Students' Experience of Challenge, Difficulty and Stuckness in Higher Education: A Qualitative Longitudinal Study
Thesis or dissertation
University of Exeter
It is widely accepted that Higher Education should provide students with a challenging experience. Research on threshold concepts provides a framework for exploring challenging content within a discipline and has contributed to understanding how to support students with conceptual difficulties. However, less is known about how individual students experience challenge and difficulty in their academic studies, in particular how they respond and feel when they become stuck. This study explores students’ experience of challenge, difficulty and stuckness, how they responded and managed challenges and any associated feelings. The study, carried out in a university in the Southwest of England, used a Qualitative Longitudinal Research design to follow 16 students through the second year of a degree for Allied Health Professionals. Data were collected using the semi-structured and email interview methods. Data were analysed longitudinally and cross-sectionally using a constant comparison process. The findings and discussion are presented using a ‘natural’ style which aims to capture the student journey over the academic year. The study found that some form of challenge, difficulty or stuckness was commonplace in the students’ educational experience. The value of challenges which create uncertainty in education is recognised, particularly where students are grappling with boundaries around knowledge. Variation in students’ experiences was partly explained by their ‘spiky profiles’ (influencing factors such as prior education and work experience) and partly by differences in factors relating to strategy use. The students were creative and resourceful in developing a range of specific and generic strategies in several areas: the use of time and space; the management of expectations and acceptance of feelings; and monitoring and reflection. The study adds to current understanding of stuckness through an examination of the liminal spaces students encountered. The discussion argues for a more nuanced and holistic approach to understanding students’ engagement with a complex cycle of challenges and strategy use, which creates a range of expectations, tensions, feelings and opportunities. It identifies implications for Higher Education practice and calls for an understanding of the impact and interconnectedness of factors influencing students. It stresses the importance of providing structures for students to explore how they learn and develop their academic practice, in addition to discipline specific knowledge and skills.
EdD in Education