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Top tips for achieving Functional Skills success

John Bunyan, Product Manager at NCFE, worked in the media for many years before training to teach secondary and lecturing on higher-level apprenticeship programmes. He discusses how to set learners on the right path, why we need to make Functional Skills relatable and tailored to different learning styles, and the importance of encouragement and reflection to improve results.

To plan any journey, you need to know your destination - in this case, the assessment at the end. But also – crucially – you must understand your starting point; where your learners are right now.

When I trained to teach, I was told that the first term is a ‘voyage of discovery’. You learn about your learners’ existing knowledge, strengths, weaknesses, needs, preferences and where they are in terms of their development.

A term is a long time though – in fact, you may not even have that much time. So, what can we do to fill in the blanks and give you the ability to objectively inform how you personalise, tailor, adapt and differentiate your practice as quickly as possible to best suit their needs?

Before you even meet your learners, you will likely have self-declarations, records of achievements, and a whole host of expectations from your experience. However, this doesn’t tell you everything about your new learners, so you set about asking questions, and this is where technology can give you a massive assist with a quick and easy initial assessment.

A good initial assessment will give you a breakdown of a learner’s strengths and weaknesses in the different areas of English and maths quickly and easily. Is it ever perfect? No, but it’s enough to draft a flight path for the learner (although it’s important to remember that these should be live and evolving documents, informing your practice, conversations with learners and management).

Now you have the insight, you can start to weave it into your practice. Yes, you will learn more as you go along. Yes, you will find inconsistencies. Yes, you will evolve your practice. But you have a solid and objective place to start as a reference point.

Context is king – make the content relatable

Now we can really get started with the fun stuff. Taking what you know about your learners’ backgrounds and desired destinations, you can embed learning into real-life scenarios, relevant to their needs. This could involve using case studies, workplace simulations, project work or practical situations that they might encounter.

Use relatable examples and scenarios that resonate with your learners' backgrounds, interests, or potential destinations wherever possible. We all engage more with things in which we have direct experience, and this will make the learning more personalised and meaningful.

In a previous life, I ran a promotion to win a family holiday – there was the opportunity to win one every day for a week, to a variety of destinations - Canada, Caribbean, Spain, Bognor, Australia and Greece. The results were shocking (or so I thought). The most expensive holidays like Canada, Caribbean and Australia saw the fewest entries by far, whereas Spain easily got the most.

I couldn’t understand why, so I started asking questions and even commissioned some research. It seems the likelihood of even entering in the first place was directly related to whether the person had any previous experience of the destination (e.g. been before, had family or friends in the region etc.)

This was a valuable lesson for so many things in my future career. To engage a person with anything, they find it much easier if they can relate to what you’re talking about and have some kind of familiarity. This is called connectivism, which is based on the theory that we learn when we make links between various ‘nodes’ of information, and we continue to make and maintain connections to form knowledge.

In short, make everything relatable. The more you know your learners, the easier you will find this.

Variety is the spice of life – switch up your media to cater for all learning styles

Use a mix of media and resources like news articles, reports, timetables, recipes, instruction manuals, projects and guides through different media, such as writing, podcasts, videos, and social media.

This exposes learners to different channels and styles and helps them grasp how maths and English are used in various contexts.

It also allows learners to try hands-on activities in different ways and find what works for them, whilst also building on the theory that encountering information multiple times (somewhere between five and seven) increases the likelihood of it shifting from short-term to long-term memory.

Add that to the ‘spacing effect’ (based on the concept that learning is enhanced when knowledge is repeated after certain intervals) and ‘interleaving’ (switching between ideas while you study, which allows you to build on similar concepts and enables the learners to keep building connections).

A great way of doing this is through storytelling, especially through original texts – even the exam questions tend to follow certain contextual themes (e.g. John is a store assistant in the local shop and is checking which products are sold in which months).

All of this helps you to differentiate with a variety of learning activities, catering to visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic learners. You could also consider targeted group work - facilitating small group activities where learners with similar needs can support and learn from each other. This can be particularly helpful for learners lacking confidence or for those who work better in groups.

From this, you can more readily identify learners needing individualised support (whether stretch or support) which could be one-on-one sessions, scaffolded tasks, or access to additional resources.

A growth mindset and the power of encouragement

Celebrate successes and achievements, both big and small. Positive reinforcement motivates learners, builds confidence beyond the learning itself and creates a sense of belonging.

Encourage a growth mindset, emphasising that everyone can improve with effort and practice. Knowing that the learning is relevant to them, and the means of teaching matches their preferences, helps learners approach challenges with a more positive attitude.

Building on this promotes active learning where you can involve learners directly in the learning process. This could involve discussions, debates, presentations, problem-solving activities, or even engaging them in opportunities to contextualise elements of their assessments.

Going back to the start – the importance of active reflection

At the beginning of this article, I discussed the importance of establishing a starting point for your learners. That objective starting point may have been just that, but a solid baseline now allows you to match against everything that you have learned, and your learners have achieved.

Lessons learned, or active reflection, is a practice often overlooked but worth its weight in gold, so take time and consider the journey. The bumps, twists, and turns will all help to refine the next journey and make it a smoother experience for everyone.

Other top tips

  • Use games, puzzles, quizzes, or other interactive elements to make the learning more enjoyable
  • Use whatever technology you have available that can make your life easier and improve your learners’ experience. These tools can be online learning platforms and assessment tools, educational apps, or digital simulations and artificial intelligence
  • Partner with other businesses or organisations to provide learners with alternative work experience or guest speaker opportunities. We all approach problems and opportunities in different ways and one of the best pieces of advice I was ever given was to learn from other students as much as much as I did from the teachers/lecturers/assessors
  • Provide learners with regular and timely feedback on their progress, both verbally and in writing. This helps them identify areas for improvement and track their development. Made timely, this has a massive impact on each of your learner’s ability to make connections.

Learn more about our assessment tools and resources. You may also be interested in our FAST integrated English and maths solution, which can save you both time and money and support your delivery journey from start to finish.


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