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.

(My) Lessons from the flipped classroom

In September 2015 I committed to deliver a thirty-credit module, called The Teaching Practitioner, using A flipped classroom pedagogy. The module is the first of two in a PgC Teaching and Supporting Learning in HE; it is associated with Associate Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy.

My motivation for flipping the classroom was three fold:

  1. My contact time was limited and therefore moving ‘delivery of content’ outside of the classroom was an answer to a specific timetable challenge.
  2. In learning and teaching provision of this type I wanted to actively avoid ‘preaching’ or appearing as the ‘authority’. Everyone, without exception, on a work-based programme brings experience and the class dynamic is much more about guiding equals and facilitating mutual learning.
  3. I would rather place my energies in to discursive, challenging and unexpected contact time, rather than repeat sessions of transmitting content, which can be accessed in other ways.

The pattern of delivery was simply that each week I shared materials to work through, including narrated presentations, videos (commissioned and existent), reading, reflective tasks and then we would gather to discuss. The discussions varied in formality, structure and style as the module progressed. Over the course of the module I learnt a great deal, the key points from my mental list of lessons are shared below.

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To do list example (click to view)

Essential to do list: Each week I published what needed to be done in advance of the face-to-face class. Importantly the list split out what was essential and what was optional. Participants reported that this was a helpful organizing distinction and allowed better management of their activity. This is something that I would definitely adopt in future modules of any type to act as a pacesetter. Simple, perhaps obvious, but actively encouraging participants to make choices about the level of engagement they can make is a pragmatic way of supporting work based practitioners who have so many competing demands on their time.

Slides not videos: I experimented with the media format of presentational material (pre-class content). The staple across most weeks was the narrated PowerPoint. I found more editing control by using Audacity to record the audio and then drag and drop in to PowerPoint, compared to recording direct in to PowerPoint. Audacity gave me opportunity to edit out any major interruptions with ease (phone calls, door knocks etc). I included some video lectures of studio production quality however participants found them relatively less engaging, with a preference for visuals and audios mixed in together with the ability to more easily navigate the presentation. I was surprised by this preference, but there is no doubt narrated presentations are easier to create.

Don’t force theory: We took a discursive approach to our face-to-face time (which was usually two hours per week). I provided questions and starters and then tried to guide the discussion. At first the conversation was loose, multi-directional, on and off-topic. I worried that we were not being ‘very level seven’ and the participants shared some of these concerns. However an under the surface, a process of sense making was going on; each person, in their own language and terms, through sharing and reflecting on their own experience got chance to reconceive, affirm and evaluate their practice. The explicit linking to theory was a more private activity, which seemed to occur in response to assessment. It was only obvious that this had taken place at the end of the module as discussion and theory were fused. Perhaps the discussions were a shared liminal space in which we muddled through difficult issues, then we went away to individually reflect and make clear.

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A conception of flipped learning as a three stage process

 Facilitation skills matter more than online production skills: My role can be linked to all the activities of a facilitator, including:

  • Summarizing

    Screen Shot 2016-03-17 at 09.01.39
    A discussion summary in progress
  • Questioning
  • Providing occasional expertise
  • Sharing anecdotes
  • Signposting
  • Collating the issues that we couldn’t solve and referring them to other forums, or mentally ‘parking them’ as knowingly messy
  • Archiving ideas (e.g. photographing shared lists and posting them online for future reference)
  • Providing clarity as needed
  • Providing confidence
  • Managing the group dynamics
  • Modeling active listening

As we progressed through the weeks, methods for each of these aspects became more developed e.g. creating graphics for summaries, defining the discussion purpose to keep us mainly on task. One thing I did from time to time was add a summary of the discussion as a resource for reference so that everyone had opportunity to revisit key points. This involved simply using my mobile phone and talking through the diagrams that we had created in class such that everyone had a record. This was not onerous at all if done straight after the session while fresh in memory.

Quick and dirty production process: If the model of delivery is going to be sustainable then resources need to be produced within a realistic time frame. By taking a quick and dirty approach to development, those on the programme see the approach as achievable and replicable; it provides accessible modeled practice. For me there is also a really clear sign in this approach that the value of the learning experience is the interaction and not a resource. To avoid perfectionism I never listened to my own presentations after they were recorded other than for a quick sound check.

Shared endeavor: While new roles were not formally defined, we fell in to a more even relationship. I sensed that we were co-researchers (in to the effectiveness of the pedagogy) and co-learners (about all aspects of the programme). We were facilitators and facilitated, rather than ‘teacher and student’. To reinforce this role equality, I tried to be very open about when I was learning too.

Allow choice about levels of engagement: As grown ups, participants face a simple rational choice about whether to engage or attend; sometime this choice is made in light of personal life and professional workload. In the weeks where individuals had not done the preparation for class, no action was taken or penalty applied. This approach relies on a commitment to engage and the rewards are implicit in the design. It also reflects the idea of running a community of equals. The group dynamic needs to be honest about the need for preparation, but pragmatic when this slips. If the facilitation works well then even those who have not prepared should be invited and able to contribute experience, and hopefully then inspired to retrospectively visit the online class.

A human process not a technical one: Flipped classroom may evoke thoughts about complex online tools and an unfathomable methodology of teaching promoted by centres of e-learning and academic development, but for me the experience of flipped classroom is a fundamentally human process which involves a respect the opportunity to explore individual experience and knowledge. It allows social learning and creates space for the discussion of any issues arising that matter to the group. I hope the language around this practice, and the identity of the learning model as slightly exotic, does not take away from the collegial simplicity, which resonates with traditional seminar based learning.

Support for the flipped approach from participants was demonstrated in three distinct ways: i) the adoption of flipped classroom by some group members ii) protest when classes are not flipped iii) outstanding, highly personalized, deeply connected assignments to demonstrate the culmination of meaningful engagement (though I am a little bias on the last point).

If I had a point nine on my list, it would be to keep faith that the approach will pay off, even when there is angst about its effectiveness. That said, when I saw in the module assessments that we had reached our destination (albeit a fleeting one on the way to the next module) I was very relieved!

 

 

Course level assessment – nice idea, but what does it really mean?

It is increasingly clear that thinking about curriculum in the unit of ‘the course’ rather than the unit of ‘the module is conducive to cohesive course design. It avoids repetition, ensures the assessment journey makes sense to the student and can make feedback meaningful as one task is designed to link to the next. I have not found much  in the literature on course level assessment; while it is advocated in principle amongst educational development communities, it is perhaps less clear what course level assessment actually looks like.

I can see three possibilities, though there may be more. These conceptions are described as if delivered through the modular frameworks which remain the dominant framework for programmes. Any comments on other approaches would be very welcome.

Type 1: Compound assessment

Imagine two modules being taught on entirely discrete themes. Within them might be learning about terminology, key theories, processes, and calculations. Within the modular framework they may be taught entirely independently. In such a model there is nowhere in the curriculum where these skills can be overtly combined. A third module could be introduced which draws upon learning from module one and module two. Of course in reality it may be five modules drawn upon in a sixth compound module.

By example, a module focused upon business strategy may be taught entirely separately from a module on economics. Under such a scenario students may never get to consider how changes in the economy influence strategy, the associated tactics and the need for responsive planning. It is these compound skills, abilities and levels of professional judgment that the course (not the modules) seek to develop. One way of addressing this limitation is to provide a third module which draws together real business scenarios and concentrates on encouraging students to combine their knowledge. A ‘compound’ module could be based around case studies and real world scenarios, it may be limited in its ‘indicative content’ and leave a degree of openness to draw more flexibly on what is happening in the current external environment. Open modules can be uncomfortable and liberating in equal measure for the tutor, as there is a less familiar script. It might concentrate on the development of professional behaviours rather than additional content.The module might have timetabled slots, or could take the form of a one off exercise, field trip or inquiry. Teaching would be more facilitative rather than content/delivery led.

One of the challenges with such a module is that many tutors may be reluctant to give over credits to what seems to be a content free or light module. Going back to basics though, graduates are necessarily more than empty vessels filled with ‘stuff’. If we look at the course level and identify what we want to produce in our outcomes, and what the aims of our programmes actually are, then the flexible compound module fits well as an opportunity for fusing knowledge and developing competent, confident, early professionals. When knowledge is free and ubiquitous online, acting as a global external hard disk, we need to look at the graduates we build and challenge any view that higher education is primarily about the transfer of what the lecturer knows to the student. Surely the compound skills of researching the unfamiliar, combining knowledge from different areas, and making decisions with incomplete data in a moving environment are much more important. The compound module is an opportunity to facilitate learning which alights with the course level outcomes sought.

This type of course level learning and assessment undoubtedly requires an appreciation of the skills, attitudes, values and behaviours that we wish to foster in students and it needs confidence in the tutor to facilitate rather than transmit.

Type 2: Shared  assessment

The next way that I can conceive a form of course level assessment is more mechanistic. Take two modules (module one and module two, taught separately); to bring about efficiencies, the assessment of each module is undertaken within the same assignment, activity or exam. It may be an exam with two parts one for each module; it may be a presentation which is viewed by two assessors, each reviewing a separate aspect of content or it could be an assignment which has areas of attention clearly marked for each module. The education benefits of this are, in my view, much less obvious than for type 1, nevertheless students may see some links between the parts of modules in taking such an approach. The shared assessment must be designed to make clear which aspect relates to which module or else a student could be penalised or rewarded twice for the same points. Under such an approach it is conceivable to pass one element and fail the other. I remain to be convinced of the real benefits of this approach which feels like surface level ‘joined up-ness’.

Type 3: Combined assessment 

The term combined assessment is used here to describe an approach which assesses two modules through a single meaningful strategy. If there are two fifteen credit modules, one on mathematics for engineers and one on product design, an assessment which uses knowledge from each taught unit can be drawn upon to pass a single assessment – for example via a design and build exercise. The assessment subsumes both modules, the two elements are integrated (in contrast to the shared assessment approach) and there are potential marking efficiencies. Without clear attribution of marks to one or the other module it may be tricky when a student fails; what do they restudy? But presumably a tutor would be able to advise where the limitations of the performance are and which unit would be usefully revisited. In some cases it may be both. In reality this approach may be little different than having a large module with two themes contained within it.

So they were my three ideas for programme level assessment but I am convinced that there are other ways of achieving this in a meaningful way. The suitability of each approach will depend on what the course team want to achieve, but clearly the benefits of the compound assessment approach are very different from a shared or combined strategy.


permalink jigsaw header image courtesy of Yoel Ben-Avraham under Creative Commons https://www.flickr.com/photos/epublicist/3545249463

Learning transitions and playing with concept map

In an attempt to unscramble my own thoughts and make them remain in my head longer than the time it takes to type and send I have embarked upon a concept mapping exercise. So taking a reply I made earlier to a forum question, and concept mapping it, it was useful but remarkably difficult. Its tricky to build links and annotate without over-crowding. A fine art and more practice needed. Tips welcome!

So, the question – how do transitions affect new comers to higher education And what might be done to help … ?

Secondary school students have often been engaged in surface learning which has been cultivated by a climate of testing and a grade facing culture (Hussey and Smith 2010). The learning habits and cultures of a secondary school are very different than most HEIs where large class sizes exist (Cook and Leckey 1999) and there is an expectation of autonomy (Hussey and Smith 2010) – a transition is needed to thrive in this new environment (a transition of self and in learning approach). In terms of self-concept students may go from being confident amongst a small group to feeling disorientated by their new place in the bigger order. At the same time as needing to undertake transitions in their approach to learning they may be undergoing great shifts in their personal life from being dependent to being independent as they move locations and away from family. Transitions are essential to learning and may occur on a number of fronts – in knowledge, in learning orientation, in social dimensions (Hussey and Smith 2010) and in epistemologies (Chan, Ho et al. 2011). First year attrition of students is high (Beaty, Gibbs et al. 1997; Cook and Leckey 1999; Hussey and Smith 2010). It seems little wonder given the multi-faceted transitions. Such transitions are more complex for first generation learners who face added challenges.

To facilitate these transitions a number of recommendations emerge from the literature:

· Induction – induction for students should address student expectations such that learners can ‘see’ the transitions ahead (Cook and Leckey 1999)
· Monitoring – so student transitions are not hidden from staff and can be engaged with positively and appropriately. Montitoring ensures teachers are not surprised at the end of a course when transitions have not occurred as anticipated (Hussey and Smith 2010)
· Avoiding a crammed curriculum – to provide space for deep engagement such that time for deep learning is made (Cousin 2006; Hussey and Smith 2010)
· Formative assessment – to enable students to develop an understanding of the expectations and allow them to adapt on their journey ahead of high stakes assessment (Hussey and Smith 2010)
· Progression flexibility – more radically, student programmes could be undertaken over a longer period of time where an individual’s transition path requires, when they are not ready to move on at the speed of the academic calendar (Hussey and Smith 2010)
· Promote study skills for higher education (ideally before arrival) such that students have to tools to adapt (Cook and Leckey 1999)
· A culture of support where disorientation or turmoil is OK (Cousin 2006)
· Ensure student’s make good course choices which hold their engagement (Jansen and Suhre 2010).

While study skills are suggested as being important, their role may be less significant than the process of aligning courses to student requirements (Jansen and Suhre 2010). In ensuring good choices of programme are made, students may develop higher levels of buy-in and therefore be more prepared to undertake active involvement in learning (which, in turn, is particularly helpful to the surface – deep learning transition (Atherton 2011)).

For first generation students there may be additional or exacerbated challenges. Self-concept lies at the heart of many transitions. First generation students may have a different self concept (perhaps in confidence, beliefs and self-worth) than those who have been socialized in to HE by family. The may feel that they do not belong (Mehta, Newbold et al. 2011).

Cultural changes may be exacerbated for first generation students. HE has its own culture and even language. For students who are first generation the newness of this culture will be starker since exposure to the language and rituals of HE may have been nil. Outreach programmes (from HE to school and induction may help).

According to Mehta, Newbold et al (2011) first generation students “enter college less prepared to succeed but also have greater time demands and financial commitments”. The distractions of financial pressures, part time jobs etc may be a challenge for some first generation students especially when they are immersed in so many transitions, and forming new learning habits.

Care must be taken not to over-generalise first-gen students in to one category though, since in itself this category represents great diversity of culture, class and values. For example, first generation students from a work-based background may face different self-concept issues than school leavers (as inferred by Hussey and Smith 2010)

Broadly the notion of personalizing provision and induction to individual student need may be an approach to facilitate transition. However particular attention may need to be offered to financial support, pace (in response to financial and emotional transitions), integration (social) and the management of expectations.

Much better perhaps to see it like this

concept map screen shot (section on transitions)

 

I suspect work on transitions could usefully inform personal development programmes as well as induction.

Atherton, J. S. (2011). “Learning and teaching: Approaches to study: Deep and surface learning.” Retrieved 3 August 2011, from http://www.learningandteaching.info/learning/deepsurf.htm.
Beaty, L., G. Gibbs, et al. (1997). Learning orientations and study contracts. The experience of learning. D. H. F. Marton, & N. Entwistle. Edinburgh, Scotland, Scottish Academic Press.
Chan, N.-M., I. T. Ho, et al. (2011). “Epistemic beliefs and critical thinking of Chinese students.” Learning and Individual Differences 21(1): 67-77.
Cook, A. and J. Leckey (1999). “Do Expectations Meet Reality? A survey of changes in first-year student opinion.” Journal of Further & Higher Education 23(2): 157.
Cousin, G. (2006). “An introduction to threshold concepts.” Planet(no. 17): 4-5.
Hussey, T. and P. Smith (2010). “Transitions in higher education.” Innovations in Education & Teaching International 47(2): 155-164.
Jansen, E. P. W. A. and C. J. M. Suhre (2010). “The effect of secondary school study skills preparation on first-year university achievement.” Educational Studies 36(5): 569-580.
Mehta, S. S., J. J. Newbold, et al. (2011). “WHY DO FIRST-GENERATION STUDENTS FAIL?” College Student Journal 45(1): 20-35.

Steps for feedback (online)

Thinking about how technology can enable feedback at different points in a learners journey led me to articulate the ways in which I, and colleagues, have previously used technology and specifically an online forum/community space to share feedback and grow from it. To benefit from high levels of feedback there must be a high degree of trust amongst participants to both give and receive feedback. Trust is needed to feel that a voice has value, particularly in peer to peer feedback.

Through these steps feedback becomes its own route to learning.

Click to zoom …

… Click twice to read!

Some small actions for the improvement of facilitation

 At the end of another semester Shirley and I were sharing thoughts on our own strengths and weaknesses over the last twelve weeks/two modules. We believe, intuitively and based upon recent experiences, that a number of very small facilitation actions have worked rather well. We deliberately published the activities ‘to do list’ out of its natural sequence. Previously, the first module was at the top of the list whilst the second one always came down the list. 

-We believed that the second module was always under-prioritised as a result of this sense of it being constantly second in everyone’s mind. By simply mixing up the list in this way (so the chronologically second module, appeared first) the sense of importance of the semesters second module is visually elevated. Simple.

– We have always (since the start of the BA LTR) had very motivated high achieving researchers. By a process of self selection (motivated learners returning to study) the calibre of researchers is high to start with. This reflects in the grades achieved. For the same reasons the researchers set themselves very high standards. It is sometimes painful then to watch researchers, who have achieved ‘good’ grades, reflecting negatively upon thier achievement. By emphasising the value of every grade, through words, tone and resources, I hope that this semester has seen a greater contentment when marks are achieved. 

– Linked in with this expectation management  is in an attitudinal shift towards fail grades. Whilst staff will do all that is reasonable and more to enable researchers to pass, sometimes researchers fail to get a pass. By taking a reassuring and positive voice, we hope, enables these researchers to gain confidence by building upon their work, to then go on to pass. Time has taught us that a fail or two along the way is not perhaps as ‘big’ or damaging as it might feel at the time. This is particularly true in the first semester when there is so much getting to grips to be done with a return to study, it is also true for learners who have a lot going on in their wider lives (as parents, carers, employees or in other roles). As facilitators we have set out to promote  the sentiment that a fail may well mean ‘nearly there’. It should not mean the end of the road or should be a source of disproportionate disappointment.

– Previously it has been normal for researchers receiving their grades to react in the learning online community. Often immediate post-result postings contain a statement of mark/grade and a reaction. Sometimes this resulted in high scorers suggesting displeasure, which in turn caused distress to lower scorers. Sometimes it resulted in immediate comments that with time might have been wiser to hold back. This semester, the announcement of marks came with the request that discussion of marks was refrained for 24hours. This cooling of period appears to have, it is tentatively suggested, caused more balanced comments upon the marks. Comment is constructive and supportive; the heat of the moment reaction has perhaps been reserved for the private realm rather than the communal. 

– When we were getting the BA LTR course off the ground staff worked very long hours. Our sense of responsibility to researchers was often greater than our responsibility to sustain ourselves! This is not good. In a mutual pledge for different reasons, we decided this term to better manage our working hours. This is not only good for us, but we believe better for the researchers in learning to be self managed. In being clearer about our own availability and not, for example, routinely facilitating in the evenings, a false expectation of 24 hour service is not created and a more sustainable, serviceable course is created. This is essential is the BA LTR model is to be scalable. 

Planning assessment work

A recurring observation for me when reading undergraduate work is that there is often a lack of planning present. There may well be lots of information, some interesting and valuable comments and some treatment of literature, but I am convinced that by offering more time to the planning process, students would both produce higher quality work and would feel more in control of their learning. 

In the production of each assessment product I would hope that everyone has read the resources thoroughly, considered the meaning of the learning outcome (asking what do I really  need to demonstrate) and the assessment criteria (asking what features does my work need to hit the level that I am aiming for?). Then draw up a list or a table of a chart or some tool to help you map out what the key elements of your assessment activity will be, even before putting pen to paper. Sometimes the planning stage can be lengthy but it helps to provide the building blocks of assignments so that when t pen is put to paper, the focus can be on the standard of writing, cohesiveness and conciseness. Without research it is impossible to tell how much planning and what methods are used, but I suspect planning techniques are under-utilised.