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Assessing Learners Needs in Education

In this essay I shall be examining the importance of accurate initial assessment of learner’s needs. In order to do this it is necessary to correctly identify my learners so that appropriate teaching methods can be structured for them. From there, I shall explore how to best support learners throughout their period of study, both in terms of educational support, and in terms of developing their self confidence. The students I teach are studying toward a 2 year diploma in Creative Sound Engineering & Music Technology at Deep Blue Sound (DBS).

It is common for the learners to come from a fairly narrow section of society. Broadly speaking, learners are male, and fall into the 16-25 age range, although there is also at least one learner in his late forties. Group sizes average between 8 and 14. The learner’s first point of contact, and assessment, comes through their application. This will provide us with clues to the potential needs of the student, including their age (and need for supervision), current understanding of the subject, and any appropriate experience or qualifications they may have.

From here candidates are invited to an interview, where they are given a full tour of the facilities along with an overview of the structure of the course. The interview stage allows us to assess both their suitability for the course, both in terms of attitude and ability, and gives us an insight into their expectations and requirements, and their potential barriers to learning. For example, those who are not school leavers may well have obstacles to learning that their school-leaving counterparts do not share.

As Armitage (1999) observes: (Having a continuous learning experience from the age of 5) is generally not the case for the adult learner who may not have been involved in a formal education experience for some time and whose knowledge and expectations of education may only be based on their own school experience. Equally, the adult re-entering the education system at any level has many more outside responsibilities and pressures than the younger FE or HE student.

Applicants will also be tested at this stage for computer literacy. During the enrolment procedure, learners are assessed for literacy using the Smog Readability Formula (McLaughlin, G. 969: 639-646), in order to bring to light, amongst other things, potential learning difficulties such as dyslexia. All these needs are assessed initially at an institutional level within the college, and are then supplemented and expanded on by the individual tutor’s assessment on an ongoing basis.

As I joined the teaching staff at DBS some time into the academic year, I was not personally privy to the initial assessment procedure, which has required me to make my own assessment of the students needs from a point in the course where they have already covered a fair degree of the curriculum. I started by reviewing their current body of submitted work, before taking time with each individual student to gauge their progress on the course so far.

Whilst this could have potentially been a hindrance, I have found it to be a useful exercise, as it has given both me and the learners the opportunity to assess their retention of what has already been taught, and to highlight any possible problems with the delivery of the course up until the point where I joined them. Indeed, as it turned out, by engaging the students in some simple question and answer sessions, and by assessing them with some rudimentary pop quizzes, we have established between ourselves that coverage of certain fields was either unsatisfactory, or delivered in such a way that made absorption of the information difficult.

This has allowed me to schedule into my session plans a re-visiting of the concepts that were proving to be troublesome, allowing me to address them in the context of later stages of the curriculum. This proved to be a very positive experience for the students, as they were then able to take their more developed understanding of key audio concepts and re-apply them to previous modules, which helped to solidify their grasp of the information being presented.

During the course of my assessment, it turned out that there were a disproportionate number of right-brain learners in my group. Given that there is a strong creative element to the course, and considering the nature of the subject, this maybe should not come as too much of a surprise. This has allowed me to modify my delivery of lessons to accommodate right brain learning styles – making use of analogies where appropriate, generating mind maps on the wipe-board, and backing up verbal and textual descriptions with images and diagrams.

I also take every opportunity to remind the class how a particular isolated concept relates to other concepts in the field, allowing them to forge relationships with course content on a holistic level, affording them a view of how modules inter-relate to form a global understanding of the subject. It was also noted during my review of their submitted coursework that a couple of students exhibited mild dyslexic tendencies.

I have since spoken privately to the students in question, and encouraged them to inform me if they experience any difficulties with the way any of the lessons are presented. I have also modified my handouts to accommodate these learners, by presenting information in a more easily digestible form, namely using a 12 point Arial font, with wide margins, extra line spacing, and bold highlighting for stressing key information. A request has also been made to source a stock of coloured paper to enhance readability for these students.

These assessments are supplemented by a scheduled, termly, individual tutorial session, which gave me the opportunity to bring any areas for development to the learner’s attention, whilst simultaneously affording them the chance to provide us with feedback on the way we deliver the course to them. There are students within my group that exhibit less self confidence than others, requiring me to find ways of raising their self esteem to the point where they feel they are able to successfully tackle certain assignments.

To this end, I have been ensuring I make any feedback I give on their submitted assignments a very positive experience for them; going into detail in the areas where they have met the project requirements, and making a special point of highlighting any areas in which they have excelled. In situations where their standard of submitted work may not have been as strong, I have been careful to make constructive suggestions for alternative approaches to the task, and giving them points to consider for inclusion in the work if it needs to be resubmitted.

In doing so, I have found it important to set a limit to the how far I go with my guidance, in order to make sure that there is still a learning experience within the assignment for the student. As Petty (2004) notes: “The aim here is to make students independent of the teacher, by developing their ability to evaluate their own performance, diagnose problems, and solve them on their own. Such skills are crucial if students are to learn how to improve their performance” (Petty’s stress)

I have also found it important to try and include the more withdrawn students into group discussions, and have often been rewarded when doing so with some of their insights into certain topics. Crucially, I always thank them for their input and praise any valid points they make. In the ongoing process of assessing a learner’s needs at a given stage in their development, it has become clear that an effective line of communication is vital if teaching styles and methods are to be adapted to suit the changing requirements of the student.

This requires the learner to feel that their teacher is approachable, and both capable of and prepared to listen to what they have to say. In order to achieve this, a bond of trust needs to be forged between student and tutor. The tutor can help develop this bond by ensuring that the classroom is a safe place for the students to learn, with respect not only to their physical safety, but also their emotional security. This includes managing the classroom effectively, so that continuity is maintained in a lesson, and ensuring any unruly personalities are not given reign to disrupt the lesson.

In the case of one of my students, who happens to be blind, it is also important to regularly ensure he his not having any difficulties following the session, and making sure that his helper gets full access to all handouts and project briefs in electronic format, so that his computer is able to read them back to him. Once this trust has been established, the line of communication between student and teacher becomes much more free-flowing, effectively facilitating the tutor’s ongoing assessment of the class.

In conclusion, in order for us to guarantee a successful and enjoyable learning experience for the student, we must accurately assess the individual needs of the learner, and be aware of how dynamic these needs can be. Through maintaining open channels of communication between students and staff, and by providing the student with a safe place to learn, we can adapt our teaching styles to grow with the changing needs of the learner, as well as providing helpful and meaningful support for them, ensuring they receive the most effective training possible whilst studying on the course.

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