Students' identities within different disciplines

  • Gudrún Geirsdóttir, Centre for Teaching, University of Iceland, Reykjavik, Icelan

    In a recent study on higher education curriculum, Bernstein’s analysis of the pedagogic discourse (Bernstein, 2000) was used to capture complex and ‘multilevel nature’ (Goodlad, 1984) of the curriculum and the specific practice of university teachers in the curriculum planning process (Geirsdottir, 2011). The study was undertaken at a single university in Iceland and explored the conceptions and felt agency or space (Barnett and Coate, 2005) of university teachers within three disciplines (industrial and mechanic engineering, physics and anthropology) of making curriculum decisions. The findings demonstrated how each of the three disciplines carried within it a specific pedagogic discourse, a local curriculum, focusing on different aims and goals, different attitudes towards the role of students and teachers and a specific instructional discourse where these regulative ideas are carried out. Among other issues, Bernstein’s theoretical concepts were used to study teachers’ perceptions of their disciplinary curriculum in terms of the student identity. Each of the three pedagogic discourses portrayed a very different and disciplinary- specific picture of the ideal student.

    In a follow up phenomenological study, the educational experience of student within the three disciplines was explored in order to understand students’ conception of their discipline and their socialisation process into the disciplinary pedagogic discourse. Twelve students entering their study in engineering, physics and anthropology the University of Iceland in 2009 agreed to participate in an interview study. Interviews have been carried out regularly during their course of study.

    In this paper the preliminary findings of the study will be discusses. The focus here is on students’ first year experience. The paper first explores the student identity as portrayed within the pedagogic discourse of the three disciplines and then focuses on students’ experience of entering their discipline and coming to term with the disciplinary student identity. The findings indicate that students experience difficulties understanding the disciplinary requirements and use different strategies to overcome personal and educational hindrances. The research findings suggest possible strategies and awareness of adapting to students educational needs and their retention and progression both within the different disciplines as well as at the institutional level.


    • Barnett, R. and Coate, K. (2005). Engaging the curriculum in higher education. Maidenhead, Berkshire: SRHE and Open University Press.
    • Bernstein, B. (2000). Pedagogy, symbolic control and identity. New York: Rowman and Littlefield.
    • Goodlad, J. I. (1984). Curriculum inquiry. New York: McGraw Hill.
    • Gudrún Geirsdóttir (2011). Teachers‘ conceptions of knowledge structures and pedagogic practices in higher education. In G. Ivinson,
    • B. Davies and J. Fitz (Eds.). Knowledge and identity. Conceptions and applications in Bernstein‘s sociology (pp. 90-107). New York: Routledge.