Cal Weatherald

  • Students reflecting on their learning – insights gained from guidance

    Cal Weatherald, Sheffield Hallam University, UK

    Session 4d, Tuesday 16.00

    Research seminar

    Themes addressed:

    • Supporting learners
    • Diversity/inclusivity
    • Departmental strategies

    Facilitating student learning and development is a wide brief undertaken by staff in a diverse range of roles across the university. Much of the monitoring of learner progress and engagement in higher education takes place in the context of the student's course. In real terms, students may spend a limited amount of time in this environment, but nevertheless be actively engaged in managing and reflecting on their learning through a variety of mechanisms both within and outside of the course. What do we know about the ways in which this happens and what can we learn from these insights?

    These questions are particularly important in the current debates on retention and diversity (Yorke, Thomas, Tinto) and the concern, in the context of a changing student profile, to ensure a positive learning experience for all students, leading to success.

    The independent Education Guidance Service at Sheffield Hallam University is used by over 1,500 students and potential students a year. The model of guidance which has been developed is an integral part of the wider learning and teaching framework of the university, working at several levels to support students and staff, influence strategy, and contribute to thinking on how students learn.

    This seminar will consider data collected systematically over the last four years by the Education Guidance Service, focusing specifically on the use of the service by enrolled students. The data consists of

    1. statistical information on the profile of student users, annual patterns of usage, and the themes which students bring for discussion.
    2. qualitative information gathered through monthly case study meetings reviewing recordings of guidance interviews.

    Much of what has been written about guidance in the UK has been in the context of broader pre-entry guidance and employability. Relatively little theory has been developed relating to educational guidance within higher education, or about how students make use of guidance as part of the learning process. Recent work by Usher and Edwards (2005) offers an interesting critique of process and assumptions. Hughes' work on Autonomous Learning Zones (2003) suggests a useful theoretical framework within which to describe the guidance process. However, neither of these considers how students themselves make use of the guidance process as part of their learning. In this context, the work undertaken by Stephen McNair (1996) as part of the Guidance and Learner Autonomy (GALA) project provides the clearest and most useful explication of the relationship with guidance in the development of student autonomy. The principles put forward here have been used as a framework within which to re-frame the purposes of the guidance process and interrogate the data available.

    Analysis of data and interviews over a four year period indicate that there are two predominant sets of issues which students bring for discussion, which confirm research by eg Yorke (1999, 2004). These relate to academic performance/progression, and motivation/choice of course. Digging deeper into the nature of these discussions, questions begin to emerge about student autonomy, support and learning; about our understandings of diversity; and about the mechanisms which the university uses to 'listen' to its students.

    Across the university, this data has been used to underpin

    • the development of a university-wide student support framework
    • staff development programmes for academic and administrative staff
    • contributions to working groups on assessment and on student retention
    • debates on student autonomy (through the university's Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) on Promoting Student Autonomy) as demonstrated through the questions brought by students to guidance

    This approach will be discussed with reference in particular to McNair's work and participants’ experience in their own institutions.


    • Hughes P (2003) 'Autonomous Learning Zones'. Paper presented to 10th European Conference on Learning and Instruction, Padova, Italy, August 26-30, 2003.
    • Joseph Rowntree Foundation (2005) From life crisis to lifelong learning: Rethinking working-class 'drop-out' from higher education. York: York Publishing Services
    • McNair S (Ed) (1996) Putting Learners at the Centre, Sheffield:DfEE.
    • Sheffield Hallam University Education Guidance Service Annual Report 2004-5. Sheffield: Sheffield Hallam University Student Services Centre.
    • Thomas E, Woodrow M and Yorke M (2002) 'Access and Retention', in Student Success in Higher Education. Bradford: Action on Access.
    • Tinto V (2004) Leaving College: Rethinking the Causes and Cures of Student Attrition.Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
    • Usher R and Edwards RG (2005). 'Subjects, networks and positions: Thinking Educational Guidance differently' in British Journal of Guidance and Counselling. Vol 33. No 3. Aug 2005. pp397-410.
    • Yorke M (1999) Leaving Early: Undergraduate non-completion in Higher Education. Falmer Press.
    • Yorke M and Longden B (2004) Retention and Success in Higher Education Maidenhead. Open University Press