Jenny Morris

  • The dynamics of motivation, life experience and conceptions of knowing of students from non-standard academic backgrounds

    Jenny Morris, Colchester Institute

    Research paper

    Theme: Learning environments

    The current focus on widening participation in higher education in the United Kingdom has been associated with an increase in acceptance of students from so-called ‘non-standard’ backgrounds onto degree courses. A large body of educational research has identified that a range of factors influences the quality of student learning outcomes (Prosser and Trigwell, 1999). However, less research has investigated the actual experiences of students, particularly those from non-standard backgrounds.

    The students participating in this study are registered on an undergraduate physiotherapy programme which was specifically designed to widen access. Minimum entry requirements are lower than is normally the case in this discipline and applications from people over the age of 21 are encouraged. Priority is given to applicants who are employed in the health sector and the programme mode is part-time, a format innovative in physiotherapy education at its inception, which enables students to continue to work on the days when they are not in college. In addition to a philosophy of widening access, the programme design follows an ethos of a coherent model of learning based on established educational research evidence. The learning experiences offered students aim to facilitate achievement of optimal quality of learning and enable them to continue their professional development as self-directed learners after qualification. Strategies include learning of relevant, integrated material, active participation of students in the learning process and overt recognition and use of students’ life experience (Ramsden, 1992; Wilss et al, 1999).

    The purpose of the study is to investigate the experiences of the students on the programme in order to identify and evaluate the impact of a number of intrinsic and extrinsic variables on their learning. All seventeen students who are participating in the study are physiotherapy or rehabilitation assistants. They have a wide range of academic backgrounds and levels of prior academic achievement and all, but two were of mature age when they began the course.

    Individual semi-structured interviews have taken place on five occasions at intervals during the programme. As part of the study, three factors which research has found to be important for the quality of learning outcomes have been specifically addressed at each interview. These relate to students’ motivation (Biggs, 2003), the relationships between their incoming and ongoing life experience and their learning Wilss et al, 1999), and the conceptions which they hold of learning, understanding and memorisation (Prosser and Trigwell, 1999; Entwistle and Entwistle, 2001; Meyer, 2000).

    Interview transcripts are being analysed using a phenomenographic approach. Although the final set of interviews has yet to be completed, analysis of interviews undertaken in earlier stages of the study has identified a rich positive picture of experience, change and development which suggests that students from non-standard academic backgrounds are able to both benefit from and contribute to learning in higher education.

    The findings from the five sets of interviews regarding the three topic areas identified will be discussed. Their contribution to the evidence on the experiences of students in higher education from non-standard academic backgrounds will also be considered.


    1. Biggs, J (2003) Teahcing for quality learning at university (second edition) Buckingham, Open University Press
    2. Entwislle, N & Entwistle, D (2001) The interplay between memorising and understanding in preparing for examinations 9th EARLI Conference, Fribourg, Switzerland
    3. Meyer, J H F (2000a) Variation in contrasting forms of `memorising' and associated variables British Journal of Educational Psychology 70: 163-176
    4. Prosser, M and Trigwell, K (1999) Teaching for learning in higher education Buckingham, Open University Press
    5. Ramsden, P (1992) Learning to teach in higher education London, Routledge
    6. Wilss, L, Boulton-Lewis, G, Marton, F & Lewis, D (1999) Learning in and out of university: Aboroginal and Torres Strait Islander students' conceptions and strategies used to learn HERDSA Conference, Melbourne