From BTEC to HE – reflections on student conversations

Recently I have been reflecting on the experience of students from vocational backgrounds who come to university. We know that, in some universities, success rates amongst BTEC students are lower than those from A’Level backgrounds, but I am not sure that we really understand why this is the case and what it is really like to be a student from a vocational background in higher education. I am presently trying to understand a little more about the VQ in HE (Vocational Qualifications in Higher Education) student experience. From my recent purposeful conversations with students, some observations on this topic are shared.

  • The academic world can be confusing and stressful after a BTEC. The courses and expectations in HE are very different than those experienced previously, but on the upside, with assistance of the right type, students can be well prepared to thrive. Assessment is an area where key differences are felt. It is not just the profile of assessment types that may differ, but the culture of ‘submit-feedback-improve-resubmit’ that seems prevelent at level three, but often lacking at level 4 and beyond.
  • The types of support that can be useful include academic skills development particularly focusing on:
    • Equipping students to understand the requirements of an assessment
    • Teaching students how to break down a task to minimise feelings of being overwhelmed;
    • Developing time management skills;
    • Developing organisation skills.
    • Building confidence to rid the imposter syndrome (simple reminders that ‘you’re doing fine’ mean so, so much).
    • Revisiting class content – going over lecture notes
    • Getting started with writing (e.g. providing structure for students to frame their own writing)
    • Locating reading and sources
    • Referencing (supporting these skills, and not being pedantry when students are getting to grips with sourcing information)
  • Skills development and reduction of stress were often talked about together. Academic support and counselling skills sit side by side.
  • While VQ students may face challenges with specific aspects of their course, there may be many other aspects of the course where students feel confident and have a good degree of mastery from their vocational qualification. This raises the question, whether more can be done by way of skills exchanges or peer mentorship between A’Level and BTEC students. While we should be concerned about the achievement and experience of specific groups, we need to be very careful not to create a deficit and fix-it culture. More might be done to simply recognise the specific and valuable strengths brought to the mix by students from vocational backgrounds.
  • The idea that students from a BTEC background prefer coursework because it is ‘what they are used to’ does not tally all of the discussions that I’ve had. Students tell me that they can quickly learn to thrive with exam format. While the first one or two are nerve wracking, again with support, and revision strategies, many students can start to feel relatively comfortable with this type of assessment. The re-introduction of exam format assessments, is, at least according to those I have spoken with, less stressful when the content of the exams aligns with coverage of their vocational prior qualification, rather than presenting entirely unfamiliar content and demand. While this insight in to exam perception challenges my own assumptions that BTEC students may not be comfortable with this type of assessment, it’s important to remember that perception/preference and actual learning gain are different things.
  • Through my student conversations I have been reminded of tutor actions that can be particularly useful for VQ students (and indeed all students) in preparing for exams:
    • Provision of past papers and signposting to these
    • Revision classes
    • Providing checklists of what topics should be revised
    • Highlighting key topics in class to guide revision focus
    • Providing model answers
    • Providing a booklet of practice questions
    • Providing a menu of revision techniques to encourage active revision
    • Comprehensive session resources shared in a format that can easily be revisited
  • Overwhelmingly the students that I have spoken with said the most important point about support is that they need it to be accessible, welcoming and friendly. The tone in which support is offered absolutely matters.
  • Handing in those early pieces of work is a really big step within the university experience. Having some kind of facility to have work reviewed before submission is seen as a really valuable to remove fear and anxiety. There are of course many ways that such a step can be built in to the formative feedback journey of provision.

Undoubtedly all of these points could be addressed through a universal design approach to learning, whereby the curriculum, the classroom, the learning relationships and the online environment are intended to allow as many students as possible to reach their potential.

1 thought on “From BTEC to HE – reflections on student conversations”

  1. I wonder if lacking is the correct word when discussing that the culture of ‘submit-feedback-improve-resubmit’ is not present at university. The word lacking infers that it should be present when in fact I would argue that the culture propagated at FE sets the students up for a fall and in fact it’s more like the culture of ‘submit-feedback-improve-resubmit-feedback-improve-resubmit-feedback-improve-resubmit’. I’m not advocating that we don’t provide feedback on work but we need to be careful of the language we use around identifying the different cultures that are definitely apparent in FE and HE and not infer a bias for one of the other when they are clearly different levels and standards expected of students.

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