Learning support plays a vital role in ensuring all FE students have equal opportunity to succeed in further study, obtain employment or acquire vital life skills. As an approach to delivering learning, learning support seeks to teach students strategies that can help them to access their course of study and ultimately work more independently. As a pedagogy, in its own right, effective learning support can provide a pathway to helping students achieve greater independence and autonomy by a range of means.
Successful learning support has a clear design, usually based on a range of information about the students’ needs to create a best-fit support package for their time at college. Learning Support also has a recognisable structure, the foundation of which is built on a successful partnership between the student, the learning support professional (LSP) and the subject teacher.
That structure can be cemented by conducting regular reviews of how the student is progressing – and by evaluating how the relationship might be reinforced and strengthened to best serve the student’s needs.
Learning support is further characterised by having a definitive outcome. Put bluntly, that outcome is to gradually make the student independent – and the LSP “redundant” – in the sense that the LSP becomes available to move on and support other students.
Of course, the LSP would only move on once it is clear that the student can work successfully with the subject teacher to consistently implement the support strategies. All three parties need to have this “redundant and independent” outcome in mind from the beginning and work together to set goals and targets to help the student achieve it.
These target may, for example, be based on the student’s Education, Health and Care plan (EHCP) if they have one, linked to in-class needs and requirements or be a continuation of those set at school. There may also be some overlap with the student’s main course targets, but this is not always the case – because learning support is generally strategy-based, not subject specific.
To help to ensure the student can meet their targets and achieve their goals, learning support may need to be designed to take into account factors such as putting in place any academic, physical or environmental adjustments that the students might need. This may require additional planning and preparation, specialist equipment or training.
LSPs may find themselves engaged in two distinct activities: keeping the learner focused on new learning delivered by the subject teacher while at the same time providing them with a range of strategies to help them to access that learning. Part of the LSP’s work might also require modelling the strategies so that the student can imitate them.
Regular and rigorous assessment and evaluation of learning support are also key activities that the LSP will need to carry out in order to ensure that the support goals and targets set for the student at the outset are appropriate. The subject teacher and LSP will both need to be consistently clear about what success in a particular strategy looks like, how it can be measured and how it can be adjusted or refined if the need arises.
Crucially, any assessment and evaluation measures will then need to be presented to the student in a way they can clearly understand and work with. Regular reviews should take place to check progress and inform future approaches.
An appropriate system of identifying areas for improvement and delivering praise should also be implemented to provide the student with feedback of progress throughout the duration of their course.
Effective learning support is deeply-rooted in the use of positive stimuli to help students develop new patterns of behaviour, which can help them to develop and to progress. It is person-centred and empathic in the way in which it seeks to understand students and work with them to actualise their goals.
Learning support also provides scope for students to construct new thinking about how they approach their work and how they see themselves. By-products of effective learning support design and activity may also include building student resilience by helping them to move through and overcome barriers to learning.
Learning to overcome obstacles can help students to grow in confidence and develop greater self-esteem, especially when they manage to achieve independence and no longer require the services of their LSP.
As a complement and companion to many other pedagogical approaches, learning support can have a holistic, meaningful and lasting impact on a student’s wellbeing for the duration of their course of study and beyond.
Paul Warren specialises in support solutions for young people with learning difficulties. He tweets @paulw_learn