Laura Morosanu

  • From communities of practice to networks of support: the first year student experience

    Laura Morosanu and Karen Handley, Oxford Brookes University

    Research seminar

    Themes: supporting learners

    Tuesday 8 September 2009, 10.10 - 11.10 in room 122

    Learning is a social process taking place within a cultural-historical context (Vygotsky, 1968). In the educational literature, the concept of ‘community of practice’ has become widely used as an analytical tool to help deconstruct the learning process and ways to support it. However, as we argue in this paper, the analytical value of ‘community of practice’ proves problematic in a number of respects. Instead, the notion of ‘networks of support’ may constitute a more appropriate lens for examining how students develop knowledge as they transition to academia.

    A ‘community of practice’ is often assumed to be beneficial for both students and staff as they ‘come to know’ academic practices within Higher Education. However, transferring this concept from the broader organisational context to academia is fraught with tensions especially when looking at student learning. First, the strong link to ‘practice’ lying at the core of Wenger’s (1998) approach becomes questionable when applied to students. Save for some practically-oriented disciplines such as Osteopathy, students have little chance to fully ‘practise’ their would-be profession whilst at university. Secondly, the gap between staff and students makes the limitations of ‘community’ even more striking than in work contexts. Professionally speaking, students are not gradually integrated in academia but remain temporarily embedded in various, uncoordinated social networks. Hence, an examination of their social networks (Fischer, 1982; Scott, 1991) – and in particular those that provide support for learning – may afford a better grasp of how students get by and learn at university.

    Using first-year student audio diaries, this paper unpacks student networks of support to understand their learning process and how institutionalised support can be improved. In their first year at university, students experience a huge leap from small, close-knit groups developed during secondary education (Christie et al.,  2008) to what at first seems like a large, impersonal institution. In this transitional context, this paper shows how multiple, yet often conflicting or fleeting, advice from various institutionally-established sources (such as university websites, teachers, tutors and course instructions) exaggerate rather than diminish students’ general confusion experienced at the start of academic life. Furthermore, this paper examines the ‘enabling’ and ‘constraining powers’ of different networks (Emirbayer and Goodwin, 1994), opposing institutional with non-institutional sources of support available to students. In their search for general guidance, this paper argues, students often rely more on intimate networks of family, friends and flatmates rather than official support. This may be triggered by two factors highlighted by Wellman and Wortley (1991) - strength-of-relationship, and secondly access-to-contacts, which, in this particular case, makes non-institutional support more comfortable to rely on, despite not necessarily being ‘authoritative’ or ‘reliable’ resources.

    The data derives from a longitudinal exploratory study on the first, second and final-year student experience conducted at the Business School of a British university, during 2007. The paper focuses on the transitional experience through an analysis of 86 diary entries submitted by the five first-year students who participated in this research.


    • Christie, H. et al. (2008) ‘A Real Rollercoaster of Confidence and Emotions: Learning to Be a University Student,’ Studies in Higher Education, 33(5): 567-581.
    • Emirbayer, M. and Goodwin, J. (1994) ‘Network Analysis, Culture and the Problem of Agency,’ The American Journal of Sociology, 99(6): 1411-1454.
    • Fischer, C. (1982) To Dwell among Friends: Personal Networks in Town and City, Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press.
    • Scott, J. (1991) Social Network Analysis: A Handbook, London: Sage.
    • Vygotsky, L. S. (1978) Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Mental Processes, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
    • Wellman, B. and Wortley, S. (1990) ‘Different Strokes from Different Folks: Community Ties and Social Support, accessed 11/02/09.
    • Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.