Thesis

Mapping first semester challenges : first-year students making sense of their teaching and learning environments

3 Nov 2009
Description

This thesis investigates first-year students' challenges in making sense of the learning and teaching environment during their first semester at university. The aims for the research are threefold. Firstly, mapping the range of challenges students at one university faced in their learning and teaching environments in the first semester. Secondly, developing a greater understanding of those challenges. Thirdly, identifying what educational initiatives the university could consider that might assist students to meet those challenges. The challenges were examined in the context of changes in higher education. My interest and motivation for this research project concerns improved practices in the first-year teaching and learning environment, rather than improved students. This means that I did not look for deficits within students, but for indications of what helps or does not help students' introduction to the new environment of academia. By mapping students' challenges in the first semester, I hope to contribute to the understanding of academic staff of the range of challenges students have to deal with. The interpretation of the results and my line of argument are partly influenced and shaped by the theoretical framework of academic literacies, and the notion of de-familiarisation. For this project, two data sources were used. The first source was data from a survey carried out in May 2004 amongst students enrolled in 100-level courses. The second source was data from interviews conducted with first-year students in the same year. In considering the analysis as a whole, a number of key issues could be discerned. These related to communication, academic skills, access to resources and help, and engagement and connection. The results showed that some of these issues had less to do with educational practices, and more to do with contested understandings of the nature of university education, and the nature of students now entering university. I argue that underlying these issues there are contentious questions of who should adjust or adapt to whom: students to the university, or the university to students? Students' reported experiences further suggest that some teachers seemed more aware than others that first-year students face particular challenges. Students did not consider their experiences as reflective of the university as a whole. The university was experienced as an institution with divergent ways of organising courses, of valuing aspects of university learning, and of interpreting seemingly similar things. This suggests that where students experienced challenges, these were not necessarily a function of students' characteristics, or students' attitudes to studying, but of particular course environments. The overall picture that presents itself, then, is that there are challenges that could be considered unnecessary. Whereas few students would experience all of the challenges identified in the results chapters, I argue that there are some aspects that warrant improvement. Improvement initiatives in first-year education, however, are not necessarily considered important by all academic staff. This is another contested issue in universities. A more explicit introduction of first-year students to academia as a range of heterogeneous communities would respond to first-year students' needs for familiarisation and clarity, as well as reflect some of the values that universities could be said to espouse. Successful interventions in first-year education, however, will also depend on ongoing dialogue with staff about various contested issues, the changed and changing context of higher education, and related challenges and opportunities.

Publication Details
Identifiers: 
Handle: 
http://hdl.Handle.net/10523/540
License Type: 
All Rights Reserved
Published year only: 
2009
4
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