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Personalising the first-year experience

The following reasons are given for personalising the first-year experience:

  1. To counter the effects of large class sizes, which have arisen in the wake of widening participation and massification of HE, see case study 1.
  2. To take account of the preferred learning styles of individual students.
  3. To engage and empower students by adopting pedagogies that are student-centred, thus shifting the axis of power from the institution, its staff and its curricula to the individual student.
  4. To exploit the potential benefits of new electronic technologies, see key recommendations for senior managers and policy makers.
  5. To address issues of transition.
  6. To maximise the benefits to the student of personal development planning (PDP) including a detailed discussion of the significance of PDP to the first-year experience
  7. Students are keen on the idea of personalisation, though they reported in Student expectations, experiences and reflections on the first year that experience did not always match up to expectations in this regard. For instance, apparently choice-rich courses were soon proved not to be so because of the large number of compulsory elements that inevitably restricted options.  Read more about personalisation of the first year.

Find out more about the outcomes of discussions with students on what they considered to be engaging (or disengaging) and empowering (or disempowering).

James Moir contributed three papers for the G21C Enhancement Theme First and foremost: Leaner autonomy in the first year, and The First Year: Back to the Future

There is a great deal of interesting, challenging and creative material in each one and summarising them cannot do them justice. It is recommended that they are read together, for there are common threads.

Moir argues that the demand for personalisation stems partly from a consumerist perspective (mass-produced goods are now capable of being individually customised) and partly from increased participation in HE, which has resulted in a more diverse student population. The conclusion, however, is not that learning itself shouldn't be individualised; rather that universities should concentrate on individualised traits such as the 'will to learn', persistence and a sense of self-realisation through learning (the ontological).

Only when students are armed with these attributes will they be capable of dealing with an age characterised by uncertainty and liquid knowledge. The papers argue that the primary task of higher education is to make it possible for students to develop a sense of learner autonomy and to connect with sociopolitical processes; in other words, to prepare for 'the knowledge society' rather than merely 'the knowledge economy'.

In the context of the first year, the paper sees a shortcoming in the accepted phrase 'active learner': 'Activity is one thing but a sense of agency with respect to an engagement with knowledge is another', Moir says. He goes on to suggest that it is possible to summarise developments that further the goal of independent learning in first-year students. These include:

  1. Engaging students in this crucial transition year, through, for example, initiatives related to personalisation of the curriculum and the utilisation of assessment to begin developing academic literacy.
  2. An explicit recognition that 'hand holding' is not beneficial to first-year students and can backfire by creating a culture of academic dependency and lead to students considering themselves as consumers.
  3. The replacement of the above with an educational culture in which first-year students are actively encouraged to view personalisation of their learning as an apprenticeship for engaging in a process of lifelong learning.
  4. A move away from a mass-customised service that simply involves various opportunities for 'activity' towards a more holistic approach that links this early-stage work to the development of learner autonomy within a broader knowledge framework.
  5. Exposure to different forms of knowledge in order to develop skills of independent thinking and evaluation, and also to learn to put views and perspectives across in a way that immerses them in a democratic exchange of knowledge.

In all this Moir sounds a note of caution. He quotes work by Smith (2008), who points out how the student is more likely to appear in the object position of a clause than the subject position. In other words, 'the student' is objectified in a particular way as being on the receiving end of some activity rather than as an active participant.

This, in effect, subordinates the role of the student as an agent and thereby reduces the empowerment of being in the subject position. This kind of analysis raises questions about whether teaching and learning strategy discourses are to some degree or other rhetorical texts, disengaged from the very people they are about. Moir supports this argument with an example from a module he and colleagues introduced at his own institution. Designed to broaden study for all, it was received enthusiastically by students from within the author's programme of study, but far less so when the audience went beyond that.

The former group could immediately see the module's relevance; for others it appeared to have no place in their perceptions of what they were at university to study. Similarly, research work done by Jones (2009) points out that generic attributes are very much context-dependent, and shaped by the disciplinary epistemology in which they are conceptualised and taught. Her study involved an examination of the teaching of generic attributes in physics, history, economics, medicine and law within two Australian universities. Skills such as critical thinking, analysis, problem solving and communication are conceptualised and taught in quite different ways in each of the disciplines.

Jones goes on to suggest that a re-disciplined theorising of generic skills and attributes which frames them as part of the social practices within disciplines is required; one that integrates attributes within disciplinary epistemology.

Both First and Foremost and The First Year suggest that there are many examples of personalising developments taking place, building upon a strong Scottish generalist tradition. This tradition, one of 'democratic intellect', uses the four-year degree programme but may be under threat if the notion of 'employability' subsumes notions of citizenship and the democratisation of knowledge.

There are, however, important contextual changes currently taking place and subsequent questions to consider, among which are:

  1. Changes in schooling as a result of the Curriculum for Excellence that will result in entrants to the first year who will have undergone a more interdisciplinary curriculum and mode of learning. In what sense will these be more autonomous learners who make the transition into higher education more effectively than at present?
  2. The effects of the current economic climate and the pressure to find efficiencies. What effects will this lead to in terms of the impact upon the first year?
  3. The increasing use of new technologies such as 'mobile learning' and various social networking media. Will this ease pressure on physical and human resources in terms of the challenges associated with large first-year classes?
  4. The 'working through' of graduate attributes within undergraduate programmes and the problem of their assessment. Will Scotland follow the Australian example of profiling attributes and how will these be evaluated during the formative stage of the first year?

None of these questions has an easy answer, but, the author argues, it is in the first year where the greatest challenges and scope for radical development lie.