Experiencing Undergraduate Learning as Non-Traditional Adult Student: A Biographical Approach
Contributor(s)Universidad de Sevilla. Departamento de Teoría e Historia de la Educación y Pedagogía Social
KeywordsNon-traditional adult students
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AbstractHigher education institutions have opened up their doors (albeit some institutions and some countries more than others) as a result of changing state/university relationships, economic and social changes and globalisation. Externally universities are now engaging with other sites of knowledge producers while internally new student groups are entering. As Barnett points out: ‘Institutional boundaries become less tight as interrelationships with the wider society grow’ (2003: 27). This change process has enabled non-traditional adult students to re-engage with learning and enter the world of academia. Such students bring with them to the learning process their life experiences and their biographical and cultural baggage or, to draw on Bourdieu, a particular habitus or a set of dispositions which incline agents to react in certain ways. During their university career adult students develop and (re) construct a learning identity. However, the integration of adult students into a university culture is not always straightforward. This paper draws on the experiences and lives of some non-traditional adult students interviewed for an EU funded Lifelong Learning Programme project entitled Access and Retention: Experiences of Non-traditional Learners in Higher Education. This project involves eight partners from across seven European countries (Germany, Ireland, England, Scotland, Spain, Sweden and Poland). The focus of our research, using biographical approaches, is to understand why adult students, despite often experiencing struggles, keep on going on with their undergraduate studies while others from a similar socio-economic background may drop-out. A non-traditional adult student includes one or more of the following categories: first generation students, working class, single parents (often women), ethnic minorities and students with disabilities. During their university career adult students learn to develop and (re/) construct a learning identity in a learning environment, culture and structure which is largely geared towards meeting the needs of younger, ‘traditional’ undergraduates. This paper will explore the learning experiences through the voices and biographies of Spanish and English non-traditional adult students. In doing so we will look at the role and interaction of agency and structure in shaping their learning experiences and developing (or not) a learner identity which helps them to succeed at undergraduate level. The learning experiences of the adult students are contextualised within the different higher education institutional cultures through interviews with senior management, lecturers and support staff. Undertaking comparative European research is interesting yet challenging. This paper will also discuss the methodological issues of undertaking biographical interviews and the different cultural traditions in undertaking such research as well as the richness of such data.