Are we doing enough for our BTEC entrants? Authored by Dr Michelle Reid (Study Advice)

Transition to university is often geared towards students from an A-level background, so are we doing enough for students with vocational qualifications starting at Reading?

Recent research from UCAS shows that one in four university entrants has done a BTEC (Havergal, 2016). Issues such as culture shock, work/life balance, different assessment methods, and the perception that A-level entrants may be better equipped to study at university are some of the concerns BTEC students can have when starting their degree (Clark, 2011). As Study Advisers, we observed similar concerns when working with former BTEC students here at Reading, particularly in relation to learning from lectures and taking exams, as these are not teaching and assessment methods used on BTEC courses. With these transition issues in mind, and also in light of the increased focus on widening participation, we conducted a short survey to gauge the views of current Reading students with BTEC qualifications on their readiness for university. We wanted to assess whether it would be beneficial to host a pre-entry event for BTEC entrants before they start here in the autumn, following the model of our well-established and successful pre-entry day for mature students.

We sent the questionnaire to all current Reading undergraduate and taught postgraduate students who had taken a BTEC (over 800 students) and received 173 replies. The results confirmed the previous research and our own observations. 45% of respondents described themselves as ‘fairly well prepared’ for university. However when this was explored further, 41.8% also felt that studying at university was ‘fairly different’ to the style of learning they were used to with the main difference being the style of assessments. Respondents pinpointed referencing, preparing for exams and academic reading as the areas they most wished they had known more about before starting university, again reflecting a concern with assessment and the style of academic learning at university. Similar to more general research findings (Clark, 2011; Reidy, 2015) our own former BTEC students identified their studying strengths as coursework, independence, subject knowledge and motivation. This suggests that BTECs give a good foundation in independent learning and indicates that students are likely to be motivated to attend a pre-entry event. However, the results also suggest there are gaps in transition guidance, especially around some assessment methods. Indeed, it is concerning that a wider HEA study has shown that students who went to university with vocational qualifications were less likely to achieve a first or 2:1 (Havergal, 2016). This indicates that we should be doing more to prepare BTEC students for the culture of HE assessment and to foster the potential of BTEC students.

Based on the survey findings, Study Advice is now investigating the possibility of hosting a pre-entry event for BTEC students this summer. We would be very interested in talking to others looking at transition and support for BTEC entrants.



Clark, W. (2011). ‘Transitions in action? Exploring vocational learner progression into and out of higher education’. Educational Developments, 12.2, pp.9-12.

Havergal, C. (2016). ‘One in four university entrants has a BTEC, Ucas study finds’. Times Higher Education, 28 January 2016. Online at  Accessed 05/04/16.

Reidy, T. (2015). ‘Will taking a BTec help or hinder your university application?’ The Guardian, Education section, 21 July 2015. Online at  Accessed 05/04/16.

LS1TAL Techniques and Skills for Applied Linguistics: Improving the student experience

Professor Jane Setter, School of Literature and Languages
Year of activity: 2014-15


12759 (1)Students and staff worked together during 2014-15 to develop the Department of English Language and Applied Linguistics’ new compulsory Part One module Techniques and Skills for Applied Linguistics (LS1TAL), run for the first time in 2014-15, to make it more interesting, useful and relevant to 21st Century undergraduate students. The project sought, among other things, to address the University Board for Teaching and Learning Enhancement Priority to evolve our approaches to teaching and learning, with a specific focus on using Technology Enhanced Learning in class and in assessment.


  • An improved module following input from students which addresses their needs more closely in the development of the study of our discipline and transition to Higher Education.
  • Better use of Technology Enhanced Learning elements in content, delivery and assessment.
  • Enhanced use of the formative assignment English Language and Applied Linguistics students are asked to prepare, and of the feedback given.
  • The development of good practice which can be shared across our modules and with others in the University and across the sector.


The module convenor had produced a new compulsory module for 2014-15 which addressed many of the issues arising for students in the first year of study, such as general transition to Higher Education; how to do tertiary-level academic writing; how to use and get the best out of tools such as Turnitin; how to present yourself effectively online with a jobs-market orientation; how to do assessments using Technology Enhanced Learning approaches, such as blogging and short videos. Student involvement in the development of the module was desired to make it particularly relevant and useful to them.


Students taking the module were recruited during the Autumn term 2014-15 to be leaders and participants in the development of the module; four came forward. PLanT funding was applied for and received. Subsequently, focus groups were held at four points during the year between students and staff to review module content and suggest ways to develop it. Finally, with the agreement of the students, a new weekly schedule for the module (which runs in the Autumn and Spring terms) was drawn up.

Specifically, students asked for more concise and focussed input on transitions to Higher Education and online presence, including a specific session on building a LinkedIn profile, a more hands-on approach to library skills training, input from students at Parts Two and Three, and sessions from Student Counselling and Wellbeing.


Students and staff involved felt that the outcomes had been very positive. Students valued having the chance to develop a new module, and staff enjoyed working with students, finding out what they already knew and what needed further development, and understanding their viewpoint on their needs as new entrants to Higher Education in the UK. The real test for the module, however, will be the revised module running in the 2015-16 academic year, during which data will be collected from the new cohort using module evaluation forms to compare with last year’s evaluations and see whether student satisfaction has improved.

We were delighted that students had no issues with the Technology Enhanced Learning elements in the module content or assessment. In fact, they thought they were very useful and well-integrated.

An unexpected outcome has been the Director of English Language and Applied Linguistics’ Postgraduate taught programmes’ interest in the module to see whether it could be adapted for MA students.


The activity was made successful by the involvement of students in developing this module. Teaching and Learning Dean Dr David Carter had commented that it seemed like a very well-designed module; the decision about how to develop the module could have been made by an individual based solely on student feedback questionnaires, but it seemed much better to have the hands-on involvement of students, as the module is aimed at supporting students through Part One. Their involvement enabled students to have input into their degree which resulted in real change, to see first-hand the issues involved in module development, and also to appreciate the Department’s attention to teaching, learning, the development of transferable skills, and supporting students to get the best from their university study and beyond.

Teaching in a divided classroom: the impact of internationalisation and marketisation on business education

Dr John Latsis, Henley Business School
Year(s) of activity: 2013-14


9337In the postgraduate module Managing People and Organisations (MMM048), provided by the School of Leadership, Organisations and Behaviour, assessment methods were altered in a manner that was mindful of the increased internationalisation and marketisation of UK Higher Education, in order to assist the transition of international students.


  • To provide a method of assessment that fit the needs of international students less acculturated to UK Higher Education
  • To design this method of assessment so that it does not disadvantage more culturally expert students.
  • To have the first assessment of the module prepare students for essay-writing for further assessments.


Results from previous years of MMM048 revealed that students on the module struggled with the first assessed essay, but showed significant improvement for their second assessed essay. In particular, the results suggested a difficulty for international students, who constituted over 80% of module students, to acculturate themselves to the expectations of UK Higher Education. Specifically, linguistic competence in written coursework, understanding of the requirements of critical engagement and argumentation in essay writing, and the needs of some students for individual follow-up meetings to discuss module content, were issues that needed to be addressed.


Potential solutions, such as engaging in targeted small group tutoring, or simplifying the content of the module, were unacceptable. Engaging in targeted small group tutoring would negatively impact the workload of teaching staff, to the detriment of other duties, and would result in those groups that received said teaching having an unfair advantage. Simplifying the intellectual content of the module was undesirable, as the content of the module consistently received good feedback, and to do so would give a false impression of what was expected of students in their postgraduate study. Additionally, as students in the bottom quartile of the mark distribution generally showed evidence of improvement over the course of the module, this suggested that the content was not itself too difficult.

What was developed was an extended essay plan as a form of assessment, a hybrid solution that maintained the essay-writing element of the first part of the module, but allowed students to gain a hands-on insight into the expectations of UK postgraduate Higher Education. Students were provided with an essay plan handbook, explaining the expectations of how an essay would be written, providing a ready-made generic structure, with subheadings, approximate word counts for each section, and the usual guidelines with which students are provided. The essay plan is shorter than the full essay which previously formed the first assessment of the module (1000 words rather than 2500 words), and is worth less (15% rather than 30%). Additionally, the requirement for students to write in continuous English prose, which students might initially find difficult, is softened, as students are allowed to develop their ideas in bullet points in order to save space. The development of the extended essay plan format was carried out in consultation with the In-Sessional English Support team, in order to assure that the template was worded as clearly as possible.


The net effect of the change was significant. The failure rate for the first assessment dropped to 0%, and there was a reduced failure rate in the module as a whole. Student satisfaction surveys for the module achieved higher scores than previously, and students reported in casual conversation that they would continue to use the template and accompanying handbook to help them write their essays for other modules, as they found it a very useful tool to organise their thoughts and keep their arguments on track.


The essay plan format is beneficial for the following reasons:

  1. It replaced the need for coaching to be provided in the context of a large class size with a variety of individual needs.
  2. It makes explicit the cultural clues that students with experience of the UK Higher Education system understand through verbal communication, but that have proved difficult to communicate verbally to students without this experience.
  3. It provides an explicit performance standard with instructions and mark-breakdowns that makes assessment clear and maintains standards of fairness across all levels of ability.
  4. As a result of the format including multiples questions, one of which is more difficult than the others, there is still the possibility for the most able students to demonstrate their ability by effectively addressing a difficult topic.
  5. It draws the markers’ attention away from linguistic ability and puts the emphasis on clarity of argument and quality of ideas, re-uniting a divided classroom.

While the new approach does reduce the flexibility that students have to express themselves within the constraints of the template, and benefits non-native English users more than it does native English users, the format allows students to be assessed on their understanding of the module content, and their ability to reflect critically upon it and construct a coherent argument.

Follow up

The essay plan assessment format has continued to be utilised within MMM048. There have been some minor changes to the wording of the essay plan and associated guidance as a result of input from the University Study Advice team. While comparisons between cohorts are difficult to perform, it is encouraging that marks on MMM048 improved last academic year.