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.

Towards Inclusivity

A recent HEFCE blog post reminds of the need to continually consider inclusive practice in HE. Many universities are responding to the need for inclusivity with a range of policy approaches, guidance documents, suggestions for best practice and the internal publication of student data to further make the case for change. In looking at the recent blog post, and the recently published Inclusive Teaching and Learning in Higher Education as a Route to Excellence, the focus of inclusivity remains predominantly with disability. Of course this dimension of inclusive practice is enormously important; as explained in the blog, there are more students with disabilities entering HE, the achievement of disabled students is below peers when there is no additional funding in place, and that funding is being cut. Morally this is wrong and action is needed. Nevertheless there are other complex dimensions in the inclusive landscape. Groups of students that could under perform on their potential include specific socio-economic groups, students from an educational background that is ‘different’ than the majority (especially students on BTEC routes), and BME students.  My main concerns when I read about inclusive practice are i) the full spectrum of issues associated with inclusivity are not getting coverage ii) a sense in the public discourse that the sector is addressing inclusivity as a result of a funding change, and not out of a moral responsibility to all students iii) the deep-seated sense of othering that occurs as a result of ii).

In considering how to approach inclusivity, the philosophy of universal design is appealing; essentially in this, teaching and learning is established to enable all students (or as many as possible) through anticipatory approaches. In a universal design approach all education should be set up to encourage all people to access provision and reach their real potential. While this is a wonderful vision, the reality of retro fitting design principles on to established curricula is hugely complex. 

Recognising the pragmatic limits of universal design, I remain concerned that  a superficial approach to inclusivity is emerging in pedagogy. Yes we can get assignment briefs out earlier as required, yes we can post material on the virtual learning environment if that is university policy, and yes we can make sure reading lists are up to date. These points are important, but they are but small pieces of a large jigsaw. For a sustainable, deep routed and sincere approach to inclusivity, a more holistic approach is needed. I am proposing four levels of action to make for real inclusivity. These are summarised below. This is not exhaustive of course. 

Ways to progress inclusive practice:

  1. Rules

Rules and guidelines can relate to a whole manner of aspects of inclusive practice including: Posting lecture notes or slides in advance of classes to help orient students who may wish to read through the content before class to address any areas of underpinning knowledge that their own education did not afford them time to explore; allowing students to record classes on their personal devices; ensuring that assessment briefs meet the required standards of accessibility; using appropriate instructional design layouts for online spaces; and, using minimum font sizes for visual presentations. All of these and many more rules can be implemented. However, focusing only on this type of approach to bringing about inclusivity feels like an extension of a deficit model where staff must behave in a certain way to accommodate groups of students. While the rules are important, and these types of practice are essential, they can be received as yet another bureaucratic thing to do. This approach in isolation can work against fostering a deeper culture of inclusivity. It encourages a surface approach to the issue. A much more holistic and deeper approach is required to make a real, long lasting difference to student learning.

  1.  Developing student learning skills

Students can be supported to self-help and to develop skills that empower them in their own learning. If students learn how to learn, even when they are lacking a specific set of skills to help them thrive in higher education they will not be phased and will be able to progress. Well-formed personal development programmes, and an attention to the skills of learning alongside taught ‘content’ are essential to empowering students with the study skills necessary to overcome any barriers to learning. Supporting students to develop skills in note taking, critical reading, listening, writing in different genres, revision, exam technique, project planning, making the most of their learning routines etc etc. is an significant component of creating an inclusive learning environment.

  1. Developing inclusive mindsets through open and honest engagement

Staff in HE are at times challenged by the diversity of the student body. The recent Times Higher Staff Survey gives some insight in to some lecturers’ frustrations, with a sense of weakening standards, ill prepared students and a lack of student work ethic. Perhaps these concerns are inevitable and are not so different to the ones I heard sixteen or so years ago when I began a career in HE, but they do sit awkwardly in an age of inclusive practice.  There is a complex academic psychology around inclusivity. Many/most lecturers will have academic excellence behind them; they survived and thrived in a system of learning that allowed them to ‘come good’. When these systems change, some teaching staff experience the disruption of genuinely held views, for example about standards, and about the balance of effort between lecturer and student. A rift emerges between privately held personal beliefs, histories and values, and the expectations for teaching practice. Even those who champion inclusivity may still have repressed  concerns about some specific issues. What is said publically, may still be in conflict with some inner feelings. There is then a need to provide a frank, challenging and respectful dialogue in higher education institutions if private theories are going to work with public discourse. Rules and skills training programmes will otherwise be undermined by the occasional, but damming, careless comment, or the unquantifiable look of exasperation. If inclusivity is to become more embedded, then the dual discourse (under and over the radar) needs to come together. Mindsets can’t be forcibly steered towards embracing inclusivity; but conditions of openness mean that deep-seated beliefs can be aired and held up to debate. Hocking, back in 2010, noted “the need for shifts in negative beliefs about, and attitudes towards, student diversity that currently inhibit the development of inclusive learning and teaching”. I’m suggesting here a new level of openesss about the reasons that some may appear negative, some empathy towards these deep seated views and dialogue to engage with some of the underlying issues which prevent a real mindset shift.

  1. Praxis

Praxis is used here to mean values driven, living, self-reviewing, sincere practice; it is more heartfelt than just practice! If inclusivity is to be a way of working, rather than a set of steps, a process model or a policy discourse, then it needs to become a way of working and thinking. I don’t think this is as much of a change as might be assumed. Most lecturers that I have encountered want to put students first. They want them to succeed and reach their potential. That is it. That is the cornerstone of inclusivity. The debate and politicisation and the connection to our own beliefs stemming from personal history falls second to the simplistic aspiration to help others do well. When we go back to first principles, the praxis of inclusivity is very simple: How can I assist all students to succeed?

Living scholarship

During a workshop on teaching recognition at Harper Adams University, I was involved in discussion with colleagues about ‘what is scholarship in the context of teaching and supporting learning?’ This discussion is not new of course. Boyer’s four types of scholarship provide a common reference point to answer this recurring question. Locating types of scholarship seemed not to fully capture our group’s perceptions of their own scholarship though; what about the informal, the discursive, the self-review and inquiring mind? What about the underpinning, hard to quantify, desire to enhance and learn? What about growing and using social capital or networks to respond to events emerging (something akin to collective reflection in action)? What about scholarship as routine, habit or modus operandi? What about scholarship as critical and thoughtful engagement. All of this is very tricky to measure or locate. It is more wrapped together as a package we called ‘living scholarship’. Although with some danger of being self congratulatory about finding a label for scholarship as being, I rather liked it 🙂

Living Scholarship: Combining aspects of scholarship, with a persistent, passionate and committed search for enhanced practice; Scholarship which can be sensed as well as seen; Scholarship which is private as well as public, natural rather than additional, not always necessarily explicit, and which is underpinned by thoughtfulness and self awareness.

 

 

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

Viva preparation

Having survived my doctoral viva on the EdD programme at the University of LiverpooI, I wanted to share some of my own experiences in the hope that they might be useful to others.

  • To prepare for my viva the first thing I did was take six weeks away from the research and from even thinking about the doctorate. This was an important preparatory step to make myself objective about the thesis when re-engaging; essentially it allowed me to come back with fresh eyes and a clear mind. I questioned whether this was a wise thing to do as some advice says keep  reading around your topic in the gap, but I really valued the break.
  • I then read my thesis back (twice), from cover to cover. As I read I annotated typographical errors. I decided not to berate myself for their presence, since that would be a distraction. Finding these minor typographical and phrasing errors early on was helpful as it removed any sense of thinking that the viva will be the final step (it became clear that I would need to make modifications). Getting this realization over and done with earlier in the process made my expectation management much easier.
  • As I read, I noted areas where I felt I should have said more. Particularly I noted areas where I had said more and then, for editorial reasons, cut back on the detail. In these cases I read through the words and diagrams that were reluctantly cut out of the final draft (I always saved copies of earlier drafts of each chapter). Logically I figured, if I had struggled to cut out certain sections, their eventual absence may be of concern to the examiners. Reacquainting myself with this material was invaluable. By example I had cut out text which explained how the two strands of analysis in my study were synthesized. I had cut out this detail in the editing process, but re-familiarizing with it in the viva preparation allowed me to answer questions on this apparent gap in the thesis.
  • I  used a number of websites to generate common viva questions. I found one from the University of Leicester particularly helpful (see http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/gradschool/training/eresources/study-guides/viva/prepare/questions ).
  • Armed with the lists of questions, I generated answers in my mind. I did not write them down, frankly I didn’t think this helped. I sometimes committed two or three questions to mind and mulled them over while driving. This was a useful exercise as I could happily mumble answers to myself in the privacy of my car. Answering two or three at a time was enough to keep concentration. Tackling  more that three questions in one sitting was not particularly productive for me.
  • None of the ‘text book’ questions came up, but without doubt, these generic questions focused my attention and provided very good preparation.
  • I made a conscious effort to talk with others about my research before the viva. This gave me an opportunity to clarify my own understanding and to make the research accessible. Responding to my ten year old son’s question, what is your thesis about? Was actually the most challenging and the most valuable step in this process. he pushed me to be able to explain it in a way that he could understand.
  • Another  useful pre-viva question to consider was ‘which three works most influenced your research?’. Answering this  really forced me to focus on how I had used different influences, in turn this brought further clarity to the themes and ideas within the work.
  • Keeping perspective was very important in getting ready. One side of my brain felt like my doctorate depended on the viva. The other side constantly reminded me that the thesis and viva are, in reality, part of an extended study journey and should not be seen, as with a PhD, as the only product of assessment. Essentially I was two-thirds of the way to success without the project. This was a calming fact.
  • I found it really useful to ask myself ‘what would be the worst questions that could come up?’. Answering this is a real test of knowing your own limitations and those of your research. Sure enough my worst question came up (after all if I recognised this as a weakness in my research, surely others would too!). Having accepted this area as a weakness in advance, I was able to read around the issue and fill the gap. I was therefore comfortable on the day with defending my position, while accepting that some of the things I had learned through revisiting the issue would be usefully incorporated in modifications. This is a long way of recommending viva candidates face up to the areas that you know are weakest, in advance of the viva, and use the new found impetus that this phase of your journey brings to resolve any concerns that might have seemed unfathomable under the pressure to complete for submission.
  • Practically, I used post it notes to separate the chapters of the tome. This was useful for finding my way around the parts quickly when questions were asked. Also I researched the outcomes of the viva, so that I was prepared to hear the judgment and absorb the critical information, rather than get lost in the terminology.
  • Finally, one of the biggest challenges was to manage my own, and my supporters, expectations of completing the viva. While some friends/family/colleagues/strangers on a train congratulated me, with minor modifications outstanding I couldn’t fully celebrate. I had anticipated feeling like the viva was the end of the doctorate, but on the day it was just another milestone (albeit a significant one). This was a massive deflation. I wanted to keep the champagne on ice a little while longer. This was tricky to manage when others saw this as the finish line. In the end I settled on celebrating twice. In your mind be clear whether you feel your doctorate is over after the viva, or when any modifications are in. For me it was the latter.

Action research for higher education practitioners: Booklet

I have formed a short guide to action research particularly to support colleagues in higher education who may be undertaking action research for the first time. This is absolutely not intended to be a substitute for literature but it is offered as a ‘first stop’ for anyone contemplating this methodology. It offers practical ideas and tips and seeks to answer some of the key questions that I understand new action researchers to have. As ever, any feedback, additional inclusions or suggestions for revision would be welcome.

Capture7

Download the booklet here: Action Research Introductory Resource

Five quick ways to write reflectively

  1. Imagine an audience for your musings. It’s hard to write without an audience. Write like you are talking to someone that you trust and connect with, and to extend your thoughts imagine their probing questions when you hit natural pauses.
  2. Talk, don’t just write. Use voice memos on your phone to capture thoughts in the moment and then write them down when back at base. Some of the most reflective thoughts happen in the car – catch them! This model is effective with adults and children alike.
  3. Use a model … a blank page can be daunting, use a reflective model to provide a writing frame for your reflections. Gibbs is my favourite but there are others too …
  4.  Go beyond describing what happened in an event or situation. Always follow up with the question, so what? (so what …. For me, for my students, for my colleagues, for my CPD needs, for my confidence, for my progression , for my efficiency, for my well-being?*).
  5. Write quickly, naturally and without concern for prose. This is a first layer of reflection. Then  a) develop the text and tidy it up and b) add comments or text boxes to annotate and add further observations on your initial thoughts. Comments or annotations can add major depth compared to a first attempt – ‘when I wrote this, I was thinking …. And I thought this because … but now I have discussed it with my colleague/friend and have revised my original understanding’ or ‘ I can see the choices I made here were limited by ….’. Adding layers to a reflection in this way can be very productive and can help us to question how we see things in the moment.

* Delete and expand!

Other ideas welcome.