Higher education is at a critical point in time. On the one hand there is a push from older universities to be regarded as centres of excellence in research. Other universities appear to be adopting a 'human capital' or 'reform' model in response to political and economic pressure to produce 'cleverer' students who are economically more productive. In the light of this scenario, this paper discusses the results of a survey of the academic learning needs of a small cohort of mature age students. In addition, the paper addresses some of the issues and challenges for higher education institutions in meeting the needs of such students as they enter the academy.
Most of us working in the field of tertiary education are committed to the ideals of critical pedagogy, equity of access, inclusive curricula, and the empowerment of individuals; yet how often do we reflect on our values and our beliefs? How does our practice reflect these ideals? Often our focus remains on being well prepared for lectures; demonstrating to students (and our peers) how knowledgeable we are; or putting on a good performance. But how often do we consider what learning is taking place in our classes, or what are the needs of our students as apprentices in the academy?
Tertiary education may be considered as a domain associated with the production and distribution of knowledge (McCormack, 1991) and, as such, specific literacies as social practices are valued (Gee, 1991). So, when adults choose to enter or re-enter academic settings they often experience a culture clash as they (and their families) face problems in coming to terms with the new academic discourses. In Gee's (1991) terms such social practices or 'Discourses' involve ways of talking, interacting, thinking, valuing and believing, all of which are socially and historically constructed. Such Discourses involve many sub-Discourses made up of concrete objects, for example, libraries, books, CD Roms and people, as well as abstract concepts of knowledge such as norms, values, beliefs.
Another way of looking at the academy, or academic Discourse, is as if it were a club, with its own set of rules about who can or cannot be a member and how members ought to behave. These rules may or may not involve a range of 'rites of passage' or tests which serve to preserve the culture of the club and at the same time to ensure membership. These 'Discourses are not mastered by overt instruction but by enculturation ('apprenticeship') into social practices' (Gee, 1991, pp. 146-147). So, the first weeks of university life in which students become aware of the change between 'self' prior to coming to university and 'self' as part of the academy, its expectations, attitudes and ideologies, are often particularly stressful for them. It is with these issues in mind that I wish first to outline some thoughts related to the changing role of universities. Then, using data from a small research project at one Australian university, I will discuss some problems faced by students and propose possible solutions.
... despite the huge increases in enrolments, despite the billions of dollars allocated by a Federal Government over the past ten years, despite the broadening of access, higher education is still largely the preserve of those from better-off, Anglo-Australian homes.This 'instrumentalist' view of literacy reproduces cultural inequalities through an emphasis on reading as 'mastery of great books' or decontextualised exercises, with writing taught as a 'set of disembodied rules, exhortations and prohibitions about what one can and cannot do as a writer' (Corcoran, 1991, p. 88). Hence, literacy is perceived as being a series of practices or basic skills (e.g., lower-order reading skills, higher-order comprehension) which once acquired will transfer automatically to any new situation. As the following survey results show, this belief is still held by a minority of members of the academy.
Two main issues arise out of this model of learning and literacy. First, the 'instrumentalist' view of literacy does not take into account the increasing complexity and abstraction of texts and secondly, the development of a critical reader/writer. Concerning the complexity and abstraction of texts, Rose, McInnes and Korner (1992) have identified the language demands required at different stages of science education together with the language demands of different science-based occupations (see figure 1). This analysis suggests that it is simplistic to claim that the acquisition of basic skills will effectively equip students to deal with the increasing complexity and abstraction of scientific texts either for further study or for work. We cannot assume that even elite students will be able to move from 'building up technical taxonomies and scientific arguments in each field' to 'nominalised processes, causal relations and dense technical terms' (Cope & Kalantzis, 1993, p. 13) without some assistance.
Figure 1: The language of science in school and work
Hence it is not surprising that researchers at the university of Melbourne and La Trobe University found that 40 per cent of science students failed tests of their ability to express themselves in English. Students were learning facts rather than trying to comprehend the concepts they were being taught. They also experienced difficulty integrating ideas from different sources (Maslen, 1993).
The second issue is the development of the critical reader/writer who is able to 'discuss and counter the techniques that texts use to position and construct their very identities and relations' (Luke, 1992b, p. 19). As students move into tertiary study they must become aware of the demands of academic discourse - that texts are not just to be read in relation to self and one's own experiences as 'subjective knowing' but should move toward 'connected knowing' (Belenky et al., 1986) which recognises that knowledge within each discipline is constructed through inter-textual readings of existing positions and stances (Pancini, Moraitis & McCormack, 1990). These are skills which many students, through rawness to these new texts and discursive constructions, lack. As Gee (1991, p. 91) states 'language and literacy acquisition are forms of socialisation into discourses. They are forms of socialisation into ways of thinking and believing, manifested through language'.
During the early 1990s, the Australian government's agenda was to 'ensure that experienced and competent, but not formally qualified workers have access to the further education and training required for career progression' (Dawkins, 1988, p. 15). As a result, at least part of the increased rate of participation in higher education in Australia (from 349 000 students in 1983 to 559 000 in 1992) was due to the economic situation which forced many adults to reconsider their qualifications and future prospects. Osborne and Gallacher (1995, p. 233) report similar comments regarding the UK scene:
The UK must change its higher education system from one geared to a small minority to a more open system which brings many more people to a generally higher level of education than they attain now. The changing economic climate and a new, mature-age student cohort raise new challenges for higher education institutions, such as 'the need to experiment with new entry criteria to recognise the practical skills and experience of older students, new methods of teaching and accreditation, and new course offerings' (Dawkins, 1988, p. 20).The first issue arising from this scenario is that, while 'New Times' universities are intended to create new learning organisations, government policy tends to reinforce the instrumentalist view of literacy which leads to 'a culture of positivism, to competency-based systems of instruction, to behaviourist models of pedagogy, and to versions of systems theory' (Corcoran, 1991, p. 88) a move which many institutions are trying to resist.
The second issue is that of the educational background of these 'experienced and competent, but not formally qualified workers' (Dawkins, 1988, p. 15) who enter university as mature-age students. Many of these students left school at the end of year 10 and have been absent from compulsory education for perhaps ten years or more. During this period these students would have concentrated their efforts on the literacies required in their chosen professions. Referring to the components of the model in figure 1, many of these beginning undergraduate students would be able to read and comprehend a newspaper or have 'a sound knowledge of technical taxonomies, causal explanations' and possibly scientific arguments within their trade or vocation, but many would have difficulty comprehending academic texts and writing coherent argumentative essays which involve 'highly nominalised processes, causal relations and dense technical terms'.
This leads to the third issue, also raised earlier, which is the assumption that basic learning and skills transfer easily from one situation to another. Research by Mikulecky (1982, 1984) indicates that different contexts require different reading skills. For example, at that time, 58 per cent of reading by blue-collar workers was for the purpose of doing something (e.g., a motor mechanic reading a manual). In contrast only 2 per cent of the reading of blue-collar workers was in order to learn. Further, Mikulecky (1990) asserts that if these literacy skills are not practised frequently, they will be lost.
So we need to move away from the 'instrumentalist' approach to literacy and learning toward viewing literacy from a different perspective, that is, from the dialogic or sociological viewpoint. If we take this perspective, language may be considered as a social construct in which different social practices require different literacies. Research by Wickert (1989) is significant in that it moves away from a 'basic skills' or unidimensional test of literacy towards building literacy profiles, that is, describing the variations in literacy performance of a range of people given a range of tasks. We now consider that people use multiple literacies, which vary in level of performance depending on the nature of the task, its complexity, the degree of abstraction and the context.
So, in terms of a functional model of language in use (Halliday, 1985), students need to understand that language is meaning making, that it is a system of choice. In a paper investigating the language abilities of tertiary students, Nightingale (1991, p. 8) states:
Errors which distinguished between skilled writers and others were not the errors usually emphasised in calls for 'back to basics', nor those emphasised in traditional drills. Many errors typical of poor writing were those associated with the constitution of meaning.She does not believe that objective testing of basic skills will identify whether or not a student can write well, as students may perform well in one subject and poorly in another. Partly this may be explained by a lack of content knowledge in a particular area, but it could be that the student does not understand the specialist language of the discipline or vocabulary combinations.
The discussion so far has identified various issues which have been identified by previous researchers concerning learning and literacy in academic education. These are just some of the issues which became apparent when considering the problems faced by undergraduate mature-age students at an Australian university and which were investigated through the following study.
In 1993, a learning support project (Searle, 1994) was undertaken to examine the educational background and perceived learning needs of students in the Bachelor of Adult and Vocational Teaching (BAVT) degree. As part of the project, forty-two students were surveyed. As indicated in Table 1, 60 per cent of these students were commencing their course of study and in varying degrees coming to terms with the demands of academic study. Some 62 per cent of the students had a trade background and 50 per cent were over the age of 40 years.
|1. Stage of course||Commencing|
|2. Background of students||Trade|
|3. Age||20-30 years|
|4. Last education||<12 months|
|5. Age left school||14 years|
|6. Learning support||Needed|
|7. Area of support need||Return to study|
|8. When support needed||Before course|
With each lecture
|9. Was support available?||Yes|
|10. Type of support desired||Orientation workshop|
|11. Student willing to pay||Yes - study school|
Yes -writing tutorial
Yes - indiv. tuition
An analysis of these demographic data from Bachelor of Adult and Vocational Teaching (BAVT) students, indicated the possibility of there being two 'at risk' groups. The larger group (60 per cent of the students) had trade backgrounds, were 40-50 years and all those requesting learning support left compulsory education at between 14 and 16 years of age. This group (A) may never have acquired academic literacy skills at school and formed the majority of those requesting help in all areas.
The second group (B) were all over 40 years of age and had not attended an educational institution for more than ten years. Given that this group would have required academic skills to pursue their careers, it may be assumed that they have subsequently suffered learning loss (Mikulecky, 1990) or that their skills lie in areas other than those valued in the particular Discourses in which they now find themselves. The focus of need for this group was on 'return to study' and academic writing skills.
From interviews with students and Faculty support staff (not lecturers), it was discovered that many students felt very insecure about their studies and displayed a great lack in self-confidence: Group A from the perception that they never had the skills and were always considered 'dummies'; and Group B because 'we're too old to learn', or 'we're being forced to re-train'. Interestingly, both groups tended to talk to support staff and not directly to individual lecturers.
Most students surveyed preferred learning support to be available either concurrently with the course or on the same day as lectures. However, it should be noted that many of these students have families and would find it difficult to attend at other times.
Similar surveys were conducted of lecturers within the course with eight responses, and of other lecturers within the faculty with twelve responses. The results are summarised in table 2. Interestingly, all the BAVT lecturers (indicated on table 2 as A) and 98 per cent of other lecturers (indicated as B) agreed that students had underdeveloped skills, particularly in the macroskill of writing, with the estimated percentage of students requiring assistance varying from 25-50 per cent.
While it is possible that the students and lecturers were an unrepresentative group with special concerns about literacy, their responses are instructive. All but one of the lecturers and 98 per cent of students surveyed believed that the university should be offering student learning support. However, it is interesting to note the comments of the lecturer who followed the 'classical' tradition, that is, who believed that as universities cater for an elite 'not everyone is capable of gaining a degree, to assist low achieving students in this way diminishes the achievements of those who are capable'. This assumes that students who achieve well at school will adequately and automatically transfer their skills to tertiary study. However, this is not necessarily the case. In fact, the responses of both groups of lecturers to question 2 (which asked for an estimate of the percentage of students with underdeveloped skills) are very similar, suggesting that both school leavers and mature-age students require learning support.
|Question||Response category||A: BAVT|
|1. Do students have underdeveloped skills||Yes||8||11|
|2. Students with under developed skills||> or = 50%|
|3. Area of student need||Writing|
|4. Should university offer support||Yes||8||11|
|5. Area of support||Academic writing|
Return to study
|6. Availability of support||Before course|
With each lecture
|7. Do you offer learning support?||Yes||7||4|
|8. Who should pay?||Faculty|
One issue which emerged from the study was that although lecturers stated they offered support, several students commented that lecturers were not available for consultation when help was needed. Another issue was the cost of study skills programs and rising educational fees when many students are from relatively low-income groups.
Luke (1991) argues that students need foundational understandings of how language works in social contexts and to that end a mandatory first-year subject in language, society and education was developed at James Cook University. A multidisciplinary approach was taken in the subject which includes language and education studies, social foundations, academic writing and study skills. Through analysis of popular and academic texts students are introduced not only to aspects of grammar, morphology, semantics and pragmatics but also to 'how language is used to express and constitute power and ideology in everyday texts and talk' (Luke, 1991, p. 51). In this way, students are enabled to interrogate texts and challenge the ideologies behind them, to contest or resist dominant discourses and to take control over meaning.
Secondly, if university students are required to produce well-researched, well-argued and well-structured assignments using nominalised processes, causal relations and dense technical terms, as suggested by the analysis in figure 1, we need to give them good examples to read as well as explicitly to model effective and appropriate writing. Basically, this is a quality-in-teaching issue and needs to involve all disciplines and all lecturers as outlined in the following recommendations from the report 'Teaching English Literacy' (Christie et al., 1991). Note that while their recommendations referred to secondary school teachers they apply equally to teachers in tertiary institutions.
Recommendation 44: That all secondary non-English subject specialist teachers be prepared to interpret the role of technicality and abstraction in constructing the specialised knowledge of their discipline. (Chapter 184.108.40.206)Thirdly, members of the academy should facilitate such development through explicit explanations and modelling of appropriate cognitive processes and discourse analysis. As Christie et al. (1991) point out, many of the problems with student assessment items may relate to lack of explicit direction from lecturers. This point is reinforced by Nightingale (1991, p. 68) who states: 'Among other things, there is really no agreement about what it is we are trying to assess or about how we should be assessing it'. Further, Nightingale comments that where there appears to be a lack of consistency of errors these are often a matter of the lecturer's personal taste or discipline conventions. In addition, error-free writing may still be poor writing, that is, where the writer does not have control of meaning. For example, words may be placed together so that they are syntactically correct but are manifestly 'incorrect' in terms of disciplinary usage.
Recommendation 45: That all secondary non-English subject specialist teachers be prepared to engage all students in reading and writing extended passages of prose from the varieties of written discourse used in their relative disciplines. (Chapter 4, Section 4.6.3)
Recommendation 46: That all secondary non-English subject specialist teachers be prepared to work with their students, using explicit knowledge about language to construct and deconstruct their specialist discourses, with a view to engaging with these discourses as powerful writers and critical readers. (Chapter 4, Section 4.6.4)
Recommendation 47: That all secondary non-English subject specialist teachers be prepared to work explicitly with students on the complementarity of spoken and written styles of argumentation, ensuring that all students can translate fluently across the two modes. (Chapter 4, Section 4.6.5)
Thus the emphasis should be on teaching students how to learn, so that they can take control of their own learning. As students become more strategic in their learning, they should become more able to control the affective areas, such as anxiety, lack of confidence and lack of motivation, which so dominate the early weeks in the academy. The starting point might be a reflection on what it is that students are being expected to compose or comprehend. What are the specific knowledges, understandings and appreciations which are expected? What are the specific generic structures and language features required in composing texts in different disciplines? As well, lecturers should be more proactive in developing metacognitive awareness in students.
As an example of how this may be achieved, students enrolling in the BAVT at Griffith University are now invited to attend a Study Skills workshop (for external students as part of their Summer School) or a series of internal tutorials covering aspects of 'learning to learn' as well as reading and writing in academic discourses. Specific writing skills have also been built into the foundation subject Communication in Adult and Vocational Education.
With the move toward flexible and open learning and off-campus delivery, the needs of external students must also be addressed. External courses are still largely print-based and require a considerable amount of motivation, organisation and discipline on the part of the student. Considerable support is required for students, particularly those from the 'at risk' groups, to enable them to achieve. Therefore, attention should be paid to the instructional design of off-campus materials and use of multi-media approaches to learning, in order to alleviate or minimise language and learning difficulties.
Finally, for marginalised or 'at risk' students to become socialised into academic discourses, they are required to put in much more effort than is required for those students who are more closely aligned to the privileged discourses. For this reason alone, members of the academy should reflect not only on their own teaching practices but on student learning, and how they may assist all students to become successful apprentices to academic learning.
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|Author details: Jean Searle is a lecturer in Adult Literacy and Communication in Adult and Vocational Education at Griffith University. She is interested in issues of access, equity and the provision of learning support for tertiary students. In her previous position in TAFE she was involved in the development of distance literacy resources and the use of technology in flexible delivery. She is a co-Director of the Language Australian Queensland Research Network Node, and is a member of several adult literacy organisations at state, national and international levels.
Please cite as: Searle, J. (1997). Apprenticed to the academy: Mature age students entering university. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 13(1), 54-70. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer13/searle.html