22 SES 02 C, Paper Session
Equal access to and participation in higher education is a significant challenge to HE policy development and HE management. A growing body of research literature is concerned with the admission, persistence and graduation of students from historically underrepresented groups, commonly referred to as ‘non-traditional students’ (Holmegaard et al., 2017). Yet, while there is considerable literature on widening participation initiatives aimed at increasing student diversity (e.g., Bowes et al., 2013), as well as on the experiences of non-traditional students (e.g., Bowl, 2001; O’Shea, 2020), there is limited research addressing the role of practitioners who provide support to students in higher education institutions.
To address this gap, this study draws on the practice perspective on knowledge and learning and explores the practice-based knowledge shared by support practitioners working in Israeli higher education institutions. The practice perspective considers social action and social knowledge as inseparable, and knowledge (or rather ‘knowing’) as an activity rooted in everyday practice. Practice-based studies explore knowing as a distributed process that emanates from doing, interacting and participating in everyday activities in particular settings (Gherardi, 2001; Wenger, 1998). My goal is not to present ‘good practice’, although evidence to such practices emerges from the findings, but to provide insights and understandings that add to our knowledge about students, specifically non-traditional students. I address the following research questions: What are the insights of support practitioners regarding the experiences of non-traditional students? How is ‘student support’ practiced, experienced, and negotiated in the day-to-day activities of support practitioners?
The study is based on interviews with 43 practitioners who work in 17 Israeli higher education institutions and addresses their expertise, insights, and practices.
The findings present a nuanced account behind the scenes of the massification of HE. First, I show that support practitioners in different institutions share situated knowledge, embedded in practice, based on interactions with students and staff members. These practitioners comprise communities of practice, working with shared repertoires of practices and resources. Then, I discuss two themes that emerge from practitioners’ practice-based knowledge that have received limited attention in the research literature on non-traditional students. The first theme is practitioners’ collectively developed understandings of two crucial points in the student lifecycle (Roberts, 2018; Thomas et al., 2002): admission and withdrawal. Practitioners suggest that support at the stages of pre-enrollment and enrollment is a missing element in the student lifecycle approach. Lack of knowledge at this stage often leads to incorrect choices of field of study or institution. In addition, practitioners argue for the need to provide support to students who withdraw. While this is a practice that takes place in isolated support programs and as an informal initiative of individual practitioners, the interviewees call for institutional policies that integrate support for students who withdraw into the lifecycle approach. In addition, practitioners recognize ‘healthy withdrawal’, meaning cases where withdrawal appears to be the right solution.
The second theme concerns their situated knowledge and support practice in the context of faculties and departments. Practitioners suggest that rather than thinking in terms of the 'university' or ‘college’, it is more useful to consider the faculty or department as the relevant organizational level for student support. The work of support consultants is framed within, adapted to, and also limited by the context of the organizational culture of the faculty. A distributive structure of support services, in which practitioners also work from within faculties, appears to be beneficial in terms of strengthening relations with students and staff, and generating faculty-situated support knowledge and practice.
The study is based on in-depth semi-structured interviews conducted with 43 student support practitioners (36 females, 7 males) working at five universities, eight public academic colleges, one private college, three teachers’ colleges, two non-governmental organizations (NGOs) (whose advisors are working on behalf of universities and colleges), and two student organizations. Most of the interviewees work in student support units at the Dean of Students Office (33). Thirteen are mid-level or lower-level managers of units or programs, while the rest are advisors. In addition, 34 interviewees are Jewish and 9 are Arabs. Although observation is considered the most suitable method of studying everyday practice (Halkier, 2017), the current research makes use of in-depth interviews because the main component of practitioners’ work (counseling) is not amenable to observation due to client confidentiality. In the interviews, participants were asked to describe their everyday activities, the challenges they face, the strategies and tools they employ, and their insights into the experiences of non-traditional students. Interviews lasted approximately 1 hour and were recorded and transcribed verbatim. Thematic analysis of the qualitative data was conducted with Dedoose software. In analyzing the interview transcripts for recurring emergent themes, I was guided by the research questions pertaining to what practitioners know about students and what practitioners do in their day-to-day support work. In addition to the categories derived inductively from the interview transcripts, I used deductive categories based on constructs from relevant literature (Corbin & Strauss, 2014). The categories that emerged from the iterative process of analysis were organized into two major themes: practice-based knowing and practice-based doing.
I argue that using the practice perspective as a lens through which to examine practice-based knowledge of student support can advance our understanding of the experience of non-traditional students and the challenges of WP initiatives. The expertise embedded in practitioners’ practice-based knowledge has critical implications for widening the participation of non-traditional students. The close familiarity of practitioners with students’ experiences, their holistic perceptions of studentship and the student lifecycle, and their local knowledge of institutional contexts, embeds both current practices and future possibilities: what student support currently looks like and what it should become. To further widen access to and participation in HE, this expertise should be taken into consideration by institutional management and policy makers.
Bowl, M. (2001). Experiencing the barriers: Non-traditional students entering higher education. Research Papers in Education, 16(2), 141-160. Bowes, L., Thomas, L., Peck, L., & Nathwani, T. (2013). International research on the effectiveness of widening participation. Bristol: HEFCE. Corbin, J., & Strauss, A. (2014). Basics of qualitative research: Techniques and procedures for developing grounded theory. Sage Publications. Gherardi, S. (2001). From organizational learning to practice-based knowing. Human Relations, 54(1), 131-139. Halkier, B. (2017). Questioning the ‘Gold Standard’ thinking in qualitative methods from a practice theoretical perspective: Towards methodological multiplicity. In: Jonas, M., Littig, B., & Wroblewski, A. (Eds.). Methodological reflections on practice oriented theories (pp. 193-204). Springer, Cham. Holmegaard, H. T., Madsen, L. M., & Ulriksen, L. (2017). Why should European higher education care about the retention of non-traditional students? European Educational Research Journal, 16(1), 3-11. O’Shea, S. (2020). Crossing boundaries: Rethinking the ways that first-in-family students navigate ‘barriers’ to higher education. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 41(1), 95-110. Roberts, J. (2018). Professional staff contributions to student retention and success in higher education, Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management 40(2), 140-153. Thomas, L., Quinn, J., Slack, K., & Casey, L. (2002). Student services: Effective approaches to retaining students in higher education. Institute for Access Studies: Staffordshire University. Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice. Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press.
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