4th April 2018
The Australian Learning and Teaching Fellows network includes Australia’s leading higher education scholars, who bring a wealth of experience in evidenced-based approaches to support student success and high-quality learning and teaching.
In recognition of this expertise, we have created the ALTF Student Success blog: a forum for Fellows to share their insights and contribute to the national higher education conversation. The blog is published on a monthly basis, with special out-of-round editions released in response to hot topics.
This month we hear from Fellow Associate Professor Sarah O’ Shea from University of Wollongong, NSW.
In the sharing spirit of the ALTF, I wish to return to a theme from Sally Kift’s inaugural ALTF blog and consider how one key theme relates to my work with students derived from a range of equity groups. Sally eloquently described how for many employed in university teaching and learning spaces ‘what gets us up in the morning is an abiding belief in the transformative power of education’. Personally, this recognition of the transformative potential not only gets me up in the morning but also, has repeatedly led to a focus on research that places student voice front and centre. Over the last decade, I have undertaken various in-depth studies that seek to deeply explore how learners themselves perceive and narrate their higher education participation. This approach is deeply rooted in a belief that in order to understand student experience we need to focus on those best placed to reflect upon this – the students themselves.
When considering the notion of ‘the transformative power of education’, I am particularly reminded of older learners I have interviewed; most had taken a circuitous route to higher education, speaking to numerous twists and turns encountered before reaching their educational destination. In many cases, attending university had been a long-held dream or ambition, sometimes hidden or vanquished to the backstage areas of their lives. Often, it was an unexpected catalyst or event that led to their attendance, with the personal and public changes that ensued largely unanticipated.
Such transformations took many different guises; for some, university offered the possibility for variations in financial security or employment opportunities but equally, students spoke to the changes that occurred in identity formation and also, in relation to their relationships and networks. Essentially, university transformed them at the most fundamental level, this was ‘felt’ in an embodied sense, an opportunity to not only realise dreams but also to ‘be’ someone else. For example, one group of female caregivers, who were all first in their family to come to university, reflected how their perceptions of self and others had fundamentally shifted. Indeed for a number, university had unexpectedly offered the chance to try on different identities and guises. At 38, second year student Aleisha explained: “For me, when I go to uni, I’m not mum, I’m not wife, I’m not child – I just get to be me when I’m there. That’s what I really like about it”. While for Donna (39) attending university had literally changed the course of her life, she described how: ‘It’s lit me up again – I’d very much lost my way…’
image by soren-astrup-jorgensen via unsplash
Importantly, such transformations were rarely limited to the learners, but instead those around them also felt the repercussions of this attendance, it rippled out impacting on others in many and varied ways (O’Shea et al, 2017). Indeed it was this intergenerational impact that underpinned my 2015-2016 Australian Learning and Teaching Fellowship, which was informed by affiliated research (O’Shea, May, Stone & Delahunty, 2014-2015) that revealed the importance of family in supporting and retaining this first in family cohort. In surveys (n= 171) just over 70% of respondents indicated that it was to the family they turned when they encountered difficulties or considered departure. Yet family members reportedly had little to do with the university or had limited prior knowledge of the institution. Such insights led to the development of the Overarching Principles and Strategies For Supporting First-in-family Students and their Families. These Principles were developed as part of the Fellowship, in consultation with stakeholders from across the HE sector. Simply, they are designed to inform productive and meaningful relationship building both with learners and those who accompany them on this educational undertaking.
We know unequivocally that university trades on the benefits it offers learners. This is generally presented in terms of improved employability, new knowledge and of course broader skills base. All of these are commendable objectives; indeed Dawn Bennett’s previous ALTF blog provides insights into how student success and employability might be reconsidered. Equally though, universities need to be more aware of the unforseen and deeply personal transformations that learners encounter on these educational journeys. As West (1996) points out, higher education participation importantly provides an opportunity for individuals to ‘compose a new life, a different story and a more cohesive self’ (p.10). Yet the deeply personal repercussions resulting from such changes often remain silenced in neo-liberal university discourse, instead the rhetoric of fiscal imperatives and measurable outputs predominates.
With the demand driven system being dismantled, the opportunity for many to experience such transformations will undoubtedly be foreclosed. So perhaps, more than ever, we need to foreground this personal and embodied change in our research, our teaching and in our own academic narratives. If, as Sally Kift describes, it is the potential for transformation that gets you up in the morning then remaining mindful of how university both impacts on learners but also potentially extends into the household and the broader community remains vital. Such ‘transformative potential’ is best articulated by students themselves and so, I end with one such quote, some inspiration perhaps for those of you who may be struggling in these challenging times:
I was 18 and was unable to read and write, then I met my partner and he was the one who helped me, then I went on to do a numeracy and literacy course for three years, after this I went on to do a bridging course … then went on to University. I first want[ed] to do uni to show people that I can but then it become more […] a way for me to build self confidence and self worth.
(Female Final year Student, 31-40, Survey Response)
If you are interested in hearing more about the research with first in family students currently occurring please sign up for the e-newsletter at email@example.com or follow the Twitter feed: Uni_FiF
If you have a question or comment for Sarah, please join the conversation on our LinkedIn page.
O’Shea, S., May, J., Stone, C., & Delahunty, J. (2015). Breaking the Barriers: supporting and engaging mature age first-in-family university learners and their families. Available from : http://firstinfamily.com.au/report.php
O’Shea, S., May, J., Stone, C., & Delahunty, J. (2017). First-in-Family Students, University Experience and Family Life: Motivations, Transitions and Participation. London: Palgrave Macmillan
West, L. (1996). Beyond Fragments: Adults, motivation and higher education. A biographical analysis by Linden West. London: Taylor and Francis.
 All student quotes in this piece are derived from research affiliated with ARC Discovery Project “Capitals and Capabilities: Rethinking higher education persistence” (DP170100705: O’Shea, S (2017-2019)) .
12th March 2018
Professor Dawn Bennett
Employability is a hot topic across higher education, and perhaps it is time to look at it another way. In reality, employability is far more related to student success than to graduate success; the latter is simply the destination.
To change the dominant thinking, I propose that we adopt the term ‘employability thinking’. Employability thinking engages students in their cognitive and social development as capable and informed individuals, professionals and social citizens. Employability thinking prompts students to understand why they think the way they think, how to critique and learn the unfamiliar, and how their values, beliefs and assumptions can inform and be informed by their learning, lives and careers.
Our aim should be to engage every student in employability thinking. This can be achieved through careful scaffolding of WIL, through reflective and assessment tasks that include a future-oriented dimension, and through pedagogical approaches that develop students’ metacognition.
A crucial consideration is that students need to know they are developing their employability when they are developing their employability! Employability thinking isn’t something that is done to students; it needs to be explicit, and it needs to create cognitive links. This is where the thinking comes in.
Employability thinking involves students as partners in their development. As a cognitive approach, employability thinking aligns employability with both the purpose of higher education and the future of work.
Teachers are by far the most important and influential people in students’ higher education experience and we have to overcome the constraints of time, expertise and resources to get employability thinking in front of students.
The following ten tips are proposed. These will be adopted by a community of practice (CoP) embedding employABILITY into their classes in 2018.
- Put a link to self-help tools on every unit or module LMS (download this here).
- Make one required reading an employability thinking task rather than a reading. For example, require students to create a personalised career profile using the tool here.
- Look at the curriculum to identify each unit or module that interacts with employability thinking: for example, a careers panel, community project, guest speaker or placement. I call these ‘employability touchpoints’.
- Create a single-page program or module map in which these units or courses are highlighted, so that students and staff can see them as an integrated approach.
- Enlist careers services professionals to scaffold each touchpoint, creating partnerships between careers professionals and academic staff.
- Demonstrate to students that employability thinking is valued. Do this by mentioning it in all unit outlines, and align it with their success as students and graduates.
- Review assessment tasks to see where a future focus might be included. Use simple additional questions such as these, and add them whenever possible:
- Where might you use this in industry?
- What do you never want to do again?
- What would you do differently next time?
- What were your strengths, and how could you demonstrate in your CV?
- Ensure that every reflection is a critical reflection so that it looks to the future and from multiple perspectives. The templates for this are here.
- Communicate employability thinking as metacognitive rather than merely functional.
- Terms such as job, employer and skills are increasingly outdated. Replace them with work, ‘employers and clients’, and capacities.
- Emphasise that employability thinking and development is a lifelong engagement, and as such students’ success depends on them learning how to learn for themselves.
For more information and resources, visit the website and join the Semester 1 employABILITY community. You may also like to attend one of Dawn’s upcoming workshops as part of her HERDSA national roadshow in April 2018. Please see the event page for more information.
Do you have something to contribute or would like to ask Dawn a question? Join the conversation over on our LinkedIn page.
Dawn Bennett is John Curtin Distinguished Professor of Higher Education and Director of the EmployABILITY and Creative Workforce Initiatives with Curtin University in Australia. Her current grants relate to the characteristics of work in music (ARC Linkage), embedding employability development (OLT Senior National Fellowship) and employability in a global context (Graduate Careers Australia funding). Publications appear at Researchgate.
12th December 2017
2017 in review: All at sea?
It might fairly be observed that 2017 has been a(nother) year of turbulent ebbs and flows for Australian higher education. But, as we ride the waves towards year’s end, despite my instinctively black-hat inclinations, I remain hopeful for our pedagogical soul, despite the contrary winds that buffet our sector.
While we worry and wait for the inevitable Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) higher education (HE) cuts – Will it be HEPPP? Or research funding? Will caps be reimposed? Some other debilitating, unanticipated expenditure reduction to throw us off course? – despite everything, we will mostly continue, quite virtuously, to do our research, teach and support our students, redesign our 21st century curricula to prepare students for an uncertain world of future work, and engage with our multitude of communities. Because that is what we do. And we do it with passion and earnest integrity because we know in our hearts and minds that, quite fundamentally, what we do has the potential to make a very real difference to individual lives and extended communities.