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Don’t just re-sit – re-engage! How to motivate despondent students after disappointment

29 September 2022

Engaging learners enrolled on functional skills and GCSE resit courses, after disappointing results first time round, is arguably one of the most difficult tasks facing tutors in further education.

While highly motivated and capable in their vocational field of study, learners can often see functional skills assessments as insurmountable impediments to success. Those on apprenticeships and traineeships struggle to envisage how English and maths assessments support their specialist skill sets and can easily become disillusioned before even enrolling on a course.

Similarly, college students undertaking GCSE resits may have already faced exam disappointment, be lacking in confidence due to an extended break from academic life or have concerns about fitting in a study schedule around family and life commitments.

Literacy and numeracy attainment is not an isolated issue with learners of functional skills or GCSE resit content. The National Numeracy charity reports that numeracy levels in the UK are decreasing nationally, and the proportion of working age adults in England with English skills equivalent to GCSE grade 4 (or C grade) or above is just 57% – so it is therefore more vital than ever to engage these learners while they are a captive audience at college.

Re-framing “failure”

Jo Heathcote, principal examiner, principal moderator, teacher and author who has over 25 years of experience working with English students believes a key to success is context. Motivating despondent students after GCSE disappointment for example is simply about reframing the perspective. “Students entering further education to re-take their GCSEs haven’t ‘failed’ anything, they’ve just not got the grade they need to progress to higher education yet,” she said.

Jo works with students to identify how far away from the grade boundaries they were in summer assessments and in many circumstances the margins between grade 3, 4 and 5 are extremely slim. On an exam paper with 80 marks, a minor uplift over a couple of questions may be just what’s required for students to achieve success. Addressing these specific gaps in learners’ knowledge can be helped by using online learning and assessment platforms which offer diagnostic assessment tools and individual learning plans.

The kindness principle

Sarah Heaton works at Leeds College of Building where she’s spent the last five years of her fifteen year teaching career. “We see students from all walks of life come through our doors,” she said, adding: “Some learners can be extremely detached and despondent when they arrive at the beginning of the academic year so it’s really important that we start the term with resilience building and growth mindset work. Students are made aware from the start of their studies that this is a very supportive environment”.

Reward and recognition programmes are integral parts of the curriculum at LCB and Sarah cites Dave Whitaker’s Kindness Principle as a source of inspiration in building learners’ self-worth.

Building trust, ambition and aspiration

It’s important that learners are exposed to enriching experiences that resonate with them and their peers. Methods of building cultural capital vary between locations, demographics and social characteristics. “It’s an ideal time to give students a different learning experience that perhaps they missed out on through their GCSEs” says Jo Heathcote “theatre trips, visits to libraries, working with visiting writers and urban poetry collectives can all be inspiring as well as ensuring the English curriculum is properly diverse and representative of the students you teach.”

Sarah Heaton says care in the local community is also a rewarding way of making learners value their self-worth.

Collaboration is key

FE Leader, English teacher and author Jonny Kay said: “Any educational institution needs to communicate with students in a way that allows them to easily access the information that’s important.” This is pertinent with functional skills and GCSE resit learners who have busy lives and commitments out of the classroom.

Collaboration is so much easier than ever before, with class resources shared online via tools like Microsoft Teams or Google Classroom. Modern software can issue homework and assessments that can be accessed anywhere via an app.

A learning platform such as Education Demand breaks syllabuses down into manageable chunks, which builds students’ confidence and encourages collaborative learning via gamification and competitions. Promoting independent study amongst learners frees tutors up for peer collaboration and eases workload.

Whether embarking on functional skills courses or re-sitting GCSEs, each learner’s route to success is different and with a new cohort of learners joining colleges up and down the country throughout the month, I wish tutors the best of luck with engaging future talent.

Nat McGarry – GCSE resit and functional skills specialist, The Access Group Education Division