Not too old for school – why adults retake A-levels

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By Sue Smith, Director ITS Exam Services


One of the interesting aspects of my role at ITS Education Asia is the number of adults I meet who are keen to retake their A-levels. These adults who contemplate returning to the examination grind are usually motivated by a desire to change their situation in life and pursue a tertiary programme – or in some instances – a different tertiary programme.

Adults are usually much better students than teenagers.  With limited amounts of time and with the pressure of other responsibilities, adults often have a very specific goal, know why they are studying and understand the importance of making time for their studies.

The adults who are hoping to retake A-levels usually fall into three main categories – young adults who have spent a few years in the workforce; people with professions who are hoping to move into a different one; and women who are hoping to study while home with their young children.

The young adults I meet who are hoping to retake A-levels are typically people who were underachievers at secondary school. They have done a couple of A-levels several years ago and have low grades for those subjects.  Once they finished school they went out and got a job.  However a few years in an (often) low-paying job has shown them that they would be better off going to university. These people are also of an age where their old high school classmates who did go to university have now graduated and are moving forward with their careers. These possible candidates decide to return to A-level study in order to get better grades and also in order to develop a study habit. They understand that the time they have spent away from study has meant they no longer have confidence in their study skills. So even if they qualified for adult entry to a tertiary programme, they want to study A-levels first – to consolidate and get back into the swing of study.

I have also met a number of adults over the years who have university degrees and are often established in their jobs. Yet they have decided that they want to change careers.  Universities often offer fast-track programmes for graduates in this position.  But sometimes, before the candidate can qualify for such a fast track programme, there are required subjects and knowledge to consider.  This is particularly true in the case of people who have decided that they want to pursue medicine or veterinary science.  It’s possible to gain entry into a programme for people who are graduates in another field but these people must have a suitable knowledge of Biology and Chemistry. And this is where taking A-levels comes in.  People who suddenly yearn to become a doctor often find that their science knowledge is insufficient for them to gain entry into a graduate medical programme and so they tackle A-levels first, to bring their knowledge in these required areas up to the correct level.

The third group of adults who approach ITS looking for support with A-levels are women.  Often at home with a young family and aware that they probably have several years before their children are in school, these women hope to tackle A-levels with the hope of beginning a tertiary course.  If a lot of this study can be done while their children are small, by the time the children are at school, study might be finished or almost finished and the woman can look forward to pursuing a profession career. While it might take some organizing to be a stay-at-home mother and an A-level student, it is a very good use of time that is not being spent in the workforce and with the promise that once the kids are older, the chances of a more lucrative workplace role is greater with the study that will be done.

So A-levels aren’t just for teenagers.  They also offer adults the hope of university study and a better future.  And the flexible nature of the new educational environment, with online study options available, means that there has never been a better time for the busy adult to return to school.

Blended learning online – helping students prepare for 21st century work

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by Danny Harrington, Founder & Director, ITS Education Asia

Blended learning online – helping students prepare for 21st century work

The delivery of education is changing dramatically around the world. Institutions are looking for  options to provide for the supply and demand of skills required by an increasingly global workforce. Students/learners need and demand options to maximize their ability to gain these skills. They often fear that without them they will be left behind. In  2013, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) highlighted the urgent need to develop skills for the modern world. Skills that enhance students’ abilities, according to the report, are communication, collaboration, creativity, and ability to connect one learning opportunity to another. Further, the OECD recognises knowledge intensity as a precursor to which will be economically successful countries. Countries with high knowledge intensity are innovative, have strong education systems, economic incentives, and current technology available for people. A virtuous circle is created which increases the demand for a more skilled workforce which improves knowledge intensity and so on.

A study based on this report by Florian and Zimmerman (2015) looked at how the use of blended learning in secondary school impacted on students preparation for the future knowledge based economy through the development of the skills identified by the OECD report. The premise was that while blended learning is integral to post-secondary education [and in the best institutions has been around since before the term was even invented to describe what they do] the modern world cannot wait that long to introduce it to learners, hence the study at secondary school level.

The study found that the introduction of a planned, blended learning approach using the almost ubiquitous educational platform Moodle led to an adjustment of the school’s pedagogy. When the students undertook the world’s foremost comparative test – the Programme for International Student Assessment or PISA – they performed at the very highest limits of the global range of scores. While larger studies are required, this is an encouraging statistical back up to what many educators feel they know – that variety of learning modes, including self-directed and guided learning as crucial components of the learner experience, produce students better prepared to cope with the demands of the modern workplace.

You can read the full study, originally published in the MERLOT Journal of Online learning and Teaching march 2015, here:

ITS Education Asia operates the ITS Online School which uses a blended learning approach, fully delivered online with a combination of live classes, online forum and doc share and self-directed learning to help students gain international qualifications such as IGCSE, A-level and BTEC HND no matter where they are in the world.

Is it worth considering the student satisfaction rating when choosing a university?

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By Sue Smith, Director, ITS Exam Services



In my job at ITS Education Asia, I meet a lot of Hong Kong students who are considering choosing a university in the UK for their tertiary studies. The vast majority of these students are quite unfamiliar with UK geography and have no family or other ties to a certain place. So when they choose their university choices in UCAS, they tend to base this on factors such as the content of the course they hope to study and the rank or prestige of the university. Now, going abroad to study at tertiary level is a costly business and of course a student will pay as much for a top, highly ranked university as they will for a more modestly ranked institution. For this reason alone, and hoping to get as good a return on their investment as possible, the university’s place on the league tables is often a very important consideration.

But what about the student satisfaction surveys which are published each year? (Top 100 universities for student satisfaction) Should an overseas student also take the information these surveys reveal into consideration when making their choices? Well. I definitely think they should.

Overseas students, especially students from Asia, are a long way from home when in the UK and at the beginning, they are often without much of a support network. It is for this reason that having an idea what to expect and hearing how other students have ranked a university for the satisfaction of those already attending it, is valuable.
Now overall satisfaction at UK universities in general is already very high. This past academic year’s student satisfaction survey was responded to by over 300,000 students and 86% of all respondents were satisfied with the course at their universities. But what does this actually mean? Well, it means that the vast majority of those who responded to the survey felt that their university was delivering the course as they had indicated they would, with the content in the course outline and in an effective and accessible manner using competent staff. This level of overall satisfaction does bode well for students choosing this year as it suggests that, on the whole, university experience in the UK is positive.

It is, however, interesting to note that not one Russell Group university was named in the top 10 of those ranked highest for student satisfaction. And of course Russell Group universities often rank very highly among Hong Kong students who are targeting highly ranked institutions.

So why is satisfaction (relatively) lower at these top universities? Well of course part of the answer is because they are top universities. These sorts of institutions of higher learning are incredibly competitive places, filled with the very best students they can get and so, a lot of students who are admitted to these places, are also very competitive students who have also chosen their programme based on prestige rather than satisfaction. It is quite common to hear anecdotal evidence from tertiary students at these top universities say that they find the place tough, the requirements demanding and the other students less inclined to be supportive due to the rigors and demands of the courses and the place.
This, of course, does not mean that these universities are not good but it does mean that a lot of students who attend these sorts of universities are, on the whole, less happy with their experience than those at universities which are more highly regarded on the student satisfaction survey.

So, to answer my initial question: is it worth considering the student satisfaction survey when making a choice on the UCAS form? The answer is a qualified yes. The fact is that students should take a range of factors into considering when choosing. These should include the content and type of course the student wants to do, the types of university the institution is and its geographical location. All of these are relevant factors as is the knowledge of how pleased other students have been when they chose the university you are considering. After all, a tertiary programme is a commitment of several years’ and you want to make sure of all the factors to ensure your happiness and success in this stage of your life, are available to you.

Overcoming stigma with online study

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by Danny Harrington, Founder & Director, ITS Education Asia

Overcoming stigma with online study
One of the advantages of online study we have always highlighted is that is provides access for students with disabilities. But studies in the US have added to this by finding that students with disabilities are also turning to online learning to avoid stigmatisation they experience when they do attend bricks-and-mortar schools. In fact, for many this is the main reason for their choice of online.

The researchers – Susana Verdinelli of Walden University and Debbi Kutner of the University of Phoenix – writing in the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education in 2015 and widely reported, including by the Times Educational Supplement, say that their findings indicate “ableism assumptions” in traditional classroom-based higher education and institutions.
Respondents to the survey, from a wide range of higher education providers across the US, made it clear they had found physical lessons “draining” and “awkward” whereas their online lessons made them “invisible” and therefore “offered the freedom to be viewed as a student without limitations”. Read more: Students with disabilities enrol online ‘to avoid stigmatisation’

The main disadvantage the students reported was that of isolation from face-to-face interaction alongside slow response times from staff. These are exactly the problems we have been highlighting since we launched our online school in 2012. The key problem is that most online courses are still actually distance learning models delivered electronically, with some having a “blended” approach which means some form of direct teacher communication at intervals across the year.

At ITS, all our online courses have a very high percentage of live, real-time lessons in a virtual classroom. Students see and hear each other as well as the teacher. At a minimum, an ITS course would have one live lesson per week. Many courses have up to four ours of live lessons per week. Students can never feel isolated, left-behind or wonder whether their queries are being answered and can therefore get the best of both worlds.

If you are a student with a disability who is struggling at a traditional school, or you know someone who is, please contact us to find out how online education the ITS way could help you achieve your educational goals.

Nervous habits and interviews

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by Gary Hadler  Director, ITS Education Asia


I was reading this article on the BBC website: Are Nervous Ticks Derailing Your Job Interview
and thought I would comment on this in relation to not just job interviews but student university interviews. I have extensive experience in preparing people for interviews. I have worked as a careers counselor, ran a retail and tourism training program for young adults in Australia and help in interview preparation for university interviews in Hong Kong.
A direct short quote from the article


“When it comes to job interviews, you’d be right to presume your stellar CV, personal presentation and, more importantly, how well you answer questions could land you the position. But your mannerisms and gestures could be holding you back. In fact, they can reveal much about you, even if you don’t want them to — both positive and negative. And, most of the time we don’t even realise we’re doing them. Conscious or unconscious, repeated behaviour like batting your eyes, twisting your ring or touching your hair, may influence the recruiter on the other side of the table more than you think.”


My own observations and experience support the points raised in the article. First impressions are very powerful in helping a person form a view of you. Your body language is a very important factor in helping another person form that first impression. The problem for many of us is that we are unaware of these habits. Our friends and family are used to them and do not comment on them. New people we meet are courteous and do not comment on them. Thus we can go through life not realising that these habits do have an effect.


The article then offers some advice on what you can do to try to reduce these unwanted/unconscious mannerisms and gestures. The article’s starting point about addressing these mannerisms is to “Face your quirks”. This is a standard piece of advice on trying to solve any of life’s problems. We need to first admit that we have them and then try to fix them. My advice therefore is to start asking others ie family, friends etc about whether you have any annoying, repetitive habits that they notice. You may be shocked with the answers you receive. Do not argue about the answers,just accept these are the unconscious messages you are sending out.


I would add to these “body language” messages, some annoying speech habits that many people can display. For example, my wife is a fan of “The Great British Bakeoff”. The male judge of that program has the annoying habit of often saying before a sentence “To be honest”. To me this seems to imply that if he does not say that he is telling a lie or that he is in the habit of lying.

The next stage is practicing in formal situations to try and ensure that you can control and limit these habits. Interview preparation is extremely important. Make sure if you are doing interview practice you specifically ask the interviewer about your body language and mannerisms. It is also important in an interview that you appear authentic therefore it is important that you can control these habits without the need to spend a great deal of your concentration doing this. That comes with practice.

A particular point raised in the article that should be highlighted is that if the habit is something you are unable to get under control then it may be best to address the problem straight away with the interviewer. For example; “I am sorry but when I get nervous I sometimes blush”. The ability to identify and admit to things which you struggle to control is a sign of strength and maturity.

A student should not be too concerned about small problems when attending an interview. The interviewers are aware that you are likely to be nervous. However, a good first impression can only help in achieving your desired goals.

Nervous habits are much easier to control if you are well prepared for the situation that is making you nervous. Like many other things, practice is the key to learning how to change you unconscious behaviors.

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