Stories of ‘Becoming Student’ – Lessons for Lecturers

Issues surrounding transition and becoming student have been highlighted in research as troublesome (Merrill, 2015; Christie, 2009). Recent policy developments have resulted in student learning experiences that are not always positive (Burke, 2013; Morgan, 2013) indicating that students can feel ‘disempowered, lack confidence and feel completely unprepared for university study’ (Hirst, 2004: 70). They particularly struggle to ‘decode’ new and unfamiliar practices (Gourlay, 2009), and experience confusion and mixed messages regarding academic conventions, much of which is implicit or hidden within the curriculum. Rarely do we explore such experiences with our students, nor do we utilise, beyond formal settings, the peer and linked peer ‘resources’ that exist in terms of students’ critical reflections at key stages of their academic careers.

At the 2016 Conference, we presented our initial findings from research into the process of ‘becoming student’. Having explored our own personal stories of this process, through a range of media, from poems to artwork and speech, we identified themes and questions for use in subsequent Focus Groups. Two Focus Groups were established, each comprised of between three and six undergraduate students from the Plymouth Institute of Education and two project members as facilitators. Each group was representative of the university’s diverse student body.

This paper explores the stories that were shared and draws out findings which move research forward in this field. Such stories were perceived and experienced by the researchers as containing complex histories, intertwined with problematic systemic processes, which combined to create challenging, political, and diverse realities for students. The research aimed to gain further insight into these realities in order to better understand what ‘becoming student’ entails and how ‘student’ is positioned in Higher Education.

We will share our results and demonstrate how students consider the expectations on them imposed by wider agendas in HE and society, as well as the importance of the social side of their university experience. We conclude with advice for lecturers and tutors to help facilitate students as they negotiate these demands, the complex image of ‘student’ that they hold and the pressures this exerts. We will ask you to consider how this research may inform future practices, and how these could make transitions into the ‘student’ world more visible, shared and understood.