Sociocultural study of Associate students in transition from college to university: How do college learners become university students?
This month, (June 2015) brings me to the end of my Stage 1 of data collection for my study. Since September (2014), I have been out in my University’s partner colleges observing and interacting with the staff and Associate Students studying HND Civil Engineering and HND Engineering Systems. These students, provided that they achieve a B pass in their graded unit and an overall HND pass will have a guaranteed place into 3rd year on the corresponding undergraduate programmes at University. Given the difficulties that I have heard some of my fellow researchers describe, I now believe that gaining access to the Associate Students was relatively straightforward, although immensely time consuming. The Associate Students that I wanted to meet were distributed across 4 different college campuses, and although senior managers were extremely welcoming and well disposed towards my research, working my way through the hierarches of Curriculum Managers, Programme Leaders, and Lecturers in order to find a way to meet with these students in each location required patience, persistence and a good diary management system. My plan was to observe student practice in classes or labs on at least two occasions in each college, and to conduct focus groups and interviews in each location. Thanks to the generosity of college staff and students I achieved all of that, although in one of the colleges I was unable to organise a focus group, but instead I was able to observe one to one tutorial sessions on graded unit submissions.
Generating data as a novice
But this post is not intended to be some sort of victory narrative of my research practice, because although I was eventually able to make my way into the places and spaces where the curriculum was being enacted and students were practicing studentship, the data collection rarely went according to my plans and by the time June came, I began to expect the unexpected, but not necessarily in a good way! On my first day on college campus, I was surprised to find how nervous I was when given the opportunity to explain my research to the students and to invite their consent to participate in my study. Given the number of years that I have worked in and around Scotland’s colleges, I had not anticipated how the role of lecturer or academic developer gave me a sense of legitimacy in the classroom which I realised that I lacked when approaching students and staff as a researcher. The practice of observation also didn’t go according to plan because although I had undertaken pilot observations, those were undertaken in my own university where I had taken for granted that sense of belonging which was so lacking as I stood in front of my first group of HND Engineering Associate Students. I felt awkward as I looked around the class, made notes and listened in on conversations. I had intended to take photographs to support and add to my observation notes, but that seemed to be too intrusive for a group that I had only just met. So I returned home empty handed on the photo front but with plenty field notes to write up for a first attempt. I had not anticipated just how exhausting two hours of observation would be – on arriving home after a drive of around 15 miles, I promptly fell asleep in my driveway!
Since that day in September 2015, I have become a little more accomplished in outlining my research to potential participants, in finding a place to sit where I don’t trip up staff or students, in operating the recording equipment, in making sure the camera contains a memory card, in speed writing when interview participants do not want me to use an audio-recorder during the interview and in ignoring the overwhelming sound of pneumatic drilling during a focus group.
My initial attempts at focus groups failed to elicit meaningful discussion about Associate Students expectations for going to University. In order to disrupt the tension and formality of traditional data-gathering methods, I asked the participants to work in groups to create models of themselves as Associate Students and as University students using toy-based artefacts and accessories; Mr Potato Head constructions sets, Fuzzy pipe-cleaners and soft modelling clay (Plasticine). The students presented their models to the other group and I recorded the conversations during the activity and the whole group discussion afterwards. I have some interesting photographs of the models and the contrasts between the two models as well as pictures taken during observations. I find the photographs I have taken to be very helpful as memory prompts when writing up field notes and useful for supporting conference presentations (SoE PhD Conference, May 2015, VERA Researching into Higher Education: Innovative Research Methods, May 2015, and QAA International Enhancement Theme Conference June 2015).
I had not anticipated that throughout the research process I would get to know and like my research participants, nor that we would form relationships involving shared understanding, laughter and respect. I have become more confident, or is it brazen now, as I meet with students or staff in my research capacity. I am looking forward to September when I will meet these students as third year students on campus when I hope that they will join me in exploring their practice as undergraduates. I will know to expect the unexpected this time around.