Good Practice: Education Support Service Learning & Assessment

    Education Support Service Learning & Assessment 

    Organisation    National Learning Network (Rehab Group)
    Country Ireland
    Short description

    In 2003, the National Learning Network (NLN) and the Institute of Technology, Blanchardstown (ITB) through a shared understanding of inclusive education practices and an awareness of the types of difficulties encountered by college students, collaborated and developed an inclusive academic support service on the campus of ITB.

    The primary goal is to provide an inclusive education support service for all students at the Institute of Technology, Blanchardstown (ITB), a mainstream Higher Education Institute, regardless of whether students have a diagnosed disability.  The service strives to promote students' independence and encourage them to develop the skills to see them through their time in college. These skills range from general study skills to anxiety management, social skills and confidence building. The goal is to empower the students to learn these specialist skills in order to self-manage their difficulties and prepare them for employment.

    The Assessment Service provides a profiling service annually to all first year students at ITB. Each student receives feedback on their learning profile (learning style and learning strengths and weaknesses), in addition to advice and strategies on effective study methods.

    In addition to accommodating students with medical and other support needs that have been referred by Student Services, the Learning & Assessment Service team also provides support to the entire student population, so that any student who needs support is welcome to come to the service to make an appointment.

    Target group The service is available to the entire student population on an open door basis, that is, any student who feels that he/she needs support is welcome to come to the service at any time to make an appointment, regardless of whether he/she has a disability.

    Some examples of the different types of profiles of learners who attend the service from this perspective are as follows:

    Students with specific learning difficulties (SPLD)
    Students who have been diagnosed with an SPLD or think they may need to be assessed for SPLD attend the service for support.  SPLD’s can include Dyslexia and Dyspraxia and other related difficulties such as Autistic Spectrum Disorders and Attention Deficit Disorders.  Individualised learning support is provided as well as support to promote self-esteem and confidence, and support with stress and anxiety which is particularly prevalent in the area of Autistic Spectrum Disorders.

    Students with other disabilities
    The service includes support and interventions to a full spectrum of disabilities, including mobility, sensory, and significant ongoing illnesses (e.g. diabetes, Chrones Disease, Cancer). Many students with disabilities may have some evidence of SPLD and it is important to incorporate this understanding into interventions that will optimise the campus experience.

    Students with social skills difficulties
    Students who experience difficulties with the social aspects of college life attend the service. This may be as a result of a diagnosed condition (most commonly in the area of ASD or Dyspraxia). Social skills training is provided. Specifically tailored social skills programmes have been developed each year to support individual students and groups of students. Practical strategies are used to promote positive social interactions, which in turn has an impact on academic achievement.

    Students with mental health difficulties
    There are a number of students with mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, social anxiety disorder, depression, generalised anxiety disorder, schizophrenia who attend for support. For these students, it is important to have consistent support in college that are aware of their difficulty and that can support them in maintaining their recovery and managing their stress. Some of these students have overlapping difficulties in the area of SPLD also.  The assistant psychologist has a very good understanding and awareness of the difficulties associated with mental health and the impact of these difficulties on a students academic study and therefore, can be very effective in putting the right supports and interventions in place

    Mature students
    Students coming back to education after a number of years often attend for support in relation to learning the skills needed to work at third level. These students can often have a past history of educational disadvantage, and undiagnosed SPLD. These students also may need support around anxiety management coming up to exams and support with building self-esteem.

    Underlying theories The service recognises the need for a biopsychosocial model of support to be made widely available for students across the campus. By adopting a model such as this the service recognises that biological, psychological (which entails thoughts, emotions, and behaviors), and social (socio-economical, socio-environmental, and cultural) factors all play a significant role in human functioning and thus academic achievement in the context of a person’s difficulties, disability or medical condition.
    Students with disabilities should be made aware that their academic life is often intertwined with their social and emotional wellbeing, and therefore engaging with supports on all of these levels can create positive change. The NLN service has found that an assessment of psychosocial functioning as part of the initial meeting with a student provides a valuable indicator of the type of support needed. Providing a service informed by research and grounded in psychology allows students to seek help in relation to their perhaps less visible difficulties and access low intensity interventions to improve wellbeing, coping, self-esteem and confidence; manage stress and anxiety, and foster social interconnectedness,

    For students with a mild to moderate level of psychosocial difficulties, the NLN staff employ low-intensity interventions tailored to meet the student’s needs, which support achievement of academic potential; improvement of well-being and development of connectedness with their peers. Where psychological distress is pervasive or complex and needs are high, staff refer the student to a mental health professional in order for them to access intensive support.  These low-intensity psychological interventions are drawn from a number of psychological approaches with a strong evidence-base. In order to provide the student with a set of functional and beneficial coping strategies, key concepts from the Wellness Recovery Action Planning approach are used, namely the “Wellness toolbox” (WRAP; Copeland, 2002). Wellness tools may include recognizing personal strengths and developing coping strategies - fundamental factors for achieving success (Nalavany, Carawan, & Rennick, 2011). For students whose emotional difficulties are rooted in negative thinking patterns, APs draw from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT; Beck, 1967). CBT is used to address the thought processes and assumptions that underlie their difficulties, a strategy that is particularly helpful at targeting an individual’s beliefs about his or herself, others, and the world. It works to solve current problems and change unhelpful thinking and behaviour that antecede and perpetuate psychosocial difficulties.
    Managing, regulating and coping with emotions is also targeted, using skills such as distress tolerance and mindfulness, drawnfrom Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT; Linehan, 1987). Mindfulness is a well-established and evidence-based intervention which is not only effective in reducing stress for students (Beddoe & Murphy, 2004; Rosenzweig et al., 2003; Shapiro, Schwartz, & Bonner, 1998), but can also significantly improve reading comprehension, working memory capacity, and focus (Mrazek et al., 2013).

    Family members
    The profile of students attending the college includes a high percentage of students who have just completed second level school (Leaving Certificate standard) and many have had access to a range of supports at second level from low level supports to high supports. Often the family are very involved in the students’ education.  The NLN service recognises the important role of the family in the students’ life and very much welcomes their involvement, while at the same time being cognisant of the fact that many of the students are now adults and may choose not to have involvement from family.  Permission and consent is always sought prior to any liaison with family members.

    Community partners

    ITB’s mission is to increase the level of participation in third level education in Dublin North-West and to ensure that there is a relatively high proportion of “non-standard entrants”, including students with disabilities is one NLN readily acknowledges given our own focus and ethos.  Approximately 5-6% of students in ITB request some type of learning support from specialist staff.  These facts and figures relate to those students who have been identified prior to college and gained a diagnosis.  It doesn’t include the other students who experience significant difficulties but for a variety of reasons have not been assessed or diagnosed.  In the last academic year, 2014-2015, 61% of students who sought learning support from the NLN service in ITB did not have a diagnosis.  This emphasises the strong need for such a service for students at ITB and illustrates NLN’s ability to support this cohort of students.

    ITB regularly requests the services of NLN to support their relationships and involvement with local secondary schools in the greater Blanchardstown area. Groups of second level students are invited on campus several times throughout the academic year to encourage the students to consider third level as an option when leaving school.  The NLN service works with these students in the form of workshops and seminars helping them investigate their learning styles, strengths and weaknesses, team building skills, communication skills and interview skills.

    Direct impact   Evaluation is a central practice in all our inclusive learning support services. 

    A recent study undertaken by staff at the service was exploratory in nature, and aimed to construct a profile of the frequency of service use, characteristics of service users and the precipitating factors which influenced students’ decisions to seek the assistance. There were two sources of data.  Service use data from the 2009-2014 period were used. Data from the 2013-2014 student evaluation survey were also analysed (n=44).

    To quantitatively analyse data, non-parametric tests of difference, Chi Square and crosstab analyses were used. These analyses explored the profile of students who used the service.

    To qualitatively analyse data,content analysiswas used to categorise and explore the reasons why students sought to access the service.

    In addition to this the 2013-2014 student evaluation survey was bothqualitatively and quantitatively analysed.Students were prompted to complete the survey and there was a response rate of 35%.

    A Profile of Service Users

    •         552 students used the service between 2009 and 2014.
    •         53% of the students who attended were female, representing a fairly even gender split.
    •         42% of those attending had one or more of over 30 different diagnoses. Each diagnosis was associated with a particular profile of learning needs.
    •         58% did not have a formal diagnosis.
    •         The age range of students accessing the service was 18-57 (M=27.02, SD=8.55).

      The service continuously analyses trends in service use and gathers feedback both quantitatively and qualitatively. Evaluation serves to guide the service in its adaptation and development to meet students’ needs and is essential to maintaining a high standard of service delivery
    Conclusions and results
    In 2013-2014 an online, anonymous survey was distributed to students who had accessed the service. The following key findings emerged:
    In the 2013-2014 academic year
    - 91% of students surveyed felt that availing of the supports available to them improved their grades
    - 49% rated the service as excellent, 35% as very good, 14% as good
      18% felt that learning to manage anxiety, stress and depression was the most useful aspect of the service
    27% felt that simply having someone to talk to was the most useful aspect of the service
    14% felt that learning about how to better their attention and concentration was the most useful. 
    The single greatest lesson for any HEI looking to replicate this programme is to open access to it to any student, irrespective of whether they have a diagnosis that confer HEA funding on them, or not.  Whilst a technical business case can be made for this, purely on the basis of the funding streams available to the colleges and the downstream economic benefits of students staying in college right through to graduation, opening the service to any student illustrates a commitment to an inclusive society on the part of the college.  ITB is to be congratulated for pioneering this approach within HEIs here.
    and Milestones
    NLN Assessment Service has been providing a student support service for the Institute of Technology Blanchardstown (ITB) since September 2003 to date.  The service, which originated in a number of successful projects, has grown from strength to strength over the past 12 years, so much so that both ITB staff and students perceive NLN staff as being an integral part of the day-to-day student services within ITB.  The highly qualified team currently working in the service have the competencies and skills to provide a number of services that are necessary for a diverse student population, from supporting students with general study skills to supporting students who experience stress, anxiety, and more serious mental health difficulties. 

    Services have evolved from needs identified through screening and profiling of student’s own perceptions of their learning strengths and weaknesses and learning styles and preferences.

    Contact/More information Educational Psychologist - Suzanne McCarthy:
    Blanchardstown Road North, Dublin 15

    More information at: