SkillPlan is occasionally involved in research projects that address questions about instruction and Essential Skills training. The reports that summarize our research findings from these studies are included here.
In the spring of 2008, SkillPlan, the BC Construction Industry Skills Improvement Council, began a research project called Learning Materials in Instruction as part of an HRSDC-funded initiative. For more than ten years, the federal government has invested in the development of work-related learning materials ranging from short instructional tools to full curricula as part of an integrated strategy to increase the Essential Skill levels of Canadians. As with any significant investment, the expectation is that there will be a return on that investment. In this case, the implicit and intuitive assumption has been that the development and use of these resources will increase skill levels.
The primary purpose of this research project was to examine that assumption and explore whether work-related materials, as part of an instructional curriculum, are in fact more effective in skill development than other instructional materials. The key research question then was: How does the choice of learning materials in instruction impact the acquisition of Essential Skills and contribute to learner success?
Theresa Kline, PhD from the University of Calgary, was the primary researcher responsible for data collection, analysis and presentation of the final report (see Appendix 2). Within the study two groups were compared. Group 1 used work-related instructional materials 50% or less of the time. Group 2 used work-related instructional materials more than 50% of the time. Both groups represented instructional settings which target the enhancement of employment-related skills or prepare learners for vocational training (see Appendix 1). The data for this study was collected from 270 learners at eight (8) college sites between May 2008 and June 2009.
This study focused on instructional materials and their impact on learner skill gains. The study concluded Group 2, instruction which includes more than 50% work-related learning materials, resulted in learners increasing their employment related skills – specifically reading, document use and numeracy skills – at a higher rate than Group 1, instruction which includes 50% or less work-related materials. This finding is supported statistically. It follows that programs which are intended to prepare participants for employment and workplace opportunity can increase learner success by using work-related learning materials that allow learners to practice skills that mimic work tasks.
A number of supporting and related findings were also generated through this project.
The BC Industry Training Authority (ITA) sponsored a pilot study undertaken by the BC Construction Industry Skills Improvement Council (SkillPlan) to address the question: What effect does Essential Skills training have on completion rates and performance in apprenticeship programs? A private training deliverer, Pacific Vocational College (PVC), was selected as the pilot site. More than one hundred plumbing apprentices were tracked over a 12 month period and archival data was used as comparison equivalents. Data collection and analysis was managed by an independent research team from the University of Calgary. SkillPlan’s Workplace Educator was available at PVC for Essential Skills upgrading on demand. Using technical training materials as a focus, the Educator responded to requests for assistance. These interventions were recorded in 15 minute segments. Collectively this tracking reveals the topics and the time that was needed by the Level 1 apprentices in the pilot. Surveys also indicate the apprentices’ self evaluation of readiness. Comparing performance of apprentices on theory components of training from level to level conclusively shows a pattern. Performance scores at Level 1 determine performance scores at Level 2 and so on. At Level 4 these scores predict InterProvincial exam scores. Interventions that start early to improve scores at Level 1 impact all levels. Essential Skills interventions improve performance. Scores for identical theory components, from Level 1 apprentices attending a year apart, were compared. An average of 3.5 hours of tutoring resulted in higher scores in all topics for those in the supported group. A comparison of drop-out figures indicates the long term effect at work. Fewer apprentices dropped out as performance improved. Challenges for determining Essential Skills needs and providing services result in multiple solutions. Block release, independent study and other formats of technical training delivery require different strategies. The better apprentices are prepared for technical training, the better they will perform. Better performance will increase retention. Perhaps the most compelling argument for providing Essential Skills support is the return on training investment. In this pilot, the drop-out rate improved from 11% to 5.6%. This difference has real-life implications for employers, apprentices, and society at large.
What proactive steps can ITA take? Informing apprentices early puts the onus on apprentices to take steps to upgrade as needed. This Essential Skills information must relate to each trade, demonstrate typical applications and include self-assessments. Formal assessments can be used where time permits for an integrated approach to upgrading. Perhaps the most challenging step is providing relevant upgrading, as the expertise of the education community needs to be blended with the expertise of technical instructors. Results of this pilot study suggest the magnitude of what could be achieved with further resources and continuing research.