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?