HE in FE: Teaching and Learning
‘Here I am again…’
Lecturers in FE colleges often have diverse teaching loads. Not only are they likely to be teaching a range of levels, from adult literacy classes to GCSE to A Levels or equivalent; they are also likely to be covering a range of subject areas. One tutor described how she taught English language, sociology and media studies at degree and A Level; while another taught GCSE, AS Level and degree work all in the same day. College lecturers are often required to deliver Key Skills (compulsory units for 16-19 year olds in Communication, Application of Numbers, and Information Technology) alongside their subjects, and their areas of expertise are often expanded to fit the requirements of curricula, rather than the curricula being designed around their specialisms.
Teaching highlights for HE in FE English tutors:
“seeing students with non-conventional entry criteria blossom and grow, and do well on their degrees. The older students have a lot to offer in seminars and in their writing, and the younger ones benefit from this”
“seeing someone who starts in September terrified, succeed and get a good mark. Those who find it a challenge are the most rewarding.”
“I can’t tell you how rewarding it is – how appreciative students are of the experience they’ve had. It really makes a difference to their lives. I know that’s a cliché, but it does.”
Similarly, lecturers teaching on HE courses can often find themselves delivering a wide range of modules within one degree programme. One tutor at a college in a rural area described how she taught the English strand of a first year of a franchised Combined Honours degree almost single-handedly, as well as part of the Education Studies strand; while the same content delivered at the university which validated the course would be taught by a team of approximately 10 individuals, each with their own specialism. In addition, this tutor – as many tutors in FE colleges – had previously taught several of the degree students at level 2 and level 3. There are cases, therefore, where the same tutor has taught a student English for up to six years, often almost single-handedly, across English language, literature and creative writing. This picture was repainted many times in my interviews with lecturers, leading to us identifying the ‘Here I am again …’ syndrome.
Of course, there are several sides to this. On the negative side, implications might include that the student can become ‘institutionalised’ – set in the ways of the college, producing work which receives high marks from individual tutors, and remaining within the parameters of tutors’ knowledge and understanding. At the same time, a lecturer is required to be “a Jill of all trades” with the consequent concern, often expressed by Jill herself, that she is true mistress of none. With little time to prepare – a typical timetable in FE is 24 hours a week teaching time, regardless of level – and even less time to research, the content of modules may not be based on the latest developments in the area, and may not include technological innovations which take time to develop and implement.
or ‘You really get to know your students’
On the other hand, “you really get to know your students”. It is often an individual tutor who has inspired a love of English in a student – after all, if they are going to pursue it for six years they must have had a good experience of the subject. Students interviewed often named a tutor who had fostered their love of English, and often this tutor was still involved in their education. For many students in FE a lack of confidence is a significant issue, and the high level of support enabled by small groups of students and familiar teachers is paramount to their eventual success.
Comments from students taking English degrees at FE colleges:
“The tutors here are marvellous – they’ve always got time for you. It’s like a family really.”
“All the tutors have been brilliant, absolutely brilliant … I’m really grateful. I feel the tutors are a really good sort of bunch all together you know, we get help and we get feedback and I think it’s brilliant the way the course is run, it’s just perfect.”
“The students here don’t know how lucky they are … at [another university] it was terrifying – the numbers of students and no help for mature students.”
This close relationship between tutor and student is frequently cited as an extremely positive aspect of teaching HE in FE. Students and tutors gave it as the most rewarding characteristic of their teaching, and part of the reason for the high success rates. Some of the staff interviewed had completed the degree themselves, and were now working alongside their original tutors, having completed PGCEs and enrolled on MAs. Without that initial relationship with a tutor, they may never have embarked on the course at all.
External examiners frequently report on the high standard of students’ work in FE settings. Teaching styles which include small group work and a more relaxed mixture of seminar, lecture and workshop elements within each two- or three-hour session contribute to students gaining in confidence, feeling able to ask questions and seek clarification and advice, which in turn lead to high levels of comprehension and analysis, and high standards of work. In terms of learner support systems, and teaching and learning strategies:
“There is much that universities can learn from FE colleges, whose ‘traditional’ students may be ‘non-traditional’ HE candidates” (LSDA 2003).
For many college students this is their only opportunity to take a degree. Students are often more mature both in age and life experience; they often have jobs and/or families; and there may be issues which prevent them from travelling away to study, including financial, social, cultural or other personal considerations. One student taking his degree at his local college where he had done his A Levels said he felt sorry for his friends who had left home and gone to traditional universities. He loved his course, was a dedicated student, and appreciated the value of the small group and the relationships with tutors. Several of his friends – from similar backgrounds to him – were struggling with the anonymity they were experiencing, the lack of contact time with tutors, and the large groups in lectures and seminars. He also mentioned that he was financially better off through not needing to have a student loan and live away from home. Another student in the group had also done A Levels at the same institution. She had been a reluctant and sometimes obstructive student as a teenager, but the college had not given up on her, and she was now in the second year of the degree, with the prospect of gaining a good level of qualification on completion. As a reformed and committed degree student, she said, “I know it sounds sad, but I love college.”
Learning and Skills Development Agency (2003), LSDA responds: Widening participation in higher education.