OU ‘First in Family’ seminar

I am a real fan of one day or half day seminars on interesting topics, especially ones that are free! Add in the additional draw of an academic who I have widely referenced as one of the speakers and I’m in! So it was that I arrived in Milton Keynes for the OU’s First in Family seminar.

It was worth the visit before we even started when I got the chance to speak to said academic, Jacqueline Stevenson. I talked about my EdD research and she suggested she would be a good person to be external examiner, result! It was also great to see a big contingent from the University of Bedfordshire and I now have another avenue for recruiting students for my research.

  1. Dr O’Shea – FiF learners and HE participation

So anyway, less on me and back to the seminar. Our first speaker was Dr Sarah O’Shea, from Wollongong, talking about research on first in family (FiF) students in Australia. Their project focused on the family of students and the support family provided for FiF students. They used a narrative inquiry approach to get at the complex nature of the FiF student experience. They also focused on idea idea of FiF as a equity category (e.g. in the same way as disabled or BME)

Their main findings were:

  • FiF students place a high value on the opportunity to engage in HE
  • A degree is an opportunity to launch themselves and families into a positive trajectory, ie better job prospect & opportunities, better income etc. – ‘discourse of betterment / opportunity.’
  • Altruism – FiF students wanted to come to university to help others, e.g. wanting to become a nurse because of family experiences etc.
  • FiF students had a lot of hesitancies, apprehensions and doubt about their capacities to succeed in HE.
  • FiF students found it a hugely transformational experience.
  • Distorted expectations due to myths about university in the media, movies etc.

Obstacles: Financial was the largest (links to Socio-Economic Status and FiF students) but also family obstacles and academic difficulties.

Who is doing the supporting? Parents were the primary supporters of FiF students followed by partners and then friends.

In summary: Family members are rich source of emotional support. FiF students are cultural change agents within their family – provide alternative perspectives on educational participation.

Website: www.firstinfamily.com.au/index.php

2. Dr Henley – 1st Year Experience and targeted learning programme

The OU had pulled together a very broad, international set of speakers. Our second speaker was from Auckland, Dr Margaret Henley. Margaret’s focus was the first year experience and a specific intervention for students before their first written assignment called a targeted learning programme.

Dr Henley gave us an overview of the suport mechanism at the University of Auckland particularly in relation to FiF students and indigenous students. Their experiences have shown that students need close monitoring and support at the beginning to get them into the right habits for university support. They will often mandate specific courses (the equivalent of our modules) for certain students, have a number of mandatory support workshops and they monitor attendance and achievement. The aim is that new students are not left alone to figure it out for themselves.

One interesting development is that all students (home students included) have to take an academic English assessment. One of the reasons is that many of their students have English as a second language in the home and they often particularly struggle with academic English as opposed to ‘everyday’ English. Students who are identified as having weaker skills in the test are supported with academic writing courses.

In addition to all that close support they have instituted targeted learning support sessions in the faculty of Arts for the student’s first major assignment which has proved very popular. Students were reluctant to speak to their tutors about assignments and as I know only too well, students often don’t take up the offer of getting feedback on draft assignments.

The sessions drew together academics and professional services staff to provide a holistic support to students for their writing. They were held in the library with mentors, librarians, student support staff and academic staff in a one stop shop type approach. The academic staff could support specific aspects of the assignment. The librarians were there to help with referencing, finding sources etc. They had writing support staff to help with structure & academic writing. They were run 7 days before the assignment deadline and it was scheduled into their timetable. The timing was designed to get them to start their assignments earlier than trying to do it at the last minute. It was sold to students with a very strong link to them getting a better mark. The kind of support seems a much better approach than generic writing or library support and was well received by all staff involved with the aim to get closer contact between academics and professional support staff.

3. Sam Broadhead – Studio Practice & FiF

The 3rd speaker was Sam Broadhead from Leeds College of Arts. Her focus was on studio practice in Art & Design. The main challenge they have is in helping students to understand how to make use of the spaces and nature of studio practice. Sam talked about ‘signature pedagogies’ for Art & Design and used Bernsteins’ model of visible and invisible pedagogies to critique the teaching practices in Art & Design. Invisible pedagogies, such as those found in studio practice, reproduce class differences. In other words, they require cultural capital to know how to use the studio spaces. Widening Participation (WP) students are disadvantaged because tutors make too many implicit assumptions about the space and how students can use it. Sam used the phrase ‘The tyranny of freedom’ to describe how WP students might feel.

I thought this was a really interesting idea and I can see how the notion of invisible pedagogies can be used in my practice to support academics in their teaching. I think it will be particularly useful in teaching observations to think about what implicit assumptions is the teacher making about the learning and how students should be reacting to the learning environment.

Sam went on to describe a number of interventions the College had taken. These interventions were largely pre-university related to ‘making students change’ and adapt to the university environment rather than changing the teaching practices of art & design tutors. Although the interventions might be helpful in supporting transition, students have to fit into the culture of art school rather than art school adapting. Sam is concerned that this then just reproduces a deficit model and perception of WP students.

4. Professor Jacqueline Stevenson – Rethinking First in Family

Last but certainly not least was Professor Jacqueline Stevenson who was talking about FiF and looking at community cultural capital as a means to support FIF students and a route to success. Professor Stevenson’s talk was the most theoretical and I will leave the detail to the next section on themes. She largely drew on the work of Tara Yosso notably this paper) to problematise the concept of FiF.

Key Themes from the Seminar

Theme 1: Defining First in Family

A theme that recurred in many presentations and formed the backbone of Professor Stevenson’s was the challenge in actually defining first in family. There has been a shift from ‘first generation’ to ‘first in family’ but what does it mean?

The Australian project defined FiF as:

“no-one in the immediate family of origin including siblings, children, partners of parents having previously attended a higher education institution or completed a degree.”

This seemed to be a common and widely accepted definition. Although the definition seems relatively clear, however, underlying the notion of FiF is that there is a single, homogeneous category of student who can be supported. Once we start to look at exactly who is FiF that idea starts to unravel. Professor Stevenson highlighted the complexities, for example:

  • Refugees – It is estimated that nearly a quarter of adult refugees have a degree from their country of origin. However, these are often not recognised in the UK. So refugees may be classified as FiF even though they themselves or other relatives already have a degree.
  • Likewise, international students with international qualifications and strong family history of HE in their birth country where their qualifications might not be recognised in the UK.
  • Mature learners -around 10% of mature UGs already have another degree.

There is a tendency to see FiF as an ‘at risk’ group and therefore policy and practice tends to be aimed at supporting these students but given the complexity this is problematic. Professor Stevenson highlighted one example where FiF tends to overlap with socio-economic status (SES), i.e. FiF  more likely from lower SES (I would be interested to know if anyone has statistics on this.) She highlighted the assumption that middle class students will be OK even if FiF because of their SES.

Whatever way you look at the issue; defining and supporting FiF students is complex and we should not see FiF students as a single group.

Theme 2: Cultural and social capital

Another clear theme of the seminar was about capital in the form of social, cultural, family, community etc. (Bourdieu was a popular reference point!)

Dr O’Shea raised the contradiction that although family were a crucial support mechanism for FiF students there was a disconnect for students as their families might be struggling to understand the students’ experiences. So the issue of family capital was raised; to what extent does the social capital (or lack thereof) in the family support or hinder FiF students?

Professor Stevenson advances the idea that community cultural wealth can be used to develop approaches to supporting FiF students. She pointed us to Angela Locke’s reflective questions on each of Yosso’s six aspects of community cultural wealth to consider for our own and our institutional practices.

Theme 3: University engagement with families

Having heard evidence of the importance of family support, the question was raised about HEIs inconsistent approach to our students’ families and how we work with them. “Family have been left at the gate, both literally and metaphorically” was one quote from the seminar.

It seems that we engage with family to some extent in outreach work and most notably during the whole application process (mainly through open days) but after the student arrives, then what? Something that institutions should think about.

As an illustration, in the Australian project, most FiF students’ family members had never been on campus. They could not do family interviews on campus because the family member would not come – possibly because it felt like an intimidating, ‘alien’ environment.

So overall a fascinating and useful event.


Do students have to conform to our values?

It takes a convergence of events and a receptive mind to gain new insight. This thought was prompted by a planned conversation with a colleague and the chance arrival in our office of a copy of ‘The Doctorate: international stories of the UK experience’, Trahar (2011).

In discussing academic advising, we came across the challenge of advising students whose values might not be the same as ours or those espoused in the higher education system in the UK. The job of the advisor should be to make students aware of the values inherent in the UK system. This is good. Students should always be made aware of the expectations of an educational system but you have to wonder how far we ‘force’ (if such is the right term) students to conform to those values in order to do well. That by espousing values that have developed over hundreds of years in UK academia we are unconsciously devaluing the student’s own values and the culture from which those values derived.

It is a situation neatly summed up by Trahar (2011) in her story of a supervision of a student with very different beliefs to her own. Trahar struggled  with notions of herself as open to diversity yet confronted with ideas of the world at odds with her own beliefs. The story was resolved with discussing her discomfort with the student which allowed them both to move forward. How often does this happen? This might work with a close doctoral supervision relationship but what about the undergraduate with their infrequent contact with their advisor?

Stockfelt (in Trahar 2011) rails against the hegemony of the western epistemologies of (mostly) dead white men that must be referenced. How can these be relevant frameworks for understanding the stories of disaffected young men in Jamaica? All around academia you will find ‘white’ curricula. It is not surprising really, most staff are white. We tend to teach and design our curricula around our research interests and with what we are most familiar. Or possibly we are directed in certain ways by, mostly white, professional bodies.

So how do we create a truly diverse and inclusive curriculum? I don’t have the solution to that (if you do please let me know!) In my work, I hope that the global citizenship graduate attribute will be a lever to have the conversation and to push the curricula in a more diverse direction. But first, I will start with my own practice and use May & Thomas’ (2010) audit questions and of course have a serious reflection about how to make the delivery more inclusive by September!


May, H. & Thomas, L. (2010) Embedding equality and diversity in the curriculum: Self-evaluation framework. HEA: York

Stockfelt, S. (2011) ‘Slave to the white leaders on paper? The PhD expedition’ in Trahar, S. (ed) The Doctorate: international stories of the UK experience, HEA ESCalate: Bristol

Trahar, S. (2011) The Doctorate: international stories of the UK experience, HEA ESCalate: Bristol

On teaching international students

I am just about to embark on an online course at Oxford Brookes University called ‘Teaching International Students‘. As preparation, I have been reading Teaching International Students edited by Carroll and Ryan. One of the first messages that strikes me is that in order to teach international students me must first know ourselves. This means being aware of our own culture; both the national culture and the academic culture. By being aware of the cultural aspects of higher education in the UK, by being aware of the unconscious, taken for granted beliefs (as Schein puts it) or the habitus of HE (as Bourdieu puts it) we not only do better for our international students but also our home students. This is because, even for our home students, the academic culture may be very unfamiliar to them. By being aware of the cultural artefacts we can be more explicit about what is required of students and hopefully this means they can succeed.

This should be fairly obvious and is clearly explained in the book. What is not so obvious though is our role in being self-aware. Yes we can be self-aware and sensitive to difference and this is a good thing. However, what does this really mean for us as individuals? For me, it requires a flexibility in beliefs. Beliefs about ourselves and beliefs about others. We all hold beliefs which others would contest are false. In the case of international students and students more widely, these could be well meaning generalisations based on past experience. We can make the mistake (due to time pressure or class size) of grouping certain students together and assuming they will behave in the same way rather than treating everyone as an individual. I think how we deal with challenges to our beliefs are important. I have come across some scientists who dismiss out of hand alternative approaches (mainly qualitative methods) to research such as those found in social sciences or education. I don’t want to single out scientists. The same could be said for many individuals. The key defining factor about such people is their unwillingness to question their own beliefs and look at the alternative perspectives presented to them (or at least try to understand why the other person holds an alternative perspective).

So linking the two thoughts together, it seems that to teach international students (and indeed all students) well we need not only to be self aware and aware of our own cultures but also to be flexible in our understanding of our own beliefs such that challenges to them are carefully considered. This will allow us to at least come close to walking in the other persons shoes, to better understand them in order to help their learning.

Thoughts on International students

I have recently been involved in recruiting for a mentoring project to pair up an international student with a home student to support both students in academic writing. What a fascinating experience, it really challenged my ideas about the rather simplistic differences between the two. Yes there is a clear distinction in terms of fees paid but life and identity are never that simple.

What if you were born in Europe but have lived in the UK and consider yourself a home student? What about your language? Is English your first or second (or third, fourth etc.) language? And therefore what support do you require and how will it differ based on cultural and linguistic considerations. Someone used to British culture would presumably feel less of a shock coming to a UK university that someone who arrives in the UK immediately prior to their study? What is interesting is that it is not as simple as I had initially thought. This would then suggest to me the merits of the idea of being as inclusive as possible in our practice. Being inclusive is good for everyone. So I am very much looking forward to the project and to learning more about internationalisation.