Articulation from TAFE to the Higher Education (HE) sector of Victoria University appears to be highly successful for most students. However there is considerable anecdotal evidence of the existence of a particular group of students articulating from mainstream TAFE to HE courses who have significant difficulty in their early HE semesters.
This paper reports on the Smoother Pathways Project at Victoria University of Technology (VU). The project investigated the reasons for the diversity in student experiences of articulation at VU, with a view to providing students with the best possible support for this transition. The project focused upon one particular pathway involving areas where certain students were known to have difficulty. This was the articulation of TAFE Business students into the VU Bachelor of Business degree, in the course of which many gained exemption from the usual HE first-year Law subject, Business Law, and in many cases proceeded to the second Law subject, Corporate Law (CL). Through interviews with students and staff and an examination of the curriculum in both TAFE and HE, the main factors affecting the ease of transition were investigated. The picture that emerged was more complex than anticipated. Areas of difficulty involved in this pathway appear to involve sudden changes in the depth and detail of subject knowledge, pedagogical approach and assessment, and the level, genre and independent nature of academic research and writing. Students with minimal levels of competence in TAFE and those with fewer personal resources may be unable to adjust to these changes sufficiently quickly, particularly in difficult subjects such as CL.
The Smoother Pathways project was undertaken due to concerns that, while success rates of TAFE to Higher Education articulators are frequently asserted to be higher than those of non-articulators, some articulating students appear to face considerable academic difficulties in CL. Data comparing student success and retention of articulating and non-articulating students are being sought, but have unfortunately been unavailable so far. This paper is therefore a report on the qualitative aspect of the project, which consisted of examination of the relevant literature and curriculum documents and interviews with staff in both sectors and CL students during 1999 and Semester 1 2000. Pathways from TAFE to HE vary significantly between discipline areas; the outcomes of this project may not be relevant to other pathways, for example where TAFE and HE curriculum are planned jointly by staff from both sectors.
Further, the learning of academic and discipline discourse in HE is typically unsupported by explicit instruction (Baldauf, 1997) and this appears likely to add to the transition difficulties of students belonging to various equity groups (Cope and Kalantzis, 1993). Students in Business Law, however, are at least exposed to the demands of academic and disciplinary discourse, and at VU have the opportunity of attending extra workshops on academic writing skills provided by language and learning staff.
First year HE students are thus faced with a complex task as they attempt to master the discourse of their chosen disciplines (Currie, 1993). While little research exists on the discourse(s) required in the TAFE sector, examination of TAFE curriculum documents suggests that students' task is conceptualised in quite a different way, with their work linked primarily to the demonstration of work related skills (ACTRAC, 1994). As Doughney (2000) puts it, "...higher education courses are grounded in the disciplines which underpin them, while VET courses are grounded in the industries they serve".
Given the above, it appears likely that students articulating into HE without being required to engage with legal discourse in a HE first year subject will face considerable difficulty in mastering this discourse sufficiently quickly to cope with the assessment requirements of CL. In an interesting exploration of the ways in which students may most usefully be assisted to learn better in HE, Devlin (1995) discusses the Cognitive Apprenticeship model in relation to improving academic reading and writing skills. The objective is to "initiate the novice into a community of expert practice" (Berryman, 1991, p.3, cited in Devlin 1995, p. 10) by "modelling", "coaching", "scaffolding", and "fading" (Devlin, 1995, p.11). The "community of expert practice" into which TAFE students are to be initiated is by no means identical to that conceptualised by HE staff, which may in itself explain some difficulties of articulators. Berryman's concepts of "scaffolding" and "fading" suggest the disruption of a gradual progression from "other-regulation to self-regulation" on articulation.
This transition to managing one's learning is a central theme in the literature on transition from school to university. Students' concerns described in an Australian study of the HE first year experience (McInnis, James and McNaught, 1995) may be relevant to articulating students, who are also moving from small classes to large ones and encountering academic discourse for the first time. These include the length of essays, the lack of structure and of explicit expectations, the difficulty of the subjects, the lack of ongoing assessment and feedback, timetable difficulties and so on.
Competency Based Training (CBT) informs the development of TAFE curriculum at all levels even though it is often modified to suit local situations and to better cater to particular student needs (Foster, 1998). Concerns are raised in Foster's study regarding consistency, the place of knowledge and skill, the perceived minimal nature of competency standards, and the alleged downvaluing of generic skills in CBT. Another concern is the appropriateness of non-graded assessment (seen by most TAFE staff as a sinae qua non of CBT, to be ignored at their peril), in particular where students articulate to HE. In response, an ANTA-funded project has suggested:
Graded assessment is provided in those Law modules taught at VU. CBT permits students to repeat assessment tasks until they are successful; at VU this occurs only once or twice in most cases. There was significant disagreement among TAFE staff interviewed as to whether a student who gains a graded assessment of close to 50% in a Law module can be said to have a sufficient grasp of the content or other aspects of the module to gain credit for Business Law. One staff member suggested that because in accordance with CBT the student must pass all sections of the curriculum, a TAFE student who barely passed may outclass a HE student who had gained an overall 52% in Business Law but may have virtually no knowledge in some areas. However it was also suggested that "competency" as currently defined for the purposes of TAFE assessment may not indicate competency to proceed to the difficult subject CL, which is estimated to have a 40% failure rate.
Several staff felt that articulators' performance may have improved over the last five years. It was suggested that TAFE material may be preparing students better for HE study, and/or that the problems of TAFE students may be less visible because the quality of students coming into CL via school and Business Law has declined. However HE lecturers commented that because pathways from TAFE were standardised, they were usually unaware of which students were articulating students unless the student self-identified, which rarely occurred due to large HE classes. Further, staff confirmed suggestions in the literature regarding variability of practice between staff in all TAFE institutions. This led to some difficulty in making generalisations regarding TAFE practices.
Some TAFE staff appeared to see HE as a kind of "airy-fairy", impractical and badly taught alternative to TAFE; one TAFE manager suggested that HE was "out-of-date", because industry wanted people trained in the "hands-on stuff". However insofar as HE also prepares students for the workforce, it may be more useful to see the differences between the sectors as linked to the differences between administrative and professional/para-professional levels of employment.
Students agreed that their TAFE Law modules involved significantly less depth and detail than CL. This was echoed by one CL lecturer who saw CL curriculum as simply too massive for all students. One student commented that to succeed in CL it was necessary to have a global knowledge of the law rather than simply remembering small sections, as in TAFE.
Learning in the context of a small group of peers in one classroom was seen as very positive and as central to the TAFE experience. One student stressed the value of class discussion in which other students could "disagree" and thereby "give you ideas". This student found Law "more interesting" when she could work together with other students in class at TAFE.
There was general agreement among staff that TAFE students typically study in a far more supported environment than do HE students, that the knowledge taught in TAFE was "more contained", and that the learning environment was "much more controlled" (Pathways Officer). Staff suggested that, in contrast to HE, the smaller groups enabled the system to cater to different learning styles. Students were described as being "nurtured along", gaining organisational skills and becoming "tenacious", disciplined and consistent through their TAFE Law studies. TAFE students may be "spoon-fed" at the beginning, although staff stressed that TAFE is not all spoon-feeding and students are expected to develop their abilities as they go on. Staff agreed that expectations of students in HE, however, included being "self motivated", able to think through topics for themselves, and able to carry out independent research.
TAFE textbooks are selected for their simplicity, and normally contain exercises. They are used intensively and along with the notes given out form the most central source of information for students, requiring little supplementation through classroom notetaking or individual research. Two students referred to difficulties with notetaking in HE lectures, criticising the inadequate handouts they received. Notetaking is an extremely complex skill for all students, particularly for students with English language difficulties (Borland and Pearce, 1999).
TAFE staff were concerned that they were able to foster only limited independent learning skills in their articulating students. HE lectures may involve more than a hundred students, and those interviewed found the one-hour tutorial quite unsatisfactory because it was either a mini-lecture or simply too short to deal with student queries. It was reported that with relatively few exceptions, there was no possibility of contact with lecturers or tutors outside class time. HE staff confirmed that articulators in HE may have difficulty accessing staff, especially sessionals, and may feel too intimidated to ask for assistance, particularly in a very large faculty such as Business and Law at VU, where first year lectures are large and tutorials many. Students clearly found the impersonal relationship with lecturers and tutors characteristic of HE quite distressing.
TAFE assessment practices based on CBT and ongoing assessment were seen by several TAFE teachers as appropriate given the role of TAFE and the needs of the students. Several HE staff confirmed that some students found it difficult to cope with the lack of ongoing assessment in HE, unable to gauge their progress until the examination when it was too late. There was also evidence that levels of achievement fell upon articulation at least for some students; students in HE had commented to lecturers that they "used to do well in TAFE".
Important areas of difficulty for articulators in fact arise from precisely this distinction, including the acquisition of academic, independent learning and legal and discourse skills appropriate to HE; these skills are too easily overlooked when pathways are being planned. One explanation for the difficulties of articulating students is a kind of rupture in the cognitive apprenticeship (Devlin, 1995). While students with strong personal resources may adjust to this rupture, albeit grudgingly, weaker students may be unable to succeed in these circumstances. While a similar rupture may occur for non-articulators on transition from school to university, first year subjects provide a degree of supported acculturation which does not exist for articulating students. In the interests of the success and retention of all students, the experiences and needs of TAFE articulators should be given careful consideration.
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|Contact details: Amanda Pearce, CEDS Student Learning Unit, Footscray Park Campus, Victoria University of Technology, PO Box 14428, Melbourne CMC, Vic 8001|
Telephone 03 9688 4757 Fax 03 9688 4766 Email Amanda.Pearce@vu.edu.au
Please cite as: Pearce, A., Murphy, H. and Conroy, P. (2001). Smoother pathways from TAFE to higher education. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 536-544. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/aset-herdsa2000/procs/pearce2.html