecturers was: "Affirm what works and redirect what does not. Constant reinforcement is important. You are responsible for supporting the learning, so the ability to offer constructive feedback is a key skill to acquire. Try adopting coaching solutions when planning next steps with your learners. Reflect constantly on your practice."

The main ingredient in motivating FEstudents, the paper continued, was to create a supportive learning environment where they feel safe emotionally, where they are comfortable to question and where they are at ease in making mistakes.

"If they know their contributions will be valued and their successes praised, as well as getting support to manage disappointments, they will increase in confidence," the paper stated.

But it warns that colleges should not raise student hopes to the point where they are disappointed and therefore demotivated.

"Learners complain that some college events and materials are not useful because they are too promotional and engender unrealistic expectations of what their courses would be like, according to the Learning and Skills Council south of the border."

The SFEU believes that "colleges must communicate more relevant information, more effectively, about the realities of study (including expectations, the demands of the programme of study and mutual responsibilities) and progression opportunities".

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