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SfLL Course Co-ordinator
Skills for Lifelong Learning: A Progress Report
The success of widening participation strategies relies on academic
courses and support systems that help to retain students once they arrive
at university. “Skills for Lifelong Learning” is a unit developed
by with the aid of a European Social Fund (ESF) grant by the Department
of Sociology at MMU as a compulsory core unit on the University’s
Foundation Year. Its teaching strategy employs parallel face-to-face and
Brief details of the Skills for Lifelong Learning (SfLL) project were
provided in an earlier edition of Learning and Teaching in Action;1
this article sets out to describe the objectives and content of the course
in more detail, and to outline its plans for further development for the
academic year 2003/4.
SfLL and the Foundation Year: Background and Rationale
SfLL is a 20-credit unit on the Foundation Year. It is one of three compulsory
core courses taken by all students, the others being ‘Application
of Number’ and ‘Information Technology’ (both carrying
10 credits). The remaining 80 credits in the 120-credit Foundation Year
programme consist of ‘prerequisite’ units to prepare students
for their chosen degree programme, and optional units taken from a wide
range of subjects.
Its link with the Foundation Year ensures that SfLL has a role to play
in the university’s developing widening participation strategy.
If the key elements of such a strategy can be defined as attracting,
supporting and retaining students from diverse social backgrounds,
then the Foundation Year team has already made significant progress towards
the first of these by recruiting a significant proportion of its intake
from lower socio-economic groups and from under-represented ethnic minorities.2
The success of widening participation strategies, however, also requires
the establishment of academic courses and support systems that help to
retain students once they arrive at university. Such features are of particular
importance for Foundation Year students, many of whom have already experienced
a confidence-sapping failure to achieve their anticipated A-level results.
It is in these fields that ‘Skills for Lifelong Learning’
plays a part.
According to a recent study, the major factors contributing to student
retention and success in the HE sector can be summarised under four headings:
academic practices, social integration, student funding arrangements and
personal support. The academic practices category includes a number of
elements, with the following prominent among them: 3
- Curriculum development with a strong focus on learning skills
- Provision of employment and careers information and education
- Induction into the structures and expectations of higher education
extending beyond the traditional one-week period
- Staff pedagogical training to meet the needs of greater student diversity.
Awareness of these key elements underpinned the development of the SfLL
course. Produced with the aid of a European Social Fund (ESF) grant, its
primary objectives were to enhance learning skills and improve employment
opportunities for Foundation Year students. At an early stage it was decided
that the course content would also include a section designed to familiarise
students with the structures and requirements of HE, whilst pedagogical
training for tutors would be a central element in the package of materials.
At the same time, moreover, the SfLL team aimed to improve the student
experience under the other key headings – by promoting the social
integration of students through group work, and by providing additional
personal support for students in the shape of weekly one-to-one contacts
Course Content and Structure 2002/3
During the SfLL development process under project leader Bernard Leach,
the team faced three particular challenges:
to produce a ‘generic’ skills course applicable to students
linked to 120 different degrees across the university: from Science to
Law, from Tourism and Hospitality to Sociology, from History and Languages
to Information Technology
to persuade the students that such a course of this kind can be interesting,
relevant to their linked degree (not simply a re-hash of their school
skills work) and helpful when they begin the search for a career
to provide course materials and detailed guidance for a variety of tutors,
some of whom would have no experience of delivering skills courses or
of teaching at Foundation level
The team aimed to meet these challenge by producing a flexible and interactive
unit that would make use of both face-to-face contact and web-based technologies.
It was developed by tutors with experience in FE as well as HE, and by
database experts and specialists in Internet and educational software.
In an earlier issue of LTiA, Rachel Forsyth summarised the key features
of the new course as:4
• tutor guidance notes and a resource pack to accompany the delivery
a set of materials, exercises and assessments for students that focus
on enhancing their study and communication skills
• integrated online and offline components of the
• an online platform through which the materials are available
to students and tutors
Bill Johnston, SfLL Unit Leader in 2002/3,
emphasises that SfLL is ‘not an online course but a course that
is also online’. It differs from wholly online ‘virtual’
courses such as those provided by the ‘University of the Arctic’,
whose students may never meet their tutors – or each other.5 Although
SfLL could easily be adapted to run as a ‘virtual’ course
for distance learners, its mode of delivery within the Foundation Year
combines face-to-face teaching with online study. A typical week consists
of two consecutive teaching hours: the first is classroom-based and involves
both whole-group and small-group work led by the tutor, whilst the second
takes place in a computer lab and allows students to complete their online
assignments and to discuss issues and problems one-to-one with their tutor.
These personal contacts between tutors and students, combined with regular
assignments, help tutors to identify student difficulties at an early
stage and to intervene where necessary.
Each week, the students’ online screen contains notes of the week’s
session, copies of the handouts that have been used in class, a link to
the Portfolio with its online tasks to be completed in the second hour,
and a section of links and references to guide students to appropriate
websites, books and articles. The fact that the entire course is online
enables students to work at their own pace and to revisit the material
later – for example, to check guidelines on referencing and plagiarism
when completing their assignments for other units. The tutor screen includes
all the material seen by the students, plus an additional section of detailed
In 2002/3 the content and structure of SfLL was as follows:
Block 1 – Communications: 7 weeks devoted to interviewing
skills, learning styles, verbal and non-verbal communication, language
and language variety and presentation skills.
Assignment: a short individual presentation that does not contribute
to the overall mark
Block 2 – Academic Skills: 7 weeks on problem-solving, critical
thinking, persuasive argument, essay- and report-writing, referencing
Assignment: a short essay or report worth 20% of the total mark
Block 3 – Working in Group: 6 weeks devoted to a team project,
with sessions on group dynamics, planning and practising a presentation
(with opportunities for the use of overheads and PowerPoint).
Assignment: A group presentation accompanied by a weekly log, plus
group and individual reviews of the project – worth 40% of the total
Block 4 - The Future: 4 weeks, beginning with the structure of
HE in general and of MMU in particular, followed by careers work including
psychometric testing, skills profiling and skills enhancement, careers
Assignment: Careers research, worth 20% of the total mark
The completed Portfolio, submitted at the end of the year, is
worth 20% of the total mark.
SfLL tries to answer the basic but vital questions that all students
will need to ask, whatever their linked degree: How do I construct an
oral presentation? Why do I need to do group work, and how can I work
effectively in a group? What’s the difference between an essay and
a report? How do I go about finding relevant information for my assignments?
How do I shape this material into a good piece of written work? How do
I do footnotes? How do I compile a bibliography? What is a bibliography,
and why is it necessary? What on earth is plagiarism, and how do I avoid
it? How will I ever understand university procedures and structures? How
do I go about finding a career that would suit me? When I find one, how
do I identify the skills I’ll need to get it? Which of these skills
do I have already, and how can I acquire the rest?
Evaluation and Modifications: Course Content and Structure 2003/4
SfLL is a work in progress rather than the finished article. Throughout
the current academic year, the course team has continually reviewed its
impact with a view to modifying both the content and the online ‘look
and feel’ of the course. Tutors and technical specialists have been
regularly canvassed for their opinion through group sessions as well as
by e-mail and SmartGroups. Even more important, the key beneficiaries
– the students themselves – have helped to shape the content,
partly by their response to the piloting of key course components and
partly through formal evaluations. This consultative approach is also
embedded in the structure of the course through the group presentation,
which takes the form of an evaluation and constructive critique of all
elements of the Foundation Year. These student presentations, made to
unit tutors and senior Foundation Year staff, have significantly influenced
the revisions now underway. These are outlined below.
In the academic year 2003/4 the unit will be known on the Foundation
Year as ‘Academic Methods’. The new title better reflects
the unit objective of preparing students for university study, as well
as avoiding the negative response that ‘skills’ courses frequently
arouse in students who have been inundated with them at school.
The original online course already included a number of features such
as staff biographies and a course guide containing assignment deadlines
and handing-in details. Our technical specialist, Guy Lancaster, has now
added further features with a number of aims. Some, such as the site map
and search engine, make the course easier to navigate and information
easier to find. Others, such as scaleable text and text alternatives for
graphic images, make the course more accessible to students with disabilities.
Yet another, the glossary of academic terms, attempts to demystify HE
by explaining the language that old lags within the university system
use automatically but that students may never have encountered. A final
new feature – Student News and Tutor News – enables the SfLL
course team and the Foundation Year staff to send online reminders of
deadlines and other important information.
Course Content and Structure
Student and tutor feedback on course content and structure, though largely
positive, has led to several important changes. Students requested an
expansion of the Academic Skills section to include sessions on effective
note-taking (in lectures as well as from books and articles) and reading
skills. Many recommended that this material should be placed earlier in
the unit – enabling students to study referencing, plagiarism, note-taking
and writing skills before their first assignments on other units. Tutors
were also strongly in favour of this change, and proposed combining it
with an early handwritten assignment that could be used for diagnostic
purposes. Further re-organisation of the material would also allow the
group presentation to be completed at the end of the course, enabling
students to comment on the entire year rather than part of it.
Some students complained that SfLL material was insufficiently related
to their linked degree – the old problem of ‘relevance’
faced by all generic skills courses. Though well aware of the difficulties
of providing material suitable for all Foundation students, they asked
for greater flexibility in the course material to allow some assignments
and sessions (on essay- and report-writing, for example) to include alternatives
suitable for scientists, social scientists, economists and students of
the humanities. Tutors were generally sympathetic to this request and
were reasonably confident that it could be satisfied, since individual
SfLL groups are composed of students from the same Faculty who are usually
linked to similar degrees.
The Portfolio entries were thought by some students to be too prescriptive
and even patronising, particularly when they gave instructions to ‘write
one sentence about’ various topics. Students and tutors alike recommended
less detailed instructions, thereby enabling able and interested students
to write at length whilst also allowing tutors to spend time with students
who require assistance. Both groups also proposed more variety in the
Portfolio tasks, such as the inclusion of occasional quizzes to test knowledge.
One of the pleasing aspects of the consultation and evaluation process
was the degree of agreement between tutors and students on the way forward.
One example of this was the proposal for scheduled ‘surgery’
sessions in which tutors can provide detailed comments on student assignments
and students can request individual assistance with specific problems.
The discussions culminated in the acceptance of a revised course that,
under its new title of Academic Methods, will run from September 2003.
The new structure will be as follows:
Block 1 - Learning Styles: shorter 2-week block containing ice-breaker
session, introduction to online materials, material on learning styles.
Assignment: an in-class handwritten statement worth 10% of the
Block 2 – Academic Skills: 9 weeks, to include the original
material on problem-solving, critical thinking, persuasive argument, essay-
and report-writing, referencing skills, plagiarism - now supplemented
by sessions on reading, note-taking, and constructing an oral presentation.
This material will be adjusted where possible to take account of the linked
degrees of group members.
Assignment: a short essay or report on a subject associated with
students’ linked degrees (20%)
Block 3 - University and After: 5 weeks, including a detailed
introduction to the HE structure and that of MMU in particular, followed
by careers research and planning, interview techniques, introduction to
personal skills profile, sessions on identifying and remedying skills
Assignment: individual careers research project (20%)
Block 4 – Working in Groups: 5 weeks working towards a group
presentation, including work on group dynamics, the distribution of tasks,
keeping a log, setting agendas, practising presentations.
Assignment: a group presentation accompanied by a weekly log, plus
group and individual reviews of the project (30%)
The completed Portfolio, submitted at the end of the year, will
continue to carry 20% of the marks.
The course team will monitor the new course closely. ‘Academic
Methods’, to give the course its new title, will thus continue to
be a work in progress. In this process, the co-operation and input of
its students and tutors, including those working in the FE colleges associated
with the Foundation Year, will play a vital role. Over the next academic
year this collaborative aspect is due to be extended: colleagues from
the School of Social Science at Liverpool John Moores University will
be using a version of the course as the ‘spine’ of their own
pilot Foundation Year. Their suggestions have already played a constructive
role in our own discussion of amendments to the course, and the course
team looks forward to continuing this collaboration over the next twelve
- Rachel Forsyth (2002), ‘Provision of key skills using online
materials’, Learning and Teaching in Action Volume 1, Issue 3.
- According to the Director of the MMU Foundation Year, Karen Moore,
22% of Foundation Year students in 2002 came from the lowest socio-economic
groups, whilst Asian women and Afro-Caribbean men – significantly
under-represented in HE – comprised 18% of entrants.
- E Thomas E and M Yorke (2001), HEFCE Pilot Study: Access and Retention.
Final Report Bristol: HEFCE; Liz Thomas,Jocey Quinn, Kim Slack, Lorraine
Casey (2002), Student Services: Effective Approaches to Retaining Students
in Higher Education, Institute for Access Studies, Staffordshire University,
- Forsyth, ‘Provision of key skills’.
- William Johnston (2002), ‘WebCT in the Arctic – evaluating
the first module for a new university’, LTiA Volume 1, Issue 2
telephone: 0161 247 6728
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