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Learner Support, Retention and Success

May 31, 2011

Who are my prospective learners?

Well, who aren’t they?  English language learners could be high school or university age students cramming before exams or working more sensibly towards their exams.  They could be adults coming back to education after a long absence with rusty study skills and battered confidence.  They may all have had marvellous, encouraging, positively reinforcing experiences in their previous or other learning lives or they may bave been spoon fed and asked to regurgitate facts and made to feel bad when they got it wrong.  They may love or loathe teachers and the formal education system they are familiar with.  They may be young and carefree or they could have families and dependent parents, health issues, unpredictable or overly demanding work patterns.  They may have enrolled because their parents/boss told them they had to come, or because they realise the doors English could open in their professional and social lives, or because they are total language nerds and just love English.  They may be thrilled, terrified or begrudgingly resigned about the course they are undertaking.

With this in mind, deciding what kind of support they’ll need seems a bit of a task.  The Dearnley (2003) article ‘Student Support in Open Learning: Sustaining the process’ concentrates mainly on responsible adults obliged to particpate in addition to working full time with little or distant experience of study and not heaps of confidence.  The types of support required according to the students themselves were: practical, technical, academic and emotional and were provided through social, professional and academic networks. (Dearney, 2003, p3).  See table below.

Many individuals will belong to more than one support network.  The organisation’s responsibility is to provide the relevant practical and technical advice, allow room for the interpersonal things to happen by  setting up the social interaction as early as possible in the course and putting a tutor in place who is knowledgeable, approachable and sufficiently supported by the organisation to be able to direct students to appropriate support at appropriate times.  Does that sound realistic?

Types of support my students need and how they might get it:






Family taking up slack on non academic chores or taking responsibility

Hours down to allow for study

Flexible hours, easier tasks

Time management training


Pre-course advice on how much time and task type required.

Support making study plan/managing time


Just in time support from knowledgeable friend

Directions to You-tube videos etc

Ask IT savvy colleagues to help

Help desk

self access ‘how to’ resources

self help forum (OU)

peers in tutor group who have come across similar problems


Friend proof-reading essays

Discussing similar theories that cross over into other disciplines

Discussing ‘problems’ with non expert can give alternative perspective

If course mirrors work, discussion of ‘problems to solve’ with like-minded colleagues – someone to bounce ideas off

Permission/ability to apply new understandings in the work place and get feedback from peers – experiment and make learning real

Proof reading

Asking tutor or peers how best to go about something

FAQs on skills

Study skills sessions

Discussions of meanings within content within tutor group


Friends and family being there when tiredness and stress overwhelm

Colleagues demonstrating interest and willingness to help (even if help is not required)

Being in regular on/off task dialogue with classmates

Non course forums

Getting to Know You activities

‘there there’ messages when expressing stress in course forum

Tutor stepping in to ‘rescue’ someone falling behind

With all of this in place they are more likely to see their course through to the end not to mention enjoy and benefit from it. I hope…

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 2, 2011 9:27 pm

    Hello Dierdre,
    I really enjoyed reading your post. You’ve got a very thorough summary of different types of support available – and it does sound ideal. I think the stumbling point, as always, is that students don’t always ask for help – for so many reasons.
    I’ve had periods on the course when I just wanted to curl up and wait for it to all go away: I hope that this will make me more sympathetic to students who are similarly out of their comfort-zone.
    Do you think that the language-learning element makes it even harder? I know how many students are reluctant to make mistakes visibly, particularly when speaking the foreign language. I wondered whether that could add to a reluctance to seek support.
    Thanks again

    • June 3, 2011 10:20 am

      Hi Claire,
      Thanks for commenting! You’re absolutely right – so many people in our group have recently come out of the woodwork saying that this course has been less than life affirming for them at times – myself included – and all this despite the fact that we are at a high level of study so presumably pretty good at it and all professionals in our field so presumably fairly confident at least within our areas of prior expertise – two factors that should mitigate the tiredness and stress involved in the intellectual challenge and the time committment involved and yet nobody really said anything. Of course people may have approached Anne privately too but we don’t seem to have taken advantage of each other for moral support.
      The language learning element does exacerbate all of this but TEFL is very touchy-feely where learning technology isn’t. In personalising activities/ideas etc, there’s always a lot of sharing of feelings and talking about personal experiences and as you develop your language skills, you articulate your opinions and feelings more accurately so there is greater emotive exposure andconsequent opportunity to bond than on a course where not everyone has experience of the intellectual pursuit of designing courses or advising committees.
      Face to face TEFL always has a needs analysis element as part of getting to know you which informs the teacher and helps learners identify others in the group with similar objectives and preferences. the course is later punctuated by ‘counselling’ meetings which are one to ones that ideally, the learner has done some self evaluation for so you can talk to them about their progress and about how they feel about how the course takes place. In my online incarnation, I’d like to carry these two elements into elearning modes as well although I know it will add to tutor time etc but it is well worth it especially on longer courses. I’d also make sure that learners are separated into smaller groups for an activity very early on so that even though they’ll have worked with everyone by the end, they have that initial closer contact with some individuals that could prove to be better moral support. It’s far less daunting than having to always talk to the whole group.
      Anyway, I hope you’re not curling up now having made it this far! I’m very lucky to have been able to take this time off during my final module and not stress about working and studying at the same time any more. I don’t envy any of you! At IATEFL, I told someone about the MA and how long it had taken me and he said it was a real testiment to stamina and dedication – and it is, for all of us! Not long to go now though and then there’s a lovely summer break:) Yey!

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