Students and Discourse: an Insider Perspective

Sinclair, Christine Moira (2004). Students and Discourse: an Insider Perspective. PhD thesis The Open University.



A student's direct experience is used to explore the hypothesis that student problems may be associated with lack of exposure to appropriate discourse. I became a student again to find out about discourses that students encounter.

Literature associated with student experience is reviewed from two perspectives: phenomenography and sociocultural theory. A critique of the former highlights the pervasive deep/surface/strategic distinction with respect to approaches to learning and suggests that there may be alternative descriptions that take more account of students' responses to discourse. While phenomenography offers some valuable observations on variation, the emphasis on outcomes and student predilections may mask some other important aspects of student experience. Sociocultural theory offers more reference points, at individual, social and cultural levels of analysis.

I took an HNC and then a university module in Mechanical Engineering and used a reflective journal to record "what a student notices". I used this to produce "thick descriptions" of what was happening - that is, descriptions that took account of the sociocultural context and also of my own intentions and internalised , responses to the discourse. I explored exposure and barriers to four kinds of discourse: engineering, pedagogic, institutional and social. I then reviewed evidence for progress with the discourse.

The thesis contributes insights into the many actions that a student undertakes in an attempt to engage in the activities of tertiary level education. A number of tensions and contradictions in higher education from a student's perspective are highlighted in the study. For example, access to HE may exclude access to its discourses; "outcomes" are not necessarily what they appear to be; some assessment may say more about a student's potential than about what they can do unaided. To succeed, students need a good deal of exposure to appropriate discourse practices as well as time to assimilate them.

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