You don't have to achieve, but you can try

MY seven-year-old niece was anxious all through teatime about her friend Eve. Eve had been crying at school dinners because she only got eight out of 10 for her spelling test.

"I told her don't worry," she said. "It's what's in your heart that counts." Yes, Joy does tend to talk in sentences that sound like a cue for a song, but then she comes from a family steeped in musical theatre.

The sentiment is admirable. I wish it were true. We are at that time of the session when some of our learners have to contend with the harsh realities of life; not achieving an important unit, not achieving the grade they wanted, not finding a place on a course they have applied for.

In college, there is always a plan B, an alternative route, a second chance, but trying to convince learners at the time can be difficult. Like Eve, some of them set themselves very high standards and instead of strengths and achievements they see only weaknesses and failures.

The current communication module I am teaching can be awarded at a level 3, or at a higher level 4. The idea is to reward competence. My learners, however, arrived at the beginning of the session with firm ideas about "having" to achieve at level 4.

Sometimes they have simply succumbed to pressure from others who have boasted of achieving at 4. Sometimes they have planned to pursue a course which prefers competence at level 4. Whatever the reason, you find yourself confronted by a class who can barely absorb anything because they are strung like wires, over-anxious and desperate to do well.

No matter how often you explain that there is no right or wrong answer, only argument and debate and backing up your argument from the text, they are unconvinced and wary, with a desperate look in their eyes and "tell me what to think, then tell me what to write" tattooed on their foreheads.

Confidence is all, and it has to be built up painstakingly. The class is a good mix of mature learners and young people straight from school. The mature students envied the youngsters' sassiness and the youngsters thought the mature students knew it all. Gradually, they have unwound enough to begin learning. Success is the best motivator, and continuous assessment works well as they see themselves achieving.

I wish I could simply recycle this class. They have become real learners - independent, confident and not afraid to try and try again. Kerry is planning to remediate her talk to try to achieve at a higher grade. There are no guarantees, but she's up for it, ready to take the risk of failing.

There are opportunities to be envied. Iain is changing direction. After an introductory business course, he has decided to try for our theatre arts course. He has been poring over plays, trying to choose two good audition pieces. Today he was wandering around clutching the "Seven Ages of Man" speech. His mate Stu was being coerced into listening. Stu didn't mind too much because he has his own plans. He has become hooked on computers and is applying for digital media next session.

It would be nice if everyone could just follow their dream, if just wanting was enough to make it happen. If our learners learn anything, it's that you have to work for success, and sometimes you have to change your plans. They are set, in effect, for successful lifelong learning.

After tea, I asked Joy, very casually, what mark she got for her spelling. "I got one," she said happily. Well, it's what's in your heart that counts, isn't it?

Dr Carol Gow is lecturer in media at Dundee College.

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