Taking credit for their learning

Student accreditation is proving a spur to improved study, says Christina Zaba
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There was gloomy muttering when we heard at Bristol University in 1994 that Continuing Education courses were to carry accreditation for students, and that we were now to plan and assess learning outcomes.

The collegial advice and criticism called Quality Assurance was one thing; but this accreditation stuff smacked suspiciously of a philistine bureaucracy, deeply opposed to the very things - flexibility, exploration and acknowledgement of students' experience - which brought classes to life.

Many of the thousands of students who pay good money to take Bristol University's courses are long out of the competitive end of education, developing new interests or extending their knowledge. How could it be appropriate to subject such voluntary and various learners to assessment procedures?

We had no choice: funding depended on our courses carrying credits. The credit points can be built up into blocks equivalent to, say, one year of undergraduate studies, or can lead to diplomas or certificates in open studies or more specialised awards. But there is more to teaching and learning than the collecting of points.

The students are open in their reactions. "You can get on with that if you like, it makes no difference to me," says Hazel firmly. We're studying English language from 1066 to 1350; Hazel, a dance specialist, is here to find out more about the cultural background to medieval music, and is unconcerned with gaining credits (though she gets them anyway).

Mary, a grandmother whose working life has included midwifery in Fiji - giving her useful insights into the nature of traditional poetry - agrees. "Credits are irrelevant to me; I just want to do the course. But some people might find it useful." She turns out to be right.

"I need to practise writing essays again," says Lorraine, a graduate with motherhood to her credit, now applying for postgraduate teacher training. "It'll do me good to have a go at this." It does: she is accepted on the PGCE course.

Jane, a former civil servant with a passion for language and writing, says: "I think the credits motivate people to take the work more seriously."

And something unexpected happens: the work itself becomes more serious. Gone are the days when, as a part-time tutor, you had to write a letter threatening to breastfeed the baby in the university library before you were allowed to borrow books to prepare courses. With formal accreditation come formal rights, including some that are useful for the business of teaching and learning. We all now receive full access to library facilities; which means that, for the first time, it has become feasible to suggest reading and independent inquiry and to invite written work tailored to individual interests. Now learning is acknowledged and supported; students are no longer visitors to university but participants.

Linda, a former headmistress with knowledge of children's literature, is awarded credits for her comparison of Alan Garner's Elidor, with the Middle English Sir Orfeo; Jane, a French graduate, writes a meticulous study of the old French influence an the language of a 12th-century English romance; Liz submits a course diary.

"I say to the men at the golf club, 'You should just listen to this, it's wonderful'," says Robert, a pathologist who finds the discipline of translation surprisingly congenial. "My wife's very grateful to you," he says. "It keeps me quiet in the evenings." The class buzzes and discussion is animated. On English 1066-1350, we are having a good time.

Some worry about being judged: one student quietly disappears after the third week. But most take it in their stride. "There might be more pressure to perform, but I accept that for what I get out of it," says Derek Sherwood, a retired police inspector, now planning a full-time degree in English language. "It's a good system for people who want to study over a long period."

Far from being inhibited by accreditation, students are using it for their own purposes, whatever these might be. Derek is clear about why he puts in so much work every week. "It is an interest I want to explore," he says. "I'm doing this for my own personal satisfaction."

This week is Adult Learners' Week. For free and confidential advice and guidance on adult education, ring 0800 100 900 this week or next.