Are tertiary learning advisors an endangered species?

December 2011


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EMMANUEL MANALO, JENNY MARSHALL and CATH FRASER discuss the benefits of investing in the provision of student learning development programmes.

One of the seemingly ‘unsolvable’ and enduring challenges in New Zealand’s tertiary education sector is how to keep our students from dropping out, and facilitating their success.

The Ministry of Education expects from – and negotiates with – each institution a certain degree of retention/completion performance linked to the funding the ministry provides. Each institution deploys a considerable amount of effort and resources towards attempting to improving their retention and completion records. But the challenge continues to appear almost insurmountable: it seems that the more research we undertake the more complicated the issues become, and the further away the formulation of viable, widely accepted, effective strategies move.

In tertiary institutions in other parts of the world, especially in the US, it is widely accepted that apart from investing in the improvement of teaching quality, it is equally important to invest in the provision of instruction and support services for students, so they learn and manage their studies more effectively. The majority of the top 10 universities ranked by the UK’s Times Higher Education provide such services to students (the exceptions being mainly the British universities that deliver their course instructions through individualised, tutorial-based systems). At Harvard University, for example, ‘learning specialists’ are made available to students to help them improve study skills and learning strategies.

Do such services work for our students in New Zealand? The answer is a definite “yes”. Good examples of tangible evidence that the provision of learning instruction and support to students produces improvements in students’ academic performance are contained in a report we submitted to Ako Aotearoa (the New Zealand National Centre for Tertiary Teaching Excellence) for a project they supported. The report is available on the Ako Aotearoa website.

The project was carried out in 2009, when we facilitated a two-day hui in Tauranga, during which tertiary learning advisors (TLAs) wrote summations of some of the instruction and support programmes they were providing for students that clearly achieved tangible results. Eighteen TLAs from seven tertiary institutions in the upper half of the North Island participated in the hui and the follow-up. The final product contains summations of 22 programmes that clearly demonstrate the efficacy of providing student input (learning instruction, support, encouragement) to produce desired improvements in student academic performance. Twelve student success stories are also included to illustrate – beyond numbers and statistics – how much of a difference the provision of effective support can make to the lives of the students in our institutions.

One of the programmes involved embedding literacy instruction and support within a tertiary foundation course provided at a polytechnic. The TLA involved worked with the course tutor to devise individual learning plans for the students, following diagnostic assessment. Instruction and support were provided both in class and in one-to-one settings. The support included ‘fish-and-chips evenings’, during which the tutors made themselves available outside of regular work hours so the students could catch up on assignments and have time to deal with any problems they were facing in the course. The overall success rate for the foundation course jumped from 48 per cent before the support programme was implemented to 94 per cent. The foundation course attracted a high proportion of Māori students, so their performance was of particular interest: the Māori student retention rate went up from 56 per cent to 70 per cent, and all the Māori students who persisted with the course, succeeded (100 per cent success rate – compared to 44 per cent prior to the programme).

Another programme, provided at a university, was an intensive preparatory course for postgraduate English as an additional language (EAL) students who were embarking on their thesis or dissertation the following year. The course covered planning, process and production skills in research and research writing, and gave students plenty of practice applying the skills covered, using their intended or hypothetical research questions. Of the students who participated in the course (masters and doctoral students), only four out of 72 subsequently withdrew or discontinued – thus the resulting retention was quite high, at 92 per cent. For the masters students, all but one completed within one year of enrolling in their thesis or dissertation. This completion rate of 98 per cent was significantly higher compared to the completion rates for masters thesis/dissertation students in three of the biggest faculties in the same university for the same period.

In light of such evidence, we note with serious concern that TLAs in New Zealand tertiary education are increasingly becoming an endangered species, with many learning centres being restructured or disestablished and the TLA positions following suit. In New Zealand, universities do not provide individualised, tutorial-based instruction as is done in top British universities like Cambridge and Oxford. Hence, it would be illogical to design our students’ learning support systems along the lines of these UK universities.

It would also be unwise to discard learning advisors in favour of online-based support systems: computers are helpful and they ought to be used wisely as integral parts of support systems, but research evidence shows that computers do have some important limitations in facilitating learning. Sandra Okita and her colleagues at Stanford University in the US demonstrated that students learn significantly better when they believe they are interacting with and learning from another human being rather than a computer.

The student population in most tertiary institutions in New Zealand is now quite diverse. Students bring with them a wide range of backgrounds, qualifications, experiences and expectations. Irrespective of how good a teacher might be, their teaching style and the approaches they use will not suit everyone. Thus, students for their part need to understand how to cater to their own learning requirements and manage any challenges that arise. The work that TLAs undertake with students basically consists of facilitating this understanding and cultivating the necessary management skills. This, therefore, is the reason why such work directly contributes to students staying on and achieving success in their studies.

Emmanuel Manalo is professor at the Faculty of Science and Engineering at Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan. He was formerly director of the Student Learning Centre at The University of Auckland.

Jenny Marshall is manager of Education and Training at the New Zealand Green Building Council. She was formerly programme coordinator at the Student Learning Centre at The University of Auckland.

Cath Fraser is senior academic staff member of Kahurangi Learning Centre at Bay of Plenty Polytechnic.

What do tertiary learning advisors (TLAs) do?

TLAs teach and support tertiary students to develop their academic learning and performance skills so these students can succeed in their courses of study and avoid or overcome potential difficulties. The teaching is provided via workshops or courses, one-to-one consultations, and print and electronic resources. The teaching and support cover a wide range of topics and issues. For example, a TLA could assist a student to develop analysis and planning skills for overcoming difficulties in completing assignments, advise a student about revision strategies enabling the attainment of better grades in exams, or highlight common pitfalls in research to new postgraduate research students so they can avoid these and complete their theses in a timely manner.

A significant portion of the work TLAs undertake is with students who self-refer or are referred because they have failed assignments or exams. Thus, in the process of teaching and advising these students, TLAs can often observe the transformations such students make from being ‘students who are struggling’ to being ‘students who are passing’. Many TLAs cite this aspect of their work as being the most satisfying.

The instruction TLAs provide is delivered through centres and units where they are employed (either centrally or within faculties) and might be generic in nature or embedded in courses through collaboration with subject teachers. TLAs employed on academic contracts also undertake research and contribute to research literature in education, psychology, applied linguistics and other appropriate disciplines.

Providing ESOL students with a fair chance of succeeding

Recently, a number of instances have been reported in the media concerning foreign ESOL students who were accepted into university courses even though they lacked sufficient English language skills – and who were subsequently failed or otherwise ‘removed’ from the institutions concerned. Fraud and administrative bungles have been involved in these cases, but it would be an understatement to say these kinds of instances hurt New Zealand’s international image in a big way. And while the country’s education system as a whole continues to view foreign students only as ‘cash cows’, these kinds of problems will persist and will continue to damage the reputation of the country and its education system.

We believe it is crucial to look after our international students well once we accept them into our institutions and give them a fair chance of succeeding. How can TLAs help towards this within the tertiary education environment?

1. TLAs can provide input at the student screening and selection stage, to advise on assessment and selection procedures, so students accepted are more likely to match the academic skills expectations of the institution and the support mechanisms it is capable of providing.

2. In collaboration with English language teachers and the subject disciplines concerned, TLAs can provide preparatory courses for new intakes of foreign students, to ensure not only that these students are ‘up to speed’ with the necessary communication skills, but also that they are clear on institutional academic expectations.

3. TLAs can work with subject discipline instructors to embed the development of desired academic and communication skills within the students’ regular courses.

4. When students are identified as lacking in the necessary English language skills, TLAs can be called upon to assess whether it may be possible – over an agreed period of time – to bring some of the students ‘up to speed’ with the necessary language and academic skills to manage the demands of their courses of study. Examples of such cases – along with successful outcomes – are included in the report we produced for Ako Aotearoa.