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EVOLVING LITERATURE REVIEW

 

 

 

 

Abstract

 

Widening participation has significantly increased the number of non-traditional students in higher education, particularly in ‘new’ post 1992 universities.  This increase in students has created a tension for universities in terms of the competing pressure between increased student numbers and the need for individualised learning, which students can tailor to their own situation (http://www.celt.mmu.ac.uk/ltia/issue1/student_support.shtml, July 1008).  Within this context, and in responding to this tension, there has also been unacknowledged paradigm shift back to coursework, with ever higher expectations being placed on students.  Given the increase in numbers of non traditional students, there is arguably a need to consider how these new higher education stakeholders manage the demands of university, particularly in terms of their study and academic skills and practices, of which reading is arguably of key importance. 

 

 

 

Drawing on the theoretical perspective of habitus (Bourdieu, 1977) in an attempt to uncover the sorts of habitus possessed by non-traditional learners and the habitus of the new universities many attend, the first part of this literature review critically considers the wider context of higher education in a New University, in particular the demands made of and the pressures placed on students.  The second part discusses differing critical reading strategies which can arguably enable these new student stakeholders to be empowered and engaged learners.  At the same time, this is an evolving literature review and the final objective is to highlight some of the processes that students may find useful to engage with in order for them to understand the shape and aims of a literature review and to being construing one of their own.

 

 

 

Introduction

 

This literature review will critically explore academic reading and the strategies that students can tiles such that reading can be an empowering practice within higher education (HE).  The key theoretical concepts deployed in this review, habitus and capital theory, will be outlined, before moving on to consider their wider political context in contemporary HE.   Consideration is then given to key aspects of reading, including the power of the text, the role of coursework, the nature and quality of assessment, teaching provision before examining why and how reading strategies can respond to some of these challenges.  Finally I outline some key reading strategies, before concluding with further discussion of key findings emerging from this literature review. 

 

 

 

Theoretical resources

 

This literature review draws on theoretical resources to offer some theorization of the learning experiences of non traditional students in a new university.  Drawing on Bourdieu’s (1977) concept of habitus and capitals, it is possible to gain some insights into the dispositions and capitals possessed by individuals on the basis of class background; this is useful as many non-traditional students are those from a working class background and are perhaps less at home in the university context.  Taking each resource in turn,

 

Bourdieu’s theory of practice may be seen as a probing reflection on one of the oldest problems in the Western intellectual tradition, namely the relationship between the individual and society (Swartz, 1997: 96).

 

Habitus, a key concept underpinning Bourdieu’s Outline of a theory of practice, was developed by Bourdieu in an attempt to illuminate the relationship between the individual and wider society in terms of the ways in which society imposes upon, shapes and influences an individual.  Habitus theory can offer insight into any impact of social structures on the individual by critically considering the “durable dispositions”, that is the ways in which people have and use their choices.  It is the dispositions that an individual acquires via socialisation within the family, school and higher education (HE) institution that become, according to Bourdieu (1977), embodied, thus acting as markers, or signifiers, of their habitus, which can in turn illuminate an individual’s social class location.  By analysing these habitual dispositions possessed and embodied by an individual, it is possible to gain insights into and, understanding of, the behaviour and the choices an individual makes and their reasons for these behaviours and choices.  The choices made by the non traditional student in HE are likely to be shaped by their classed habitus.  Although dispositions is a central facet of habitus, it takes its place alongside other key factors such as; the role of the environment in which the habitus is formed; the ways in which habitus is formed; the boundaries of an individual’s habitus and the phenomenon of institutional habitus.  To critically discuss why habitus is useful to this research, in what follows, I attempt to map each of these key facets of habitus, discussing their potential for offering some understanding of the complexity of my respondent’s experiences, particularly their choices and choice making processes. 

 

 

 

In Outline of a Theory of Practice, Bourdieu (1977: 72, italics as original) explains a marginally reformulated version of habitus in the following terms;

 

The structures constitutive of a particular type of environment (e.g. the material conditions of existence characteristic of a class location) produce habitus, systems of durable transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is as principles of the generation and structuring of practices and representations which can be objectively “regulated” and “regular” without in any way being the product of obedience to rules, objectively adopted to their goals without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary to attain them and, being all this, collectively orchestrated without being the product of the orchestrating action of a conductor.

 

This outline of habitus points to a concept that is specific to the conditions present in the structure of the environment in which it is formulated and also a concept that is embodied and manifested in an individual via dispositions which are accrued within the environmental structure, present in the family, community, school and higher education institutions.  Thus, habitus represents the structuring of an individual’s ‘practices and representations’ via the inculcation of cultural norms and values, accrued and embodied in the form of dispositions.  Non traditional students in HE arguably posses a different habitus to that of the university; they may be less familiar and less confident with their academic work of which reading is an integral part.  

 

 

 

Institutional habitus

 

Furthermore, and to complicate any generalisations, whilst individuals have habitus, so too does collective society, including higher education institutions, which are bound up by their habitus.  Consequently, factors such as power relations, social class locations and valued forms of knowledge are tightly woven into institutional habitus.  The idea of habitus as an institutional phenomenon will be returned to below.  To sum up, habitus will be used in this research to explore the differential impact of disposition to chose, alongside the impact of familial, school and higher education institutions of my respondents (Thomas, 2001).  My intention is to move beyond any deterministic approach through drawing on habitus with the promise of agency and subjectivity that is embedded in this perspective and can uncover the sorts of dispositions possessed by non-traditional learners to highlight the extent to which social structures can offer the potential for agency – i.e. the ways in which non traditional students can choose (or not) within their class/gender and ethnic identities.

 

 

 

Cultural / social capital

 

The theory of cultural capital was developed by Bourdieu (1977) and it is a concept used to, “explain how the middle classes are able to maintain their position in the process of social reproduction while making this inequality legitimate.  By claming to be a meritocracy the education system helps to keep social order and perpetuate the existing inequalities” (Bartlett, Burton & Peim, 2001 p.9).  This concept could particularly useful to allow for critical understanding of the impact widening participation can have, particularly for non traditional students who tend not to possess such a degree of cultural, social and academic capital.

 

 

 

Policy context:  Widening participation     

 

This literature review is shaped by the experiences of non traditional students, and their attempt to access educational capital (Bourdieu, 1977).  All HE institutions are now encouraged to enrol students who they have historically excluded, i.e. the working classes, females, mature students and ethnic minorities (Burns, Sinfield and Holley, 2006).  This increased provision of higher education is “based on the belief that a nation’s economic competitiveness can be enhanced if a greater proportion of its population gain the kinds of knowledge, skills and understanding fostered by higher education and a social justice rationale where the concern is to extend the benefits of higher education beyond a middle-class elite” (Woodrow et al, 1998, cited in Medway et al, 2003, p.7).  This is a compound proposition that on the one hand offers a purely economic rationale for increased participation in HE and also elides that seamlessly with an [….] social justice agenda.  However there is increasing evidence to show that widely differing HE experiences are being offered to working and middle class students and that widening participation policy is actually creating a two tier HE system (Thomas, 2001).

 

 

 

Another key issue is that of degree value; if more working class people get degrees the qualification’s integrity is arguably questioned by middle class parents, who themselves, have “an educational inheritance with which to endow their children” (Jackson and Marsden, 1962, p.42).  Moreover, if we agree with Kuhn (1995, p.98), that “class is something beneath your clothes, under your skin, in your reflexes, in your psyche, at the very core of your being”, then class can be seen as a powerful discourse which affects every aspect of an individual.  However, whilst this paper will offer a partial account of the complexities associated with non traditional students’ participation in higher education, any analysis offered within this paper can obviously be complicated and problematised by issues of gender, ethnicity and age.

 

 

 

Non traditional students

 

The decision to focus on class is predicated upon the proposition that class inequalities remain a persistent facet of life in contemporary Britain.  Indeed, according to Reay (2001, p.1) working-class relationships to education have always been deeply problematic and emotionally charged, inscribing academic failure rather than success”.  And given that more working students are being courted into perhaps less valuable HE courses, it is crucial to attempt to understand how and why the working class student tends to fail, rather than succeed.  The concern here is that experiences of higher education via widening participation is further inscribing failure rather than success. 

 

 

 

It is arguably at this very time of widening participation that working class and other non traditional students are seen not only as deficit, but as responsible for all the ills of any under-resourced HE system.  Non traditional students tend to be seen as deficit and it is possible to see that such a deficit model is bound up in the concept of institutional habitus, where working class students are on the outside of the institution’s habitus (Reay, 2001).  Indeed, according to Medway et al (2003, p.16), 

 

"HEI’s (higher educational institutions) need to undergo more deep-seated changes in their ‘institutional habitus’ that is the nature of the cultural practices, values, priorities and social relationships which characterise the institution”.

 

This deficit model can shape and influence non traditional students’ perception of themselves as learners.  A non traditional student’s learner identity tends to be fragile, perhaps unsurprisingly given the way they are positioned within the wider discourses of the higher education institution (Reay, 2001).  Arguably, the non traditional student tends to find themselves as needed within higher education to meet government targets, yet perhaps not wanted, evident via the exclusionary practices of institutional habitus and paradoxically funding priorities where the most funding goes to the institutions that recruit the students with the most social, cultural and academic capital.

 

 

 

The power of discourse

 

Within the context of higher education, the text book is arguably viewed as a powerful medium for knowledge transmission.  This can mean that students, particularly non traditional ones, are sometimes unsure of how to take ownership of their reading because the text is positioned as all powerful and they can feel like outsiders to this insider knowledge (Burns and Sinfield, 2004).  To critically unpick the power of the text, it is useful to draw on Foucault’s notion of discourse.  According to Ball (1990, p.2),

 

“Discourses are about what can be said and thought, but also about who can speak, when, and with what authority.  Discourses embody meaning and social relationships; they constitute both subjectivity and power relations”.

 

Thus the non traditional student is silenced and subjugated the instant they arrive and are presented with huge reading lists for each of the four modules they will need to complete.  Every week students have to read between two and four chapters or articles before they attend class and many either try and struggle or refuse and struggle; either way, it reinforces the power of the text.

 

 

 

It is worth noting Freire’s (1977) criticisms of traditional education and the way it positions learners as accepting and passive in his text Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  Freire (ibid) views education as an opportunity for ‘empowerment’, where there are links between “knowing, learning and action” (Thomas, 2001, p.32).    Crucially, “Freire sees the primary function of education and educative processes to be the dynamic development of critical consciousness, which involves critical thought and action” (ibid, p.32).  Therefore, Freire (1977) sees learning as a reflexive and critical endeavour, and if these tools are developed, they operate as a means to challenge disempowering, political practices.  If we accept Freire’s (ibid) view, the consequences for the non traditional student (who is becoming less and less empowered by their class or gender or ethnic position), indicates a student body being actively disposed of its means to contest and struggle against dominant political discourses.  Thus, equality of opportunity remains elusive.

 

 

 

 The limit of discourse

 

 “Discourses constrain the possibilities of thought.  They order and combine words in particular ways and exclude or displace other combinations” (ibid, p.2).

 

So, what do the power relations and constraints, exclusions and or dispositions of the power of the text mean for the non-traditional student who is attempting to navigate their way through the academy?  For one thing, to be so silenced reinforces feelings of not being welcome and to be given such extensive reading tasks can encourage a sense of failure in less engaged students.  Rather than demonizing students further with this students need understanding about the purpose of their reading and moreover, practical ways to engage with it, which can simultaneously serve to dismantle, or perhaps less ambitiously to problematise, the power relations embedded in the discourse.  To summarize then, it seems necessary to unpick the power of the text, particularly in terms of uncovering strategies that will allow students to critically engage with their reading. 

 

 

 

The role of coursework

 

In policy terms, the 1988 Education Act, which introduced the National Curriculum, also brought about an increased emphasis on coursework as a means of assessment.  This seems to be reflected within higher education, where this paradigm shift to course work has brought an also unacknowledged extra emphasis on reading – on average 10-15 references for every assignment.  For non traditional students in the higher education context, such an emphasis on reading can be problematic; many non traditional students are not supported through education by their parents, but have part time or full time work commitments to pay their accommodation and living costs; many have to juggle the demands of dependent families.  To a great extent, in universities with high proportions of non-traditional students, gone are the possibilities of long days spent studying in the library, or attending society meetings or participating in conferences.  It tends to be hard enough for them to manage the weekly lecture and/or seminar, let along wrestle with the ever increasing module reading load.

 

 

 

Because of these pressures and other key factors, non-traditional students as well as engaging with the power of academic discourse and the power of the text, need practical reading skills which they can rely on to enable them to manage this reading, develop their subject knowledge and allow them to gain a place within their academic discipline.  It is however, important to note that research (Warren, 2002) indicates that what benefits non traditional students, tends to benefit all students and therefore, different strategies are increasingly utilised in order to engage all learners, which sometimes draws on a holistic approach to higher education (ibid).

 

 

 

Over assessed – over shorter teaching programmes

 

According to Burns and Sinfield (2004, p.75), “students today are assessed across a broader range of skills and knowledge than ever before”.  And that non traditional students in the new universities are set more work than their traditional student peers, perhaps because new universities are under attack for dumbing down (Lillis, 2001).  Further, module teaching time is constantly reduced and currently our modules are taught over 11 teaching weeks.  When short modules are coupled with multiple assignments per module, the expectations of reading that students need to undertake can be very high.  A senior lecturer, from a working class background, at the new university where I teach explained to me that when she participated in higher education during the seventies and eighties, the expectation was that students should think first, and then undertake their reading.  Now, she is constantly surprised by the volume of reading and subsequent references that students need to draw on to support their writing – perhaps this is linked to the paradigm shift back to coursework?  Or perhaps this is due to a moral panic around standards which has been peddled by the media, higher education institutions and the some quarters of the middle classes….

 

 

 

Why reading strategies?

 

In the 1950s, around 5% of the school population made it to university (Thomas, 2001), whereas by the late 1990s around 70% of students participate in some form of higher education (Gleeson, 1996).  Thus, with an evolving non traditional student body, increasing numbers of students entering higher education, with non traditional student s typically attending universities that receive the least funding and with recent governments becoming increasingly preoccupied with performance measures such as league tables (Burns, Sinfield and Holley, 2006), there is a need to disseminate the practices that enable students to be successful.  With often insufficient time to read and make notes, students tend to struggle with their courses.  According to one lecturer at a London university, “I’ve had a few people who’ve said that they’re dropping out because they can’t do the reading and I think a lot of that is down to not really having had it explained to them what exactly is involved.  People will get a twenty page reading list and just go, ‘I can’t possibly do this’ and panic” (Medway et al, 2003, p.39).  But reading is highly valued in the academy and students who read are better positioned at assessment times than those who do not. 

 

 

 

Learning Development

 

Briefly outline the role of Learning Development, the university department who are funding this research.

 

 

 

Introduction to different reading strategies:

 

The reading strategies I’ve chosen to draw on are taken from Burns and Sinfield (2004) and Cottrell (2003).  The strategies include: structured brainstorm and QOOQRRR (pronounced cooker).  Whilst the Burns and Sinfield (ibid) text is aimed at tutors, it is equally effective for students.  This sort of strategic approach to reading may seem mechanical, but it is a way in for students, particularly non traditional students, who may have not studied for some time.  These non traditional students can benefit from a structured, practical approach.  However, it is important to note that research (Warren, REF) indicates that what benefits non traditional students, tends to benefit all students and therefore, different strategies are increasingly utilised in order to engage all learners, which sometimes draws on a holistic approach to higher education (ibid).

 

 

 

Reading strategy – structured brainstorm

 

The structured brainstorm is a useful strategy that can empower students to take ownership of their reading.  What makes this strategy work is the focus it offers on why reading is necessary at university and the ways in which it can be useful.  Furthermore, Burns and Sinfield (2004, p.78) encapsulate how non-traditional students typically may feel about their academic reading, evident when they point out that;

 

as a preamble to the structured brainstorm, we might say something like this: as a university student you will be expected to read continually and extensively.  However, many of us are unclear as to why we are reading at all, we might be unsure as to what to read, and we do not really know how to read academically other than thinking that it will either be ‘really hard’ or completely different form anything else that we have ever done.

 

So the structured brainstorm attempts to redress this balance.  To do this, it requires us to critically brainstorm the following questions about our academic reading;

 

 

 

Why do we read?

 

How do you know what to read?

 

How much should you read for one assignment?

 

How easy or difficult do you find academic reading?

 

 

 

For full coverage of the answers of these questions see Burns and Sinfield (ibid, p.79 – 81).  The key point to note here is that by brainstorming from the outset of any academic reading task, these questions it is possible to clarify understanding about why, how much and how we read academically – all of which is very useful for non-traditional students.  In particular, non-traditional students could benefit from brainstorming this set of questions for each module assignment they have to undertake, perhaps excluding the last question from the list.  This would provide structure and focus to the reading and subsequent writing, allowing students to begin to take ownership of what they read.  Therefore, reading strategies, like other study skill sets, can be seen as empowering practices for non-traditional and traditional students.

 

 

 

Reading strategy - QOOQRRR

 

Burns and Sinfield (ibid) QOOQRR reading strategy (pronounced cooker) can also enable students to engage with their reading and subsequent writing.  The QOOQRR method stands for; “question, overview, overview, question, read, re-read and review” (ibid: 82).  Although each of these points is interrelated, I’m going to take each aspect in turn,

 

 

 

Question – why am I reading?

 

The first stage in the QOOQRRR process asks students to critically consider why they are reading; for example, it could be the weekly required reading or it could be reading for an assignment task.  By understanding why you are reading will “help students become active and successful academic readers” (ibid: 82).

 

 

 

Overview – reading with a context

 

The second stage involves students understanding the context in which they are reading, for example, reading for an assessment task as opposed to reading for further knowledge.  Students need to understand the context within which they are reading as this will enable them to stay focused on why they are reading.

 

 

 

Overview – choosing what to read and knowing what you are reading

 

Moving on to stage three; when a student knows why they are the reading and the context of that reading, the next key step is to decide what to read.  To do this, students need to move to another overview process to decide what to read; they can draw on several resources for this aspect of the overview process, for example, journal articles, chapters in a book or newspaper articles.  Students need to be selective in their reading as it can take up so much time – use book indexes to find out which bits are relevant to them.  Search for topic related journal articles.  The main point here is for students to take control of their reading practices.

 

 

 

Question – and question again

 

In stage four, students need to ask themselves once again why I am reading this now.  This stage in the process is reflexive and requires students to critically consider if the reading they are undertaking is beneficial to their studies.  This stage in the process can help students to stay on task.  Students need to brainstorm their ideas about why they are reading and the effectiveness of their reading, as this will sharpen their focus.

 

 

 

Read – read again

 

Stage five requires students to read again because while academic reading can intimidate students, practice makes perfect.  As time goes by, students should be better able to engage in active and interactive reading, which should be undertaken in manageable chunks – a paragraph or sub-heading at a time.  Active reading requires that students should “ask a series of questions as they go” and interactive in that students need to “get physical with texts when reading – they need to underline, highlight, make margin notes and comments” (ibid: 85).

 

 

 

Re-read

 

Stage six recommends that students should avoid making notes on the first attempt at reading an academic text, but rather should re-read and make notes on a second read through.  This can allow students to understand their knowledge, and to identify any gaps in their knowledge which indicates they will need to undertake further reading.

 

 

 

Review

 

Finally, in stage seven students should have produced a meaningful set of notes based on their reading, which they can review to ensure they have understood their reading.    Whilst this reading method can seem functional, it facilitates students’ attempts to find a way into their studies.  The key point is that students should undertake reading in some form whilst at university, for academic reasons and socio-politically because this positions them more powerfully within academic discourse.

 

 

 

Reading strategy – critical reading

 

Cottrell (2003: 222) offers a critical reading strategy for students, which encourages them to focus on “developing a detective-like mind”, whereby they engage with the broader purpose of their reading.  Cottrell (ibid: 222-223) describes the process as follows:

 

 

 

Critical thinking when reading involves the following:

 

  1. Identifying the line of reasoning in the text,

     

  2. Critically evaluating the line of reasoning

     

  3. Questioning surface appearances and checking for hidden assumptions or agendas

     

  4. Identifying evidence in the text

     

  5. Evaluating the evidence according to valid criteria

     

  6. Identifying the writer’s conclusions

     

  7. Deciding whether the evidence given supports these conclusions

     

The overarching aim here is for students to remember “what are the main things this writer wants me to accept?  What reasons does she present to encourage me to accept this?” (ibid: 223).  This method arguably engages students in the mechanics of reading – i.e. reading must be done so here is a way to do it with purpose and focus.  Further, this method offers students the opportunity to take responsibility for their own critical engagement with their work.

 

 

 

Discussion

 

This literature review has considered reading as a socio-political activity set within the widening participation context.  I have attempted to highlight some key reading strategies that can empower students and facilitate their attempts to become critical learners.  I have also attempted to show the extent to which non traditional students can find themselves positioned as outsiders to the university’s habitus – like fish out of water (REF). Through the teaching of study skills, initiatives such as learn higher, non-traditional students can gain key skills such as note making and reading, which can help them to unlock their potential; whilst the methods themselves are not a silver bullet or panacea, they can empower non traditional students by a practical approach; a way in.  According to Bourdieu and Passeron note that (1979, p.190) education could be “the royal road to the democratisation of culture if it did not consecrate the initial cultural inequalities by ignoring them”.   

 

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