HERDSA Session 2 – supporting first year students

Session 2 started with a talk on factors impacting first year students by a new PhD graduate from the University of the Western Cape, Venecia McGhie. This paper represents some of the research work undertaken in her PhD, looking at success factors for students within the specific societal culture of this particular University. Venecia builds upon Vygostky’s social cultural theory and Bandura’s social cognitive theory, looking at strategies to help students become self-regulating learners. Her study looked at a longitudinal study of (in the end) 12 students who fitted a general passing student, identifying their processes that they used to overcome common challenges faced by first year students, such as finance management, time management, travel distance, etc. What become apparent is that the successful students were self-regulated students, seeking assistance when they needed it, devoting time to study when appropriate and being resolved to overcome difficulties. They often have supportive families, and access support, whether it be financial, computer-based, or counselling, from the University.

It was unclear whether, or how, these students learnt to become self regulated students, or whether they were already self regulated (I’ll have to read the thesis!) Of course, this is one of the big questions – we know what successful students do, but how can we efficiently and effectively help other students learn how to approach their studies in the same way?

Following this was Glyn Thomas, UQ (TEDi) talking about strategies to take benefit from the expected increase in diversity in our education system, rather than focussing on the difficulties of coping with such an increase in diversity. Glyn identified the specific pedagogical issues that impact low SES students as being less resourced, lower perceptions of value of HE, less encouragement, fewer positive past experiences, lower tertiary entrance scores, alienation when arriving at university, and then upon return to their community, and inflexible learning environments and support. These all represent some huge barriers and challenges for both our students and our institutions – does good learning and teaching automatically translate to supporting socially diverse cohorts, or is there more?

Within Australia, HEPP funding has introduced many new initiatives to assist low SES students, and raise aspirations. However, Glyn’s statement is that within these, we have yet to see any coherent, comprehensive, socially inclusive pedagogies, and we need to be more organised to see institutional change.

Glyn mentioned two established strategies: productive pedagogies, which presents a framework for reviewing the learning needs and learning styles of your cohort, and developing a teaching approach that best fits this particular combination; and universal design for learning principles, which again focus on flexible approaches to learning that may be combined to suit the learning needs of your cohort.

I found UDL, in particular, to be very interesting – it looks at three aspects of flexibility: the what, how and why of learning. To give more detail, the what of learning relates to how we structure information, and how we categorise what we see and hear. The how of learning relates to how we organise and excess our ideas, and how we plan and perform tasks, while the why of learning maps to how learners remain engaged and motivated in their learning. Each of the these three different aspects represents an element of difference in our learners – and we can adopt different approaches to support each of these three, to support the specific needs of our learners.

Glyn presented some of the data that he has been gathering from two large scale projects exploring first in family, and low SES students, identifying that they are performing comparably with non low SES students (over a four course period). Of course, as was pointed out in one of the questions – this does not take into account those students that do not make it to the census date, and are therefore not counted in the data. There is a serious concern in the higher education community that we are missing a large segment of these students, and the opportunity to assess their data, through this administrative process.

Reading list: http://www.deakin.edu.au/arts-ed/education/staff-directory2.php?username=tgale

I finished this session with a presentation by Jacquie McDonald, USQ on her communities of practice model. I first heard Jacquie speak regarding her community of practice work at HERDSA in Rotorua, when Etienne Wenger was presenting the keynote, and the conference had a strong focus on communities. Jacquie has done some great work here, and is now moving on to the support of online communities of practice. In this presentation, Jacquie talks about the application of community of practice models to the development of a collaborative community mentoring programme to support the ascilite community, running in parallel with there existing mentoring program. Some of the key issues identified when establishing an online community of practice, were the lack of an opportunity for sustained reflection and discussion, and the need for ongoing monitoring to help it along. More information is available in the ascilite publication.


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