Closing the gap: an exploration of first-year students’ expectations & experiences of learning PLAT 2010, Edinburgh Napier University Morag Williamson, Phyllis Laybourn, Janis Greig & Hilary Tait School of Health, Life & Social Sciences Research funded by the Edinburgh Napier University Teaching Fellows’ Research Fund.
Overview • An in-School qualitative investigation of the 2007-08 first-year cohort of Psychology students identified factors influencing withdrawal in a small sample of non-continuing students • In the current study the emphasis has shifted onto successful progression to Trimester 2, by adopting an action research approach to explore first-year students’ expectations and experiences of Trimester 1: • amongst a larger sample, comprising the majority of students in the cohorts of interest • using data in the form of written reflections • Data are interpreted within the theoretical framework of the ‘psychological contract’ • Findings are informing the design of an intervention for the 2010-11 cohort
Context • First-year student success and retention are key elements of University strategy, informed by first-year experience (FYE) literature • “Good learning” “success” “retention” (Yorke & Longden, 2008) “Students who learn are students who stay” (Tinto, 2006) • Strong focus on enabling academic transitions • Staff observe: - wide variation in student attitudes & behaviours in relation to study and learning - rapid development of group norms during Tri 1 • Importance of social integration for student learning • Staff expectations may be implicit rather than explicit to students • Analysis of student trajectories
FYE: Deal or No Deal? the recurrent theme of a ‘mis-match’ • the ‘mis-match’ of interest in the current research is the gap between staff and student expectations of university • the better the match, the better the outcomes for the student • the notion of a ‘deal’ appears to have currency amongst students (e.g.Smith, 2008) • a mis-match occurs if the ‘deal’ struck between institution and students is perceived differently by the two parties • psychological contract theory embodies this notion of the ‘deal’; it is used as the theoretical framework for interpretation of the data in the current research
The Psychological Contract • Rousseau (1995): “... an exchange between individuals and their organisation...” • a form of social exchange theory • two versions of the concept: unilateral and bilateral • research mainly in the employment / organisational context, but... • ...“psychological contract theory is not limited in scope to this specific exchange relationship” (Rousseau, 1995) • limited application in educational contexts (Charlton et al, 2006)
Psychological contract as an over-arching theoretical framework Range of relevant psychological theories can apply to FYE, including: • Individual differences • Intrapersonal processes • Developmental processes • Social-psychological explanations Such processes can influence students’ perception of the ‘deal’, and are thus compatible with psychological contract theory.
Research aims • Gain in-depth qualitative accounts of first-year students’ expectations and experiences of their first Trimester • Interpret their experiences within the framework of psychological contract theory • Provide a basis for devising a schedule of extended induction and on-course support to address specific issues at strategic points during the first Trimester
Method • Two related semi-structured questionnaires were used to obtain written reflections of first-year students from the three degree programmes taking psychology at Edinburgh Napier. • Trimester 1 Questionnaire was administered in Week 1 of Trimester 1 and elicited ‘expectations’ of new entrants in the 2009-10 academic year • Trimester 2 Questionnaire was administered in Week 1 of Trimester 2 and elicited Trimester 1‘experiences’; this was used with both the 2008-09 and 2009-10 cohorts • Data were collected from first-year students at three points in time:
Method (continued) • The students’ reflections were obtained in a small group context as part of the normal Week 1 induction activities • The Tri 1 Questionnaire asked students to consider what they expected to learn, what they might find challenging and how they might meet such challenges • The Tri 2 Questionnaire mirrored the first one, asking what had been learned, what the main challenges had been and how they had met these challenges; it also asked them what advice they would give to new first-years • No data were available for Tri 1 of the 2008-09 cohort; it was the richness of the Tri 2 data from that cohort that led to more systematic collection of reflections from the new cohort in Tri 1 2009-10
Analysis • Tri 1 data set 2009-10 • Contrast with the rich data from Tri 2 of 2008-09 and Tri 2 of 2009-10 – these data sets were the focus of analysis • Search across the data for repeated patterns • Analysis procedure: thematic analysis (see Braun and Clarke  )
Themes derived from the Tri 2 data • wide range of experiences and concerns • experiences arising from changed learning environment, changed nature of demands • expectation of independent learning, but worries about motivation and help-seeking • writing and speaking - students for whom English is not their first language • preoccupation with time management – by far the most dominant theme • range of specific academic skills featured strongly - some comments showing metacognitive awareness A thematic map was constructed to organise main themes, sub-themes and sub-sub-themes.
Rationale for intervention An intervention is in preparation, to address issues arising in the data and promote development of effective psychological contracts. First-year students will be supported in: • establishing appropriate expectations from the outset • improving self-/time-management • developing a more metacognitive approach to their learning • developing appropriate perceptions of autonomy v.help-seeking The planned intervention will: • make implicit expectations explicit • be longitudinal • facilitate expression of “the student voice”
Planned ‘REAL’ programme of activities, for first-year social sciences students, Trimester 1, 2010-11
Further research • Evaluation of the ‘REAL’ intervention • Social identity / self-categorisation / group membership processes in transition • Prospective study of student trajectories from 2010-11 first-year cohort throughout their programme
References • Baxter Magolda, M. (2004). Evolution of a constructivist conceptualization of epistemological reflection. Educational Psychologist, 39(1), 31-42. • Braun, V. and Clarke, V. (2006) Using thematic Analysis in Psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3, 77-101 • Charlton, J.P., Barrow, C. and Hornby-Atkinson, P. (2006). Attempting to predict withdrawal from higher education using demographic, psychological and educational measures. Research in Post-Compulsory Education, 11, 31-47. • Clegg, S. and Bufton, S. (2008) Student support through personal development planning: retrospection and time. Research Papers in Education, 23:4, 435-450. • Rousseau, D. (1995) Psychological Contracts in Organizations. Thousand Oaks: Sage • Smith, I. (2008) Empowering the learner through enhanced engagement at Napier University. In QAA Quality Enhancement Themes: personalisation of the first year, pp.47-52 • Tinto, V. (2006) Taking student retention seriously. York: Higher Education Academy Resources. • Yorke, M. and Longden, B. (2008). The first-year experience of higher education in the UK: Final Report. York: Higher Education Academy Resources
Contacts: Phyllis Laybourn – email@example.com Morag Williamson – firstname.lastname@example.org