Liz McDowell

  • Negotiating academic assignments: the experiences of widening participation and traditional students

    Liz McDowell and Kay Sambell, Northumbria University

    Research paper

    Themes: assessment, supporting learners

    Recent research studies highlight the difficulties of adequately supporting the increased numbers of non-traditional students now entering higher education (Paul & Yorke, 2001; Collins & Lim, 2002). Non-traditional or ‘widening participation’ students are defined in the UK in terms of socio-economic status and lack of family traditions of HE participation. This paper reports findings from two recently conducted research studies that sought to illuminate the perspectives of both widening participation students and those who would be considered as traditional university students. There is a contention that widening participation students exhibit distinctive views of learning and assessment that hinder the development of the abilities, dispositions and self-image of the autonomous learner that are expected and prized in higher education. These issues often surface most strongly in relation to assessment. The comparison of outcomes from two qualitative studies examining students’ experiences of academic assignments enables this contention to be explored. Variation in students’ experiences is summarised in the form of distinctive categories termed: minimalist, gathering, performing and connecting. These were derived from data gathered from students and are considered applicable to both widening participation and traditional students, suggesting that there is not a major qualitative distinction between the experiences of the two groups. However, the distribution of certain categories of experience may differ. Students’ varying experiences of producing academic assignments are conceptualised as a process of negotiation involving the self, subject knowledge and the study context and this helps to suggest ways in which students can be assisted to adapt and overcome barriers they face in the HE context.

    The paper moves on to explore students’ perceptions of strategies to help them develop as autonomous learners through greater explicitness, alignment and active student involvement in the assessment process . Strategies include, for example, peer (formative) assessment training (Sluisjmans, 2001) and activities to help students to develop judgments about academic standards (Brown, Rust & Gibbs, 1994). The strategies are used in such a way as to foster collaborative interaction and positive interdependence with peers. An essential principle underlying this is that if students are to change their stance within the negotiation process when they face academic assignments, they must reflect on 'how to do it' (Cowan, 1998; Moon, 1999). However, such reflection must not be seen as a solitary, private undertaking. If it is to be beneficial, students need a positive social learning context where they can be exposed to different approaches, alternative ways of thinking and acting, and have their own approaches both challenged and affirmed. It is suggested that participation in a peer community may be a key feature in promoting autonomy in learning and that widening participation students may suffer disproportionately from lack of access to such a community. Teaching and learning strategies which promote social learning may therefore be especially helpful to such students.