Looking for answers: Investigating behaviour and motivation in FE

By Professor Susan Wallace on

Across the further education (FE) profession as a whole, the problem of dealing with student behaviour and motivation is one of the most common concerns voiced by teachers. Of course, a teacher’s experience and confidence might be seen as key factors in their ability to manage behaviour successfully, as might a supportive management team and an effective behaviour policy. But is this always the case? In an attempt to discover whether there was more to successfully managing behaviour than long experience and senior management support, we set up a research project beginning in 2012 to investigate the range of strategies that teachers use in FE to manage non-compliant behaviour, and to discover which were the most effective. We observed 203 teachers drawn randomly from across a range of vocational areas and with varying lengths of professional experience.

One thing we discovered was that the successful management of student behaviour appeared unrelated to teachers’ age, background, qualifications or length of experience in the sector. Some newly qualified teachers proved skilful at maintaining an orderly, hard-working classroom. Some with many years’ experience struggled to gain students’ cooperation. But did we discover a magic strategy that would allow us to solve the problem of disengaged behaviour? Not quite. But we did come up with some useful – and in some cases unexpected – findings. The main one of these was that it is most commonly the behaviour of the teacher that has most impact on students’ willingness to engage. (To learn more about this, a full account can be found in Wallace, S. (2013) ‘When you’re smiling: exploring how teachers motivate and engage learners in the further education sector’, in the Journal of Further and Higher Education, Vol. 38, No. 3, 346-360.) It also became clear that lurking below the surface of much disengaged or non-compliant behaviour was a worrying lack of student motivation.

This led to the second stage of the research, piloted across five colleges in England and five in Australia where the vocational provision (there known as Training and Further Education: TAFE) is based on a similar competence-based model to our own. This time the spotlight was on the students rather than the teachers. The aim was to find out what 16 to 19-year-old students had to say about their reasons for entering further education; about their goals and aspirations; and about the extent to which their college experience was meeting their expectations. The initial findings made for worrying reading. The data suggested that some students were embarked on courses which had no apparent relevance to their interests or goals; and there was evidence that some students didn’t feel they were in further education through any choice of their own. Lack of choice certainly resonates strongly in the context of the current requirement for English and maths; and this absence of personal investment and motivation may go some way to explain why teachers are encountering rising levels of disengagement, disruption, or worse.

Interestingly, however, subsequent trawls for data suggest that levels of motivation in some vocational areas - where students can clearly see the relevance of what they are required to learn - are much higher than in others. This is perhaps where the answer lies. Meanwhile, the research remains a work in progress.

Professor Susan Wallace is Emeritus Professor of Education at Nottingham Trent University. She will be discussing this in more detail at the AoC English and Maths Conference on Tuesday 28 February in London. Find out more about the conference and how to book at our website.