EAPRIL, In English

Imagined future – elements of a good first-year student experience

Introduction

Perceptions of the goals, objectives and tools of work have changed. It has been estimated that the transformation of working life which is going on today will equal in magnitude the changes brought about by the industrial revolution. This means that we should assume a completely new approach to work and education on all levels. The efficiency of work and work performance used to be largely dependent on the traditional structures of industrial work; the workplace, colleagues, supervisors, clients and their needs, working hours, organizations, products and services were all stable and predictable. These days, however, the transformation of work and the pressures for organizational change mean it is no longer possible to rely on these structures. Increasing unpredictability and complexity in the operating environment have become the norm. (Järvensivu, Kokkinen, Kasvio & Viluksela 2014.)

This trend is also having an impact on higher education.  Our traditional views of efficient operating models, good practices and guidelines for the delivery of higher education are all being challenged. There have been calls for closer linkages between higher education and the world of work, in order to increase the relevance of the curriculum to working life (Singh & Little 2011, 38). So, the resources of higher education institutions have come under intense pressure; they should provide quality learning and teaching, making effective use of technology, while being responsive to the increased expectations and conflicting demands of a student body with ever more diverse needs (Morgan 2012, 10).

The increasing costs of delivering higher education, reductions in state funding and constraints on resources mean that delivering high quality student experience is challenging. Staff at all levels and across all areas within an institution affect the student experience. In order to be effective, services, advice, guidance and support for students must be organized holistically rather than provided only by dedicated central services (e.g. student services departments, students’ unions).  Providing guidance and support only to specific groups (e.g. dyslexic, mature, or disabled students, or those with weak entry qualifications) should be avoided.  It is also unrealistic to expect students to seek out support themselves. (Morgan 2012, 11.)

Student experience has been studied extensively mainly from the point of view of the students. This is natural, of course, but it is important to find out the viewpoints of other groups, too, such as teachers and other staff members. Teachers are key figures regarding student experience as they create the framework for action in the context of the curriculum. Williams (2011, 46.) points out that other categories of staff, such as those responsible for delivering student support services, are often the invisible support function within higher education institutions. Yet they are of vital importance to the student experience. They are also important to the teaching function.

This research examines the premises for a good student experience for people in their first year of studies. The research was conducted in one university of applied sciences and the key aim was to provide insight into and understanding of the factors affecting student experience. The research question is: What elements are important for a good first year experience in a university of applied sciences, according to students, teachers and other staff members?

The concept of student experience

Higher education is at a crossroads. The development of competencies required both for studying and in working life has become the personal project of each individual student. (Stelter 2014.) Students expect and demand support, advice and guidance which meet their individual needs. This cannot be provided with a “one size fits all” approach to education. (Morgan 2012).

The idea of student experience as an issue to be managed institutionally is a relatively recent one and the term has multiple meanings.  First, it is important to emphasise that each student’s set of experiences will be unique to him or herself. Thus any uniform “student experience” does not exist in practice. (Temple, Callender, Grove, Kersh 2014; Morgan 2012.)  As Forbes (2009) explains, student experience can be defined narrowly or broadly.  In a narrow definition the focus is on students’ formal learning experiences and their overall experience of university life. A wider definition covers their entire engagement with the university from initial contact, through recruitment, arrival, learning and university experience, graduation, employment, and their experiences as alumni. In addition, there are matters that the institutions are not directly responsible for, but generally have some involvement in. These include students’ living arrangements, accommodation, safety and security, part-time work, and social inclusion.

According to Benckendorff, Ruhanen & Scott (2009), the factors identified in the literature as influencing the student experience can be grouped broadly into four dimensions: Institutional dimensions (how universities and staff can better manage the learning experience), student dimensions (individual student characteristics), sector-wide dimensions (broader systems of institutions and trends that emerge as a result of competition or collaboration) and external dimensions (factors such as government policies, technological innovations, and economic pressures).

Harvey, Burrows and Green (1992, 1) argue that student experience is the most important factor in assessing quality in higher education. They use the expression “total student experience”, indicating that significant experiences are not restricted to the classroom. Internationally, the term “student experience” is used to refer not only to the teaching, learning and curriculum aspects of student life, but also encompasses extracurricular activities, academic advice, support and mentoring, as well as work experiences and student lifestyle (Purdue University 2004).

The recent interest in students’ experiences may also be associated with changing conceptions of learning and curricula. Emphasizing students’ agency, activity and participation means that experiences have to be taken into account when designing the curriculum (Barnett & Coate 2010). Thomas (2012) argues that students’ experience of the curriculum has a profound influence on their persistence and success in studies. Curricula can be designed and delivered in a way that promotes students’ engagement and sense of belonging, and reduces drop-out rates.

The term “student experience” has come to be used so widely that it is important to consider critical viewpoints, too.  Student experience is sometimes treated as analogous to customer experience – as a marketing term.  As students are seen as ”customers” or “clients”, their ”experience” becomes a factor that must be managed and optimized, as for any other “target group”.  However, Staddon and Standish (2012) have challenged the idea of “student-as-customer”. In their view, seeing students’ choices as determinants of quality is an abrogation of responsibility on the part of higher education providers. Furthermore, Gibbs (2012,14) argues that evidence is lacking as to whether there is any causal relationship between good student satisfaction scores – suggesting satisfied ‘customers’– and educational quality as assessed by measures such as student performance and learning gain.

The student experience arises not only from the engagement of students with learning and teaching, but also include other aspects that impinge on learning and studying. Since students’ experiences are shaped through interaction with the whole institution, it is important to know what elements are significant in creating a good experience. Therefore, in this study an interaction- and institution-based definition of student experience is used. Student experience can be defined as the totality of a student’s interaction with the institution (Temple, Callender, Grove & Kersh 2014).

Students’ engagement and expectations

Students’ engagement has become the focus of a great deal of research. Students’ expectations and their experience during their first year of studies have a tangible influence on student engagement and persistence – that is, the probability that they will complete their studies (Longden 2006). Singh and Little (2011, 36) argue that within discourses concerning pressures on higher education, the economic point of view tends to dominate; less emphasis is placed on the implications that various changes have for teaching and learning and for non-economic dimensions of social engagement. Instead of assessing students’ engagement in their studies from an economic point of view, the benefits of engagement should be seen in terms of better learning outcomes (Millard, Bartholomew, Brand & Nygaard 2013).

Definitions of student engagement vary somewhat depending on the theoretical framework used. An individual-constructive perspective focuses on the time and quality of effort that students devote to educationally purposeful activities (e.g. Astin 1993; Pascarella & Terenzini 1991). For instance, their level of motivation and willingness (Ainley 2006; Purnell, McCarthy & McLeod 2010). The interactional perspective emphasizes that personal investment, by both students and university staff, is the key to engagement (Kuh 2009). In this view, it is important for institutions to adapt their organizational structures and cultures to enable students to be part of learning communities (Zhao & Kuh 2004). Sociocultural engagement theory (Haworth & Conrad 1997) underlines that students and staff ought to engage in a mutually-supportive academic community, building a participatory and dialogical educational environment. Engagement is enhanced by a participatory culture, interactive teaching and learning, connected programme requirements, and adequate resources. (Annala, Mäkinen, Svärd, Silius & Miilumäki 2012.)

Coates (2007) has described four different engagement styles: intense, passive, collaborative and independent.   Intense and passive come at opposite ends of a continuum covering engagement styles from engaged to disengaged.  The collaborative style favors social aspects of university work, while the independent style is characterized by a more academically and less socially oriented approach. These two latter styles point out the multidimensionality of engagement: a student may emphasize social aspects and turn the focus from studies to social life or vice versa, he or she may be very engaged in studies but neither socially active nor interested in communality with peers. (Annala & al. 2012.)

Turning to the question of student expectations, research suggests that the standard practices of higher education institutions do not necessarily align with what students want and expect.  Teachers and providers of student services may make erroneous assumptions about students’ needs and expectations because higher education institutions tend to provide information to students based on the institutions’ expectations, not those of the student (Pithers & Holland 2006). Thus, there may be a significant gap between the students’ expectations and their actual experiences during the first year of their studies. According to Telford and Masson (2005), the perceived quality of the educational service depends on students’ expectations and values. If teachers and other staff know what their students expect, they may be able to adapt their behavior and services accordingly, which should have a positive impact on students’ levels of satisfaction. (Voss, Gruber & Szmigin 2007.)

Today’s student body is highly diverse, comprising members of the “Baby-boomer” generation (born mid-1940s to mid-1960s), “Generation X” (born mid-1960s to early 1980s) and the “Millennial” generation (born early 1980s to 2000). These generations tend to have different expectations and life experiences, and different skills in using and understanding technology.  This diversity creates challenges for higher education institutions. Morgan (2012, 9) gives examples of how tensions can arise between students and also between students and lecturers and other staff members. A Generation X student may feel that Millennial students are not as engaged in group project work or as committed to their studies as they should be.  A Baby Boomer student who has worked in business for many years may feel that he or she is much more qualified to teach than a lecturer who has little – if any – experience in running a company.

With the increase in student diversity, the probability of drop-out, i.e. failure to complete the study programme, rises.  When a student drops out, there are usually a number of causal factors behind it.  Each student’s personality, life experience, study experience and future plans will all affect his or her level of engagement. (Morgan 2012, 9-10.) Thomas and May (2011) argue that if students are able to engage with their peers, teaching staff, other staff at the institution, and with the institution per se, then they are more likely to experience a sense of belonging to and identity with the institution.

Identity work – the process of becoming

New interpretations of student engagement in studies emphasize the importance of identity construction and communities of practice (Krause & Coates 2008; Millard, Bartholomew, Brand & Nygaard 2013; Wenger 1998). Thus learning to become a professional involves not only what we know and do, but also who we are, and who we are becoming (Dall’Alba, 2009). Cognitive elements and acquiring of new skills are only part of the process of becoming a professional – albeit an important part. Emotive issues are of crucial importance in identity construction. Learning is both affective and cognitive, and involves identity shifts which can entail troublesome, unsafe journeys (Cousin 2006).

Beijaard, Verloop and Vermunt (2000, 750) define identity as who or what someone is, the various meanings people attach to themselves, or the meanings attributed to them by others. An essential point is that each individual has not just one identity but many; these multiple identities are changing over time and are revealed in interaction.  Identity is formed and constructed by narratives (Rodgers & Scott 2008). Thus, professional identity is not a fixed state which can be achieved during one’s studies, but is rather a continuing dynamic process of intersubjective discourses, experiences, and emotions. Beijaard, Meijer and Verloop (2004, 108) consider identity to be an ongoing process of interpreting one’s self as a certain kind of person and being recognized as such in a given context. Identity can be seen as an answer to the recurrent question, “Who am I at this moment?”

Identity construction requires a conception of where one is coming from and going to (Taylor 1989). It is thus essential that students have some vision of their future in order to engage in their studies. Having a clear image of what might lie ahead is important for decreasing uncertainty. Markus and Nurius (1986) use the expression “possible selves” to describe individuals’ ideas of what they believe they can become. These possible selves form the basis for evaluating one’s current selves and motivating action. “Possible future” is a term used in socio-dynamic counselling. It suggests that the future is not a predetermined state, just lying in wait around the corner, but is created and constructed through human action. What we think about our future affects what we do today. (Peavy 2006.) Thus students who can imagine their future as professionals in a particular field are likely to be more highly motivated and to have a clearer idea of what they still need to learn.

Gadamer’s (1979) conception of two kinds of experiences can be used to illustrate the connections between students’ experience, engagement and identity work. There are experiences which strengthen personal conceptions, and there are new, hermeneutic experiences. People need experiences that strengthen their conceptions but they do not learn anything new from experiences of this kind.  Hermeneutic experiences, on the other hand, include something new and unexpected, something we have not thought about before. Hermeneutic experiences are uncomfortable, as they disrupt our typical way of seeing and understanding matters. These experiences feel unpleasant and painful, as they challenge our conception of ourselves and of our personal competence and knowledge. These negative experiences, however, make identity work productive by enabling us to see and understand matters in a different way. It is therefore crucial to present students with hermeneutic experiences, as through these experiences they gain new insight into the demands of working life, and start to see themselves in a new light – as “becoming professionals”.

 Two important pedagogical concepts are particularly relevant to this discussion of promoting identity work, namely, the zone of proximal development, and scaffolding. The zone of proximal development is defined as the range of tasks that a person can perform with the help and guidance of others, but cannot yet perform independently. It is the area where the most sensitive instruction or guidance should occur. (Vygotsky 1986.) Scaffolding is directly related to the zone of proximal development in that it is the support mechanism that helps a learner successfully perform a task within his or her zone of proximal development. Typically, this process is completed by a more competent individual as a way of supporting the learning of a less competent individual. Scaffolding is a key strategy in cognitive apprenticeship, in which students can learn by taking increasing responsibility and ownership for their role in complex problem solving. (Collins, Brown, & Newman 1989). So, for example, there could be a teacher assisting a student, or a higher-level or more competent student assisting a peer. By using scaffolding, the teacher becomes more of a facilitator of knowledge acquisition on the part of the learner rather than the dominant source of knowledge and expertise.

Identity is not a fixed state which can be attained during one’s studies. Constantly changing environments and new competence criteria in working life require flexibility to construct one’s own identity over and over again. Enabling contacts with working life during the studies is vital, because it allows students to adopt role models and to participate in professional discussions; it exposes them to influences from professionals in their own field of practice, and provides them with material for reflection on their own professional identity (Adams, Hean, Sturgis & Macleod Clark 2006; Kärnä 2015, 84). Identity functions as a basis for the interpretations the student makes of him- or herself – as a learner, as a member of different groups, and as a prospective professional. Thus identity is the basis for all one’s possible selves (Markus & Nurius 1986) and images of the possible future (Peavy 2006), too. According to Tsang (2010), having the opportunity to conduct identity work during the studies enhances learning experiences and leads to a positive and more clearly defined professional identity.

Method – imagining the future

Organizations evolve in whatever direction their members ask questions about. The basic assumptions for the methodology of this study arise from Cooperrider’s (1995) argument that we need forms of inquiry that are generative: which help us to discover what could be, rather than try to fix what is. Human systems project ahead of themselves a “horizon of expectation” that brings the future into the present. What we believe to be true determines what we do, and what we do today is guided by our image of the future. (Cooperrider & Whitney 2005; Peavy 2006.) Organizational life is expressed in the stories people tell each other every day, so the story of the organization is constantly being co-authored. The purpose of inquiry is to stimulate new ideas, stories and images that generate new possibilities for action. By inquiring into human systems we can change them. (Cooperrider & Whitney 2005; Kessler 2013.)

In this research, instead of only asking students about their experiences retrospectively, a more comprehensive and future-oriented perspective on first-year experience was used. It can be called imagining or envisioning the future. It can be loosely connected to one stage in the so-called “cycle of appreciative inquiry”. In the “dreaming” or “envisioning” stage of appreciative inquiry, the participants are asked to imagine their group, organization or community at its best in relation to the affirmative topic. The purpose is to identify the common aspirations of system members. (Kessler 2013.) Taking this for a starting point, a group of second-year students (n = 121) and a group of personnel (teachers and other staff, n = 523) were asked to imagine the desirable future by reflecting on the question: What would the students tell about their first-year experience if everything had been ideal in our university of applied sciences? The data was produced in small group discussions in order to share existing stories and create new ones about matters associated with good first-year experience. The discussions were documented by each group, either in a discussion area in the intranet of the university of applied sciences, or on flip charts. In total the data comprised 25 pages (font Times New Roman 12).

The data was analyzed in a three-stage process based on content analytical approach. The methods of qualitative content analysis should not simply be techniques to be employed anywhere but the methods must be adapted to suit the individual study (Mayring 2014, 40). Therefore, a three stage process was created for the analysis. Firstly, the data was read many times, in order to identify different expressions, sentences and key words relating to a desirable future state i.e. what the students would tell if everything had been ideal. Figuratively speaking, the data was asked what kind of things belong to an ideal university of applied sciences. Gradually, three categories were identified: the psycho-social point of view, the material point of view, and the pedagogical point of view into a good university of applied sciences. Secondly, the expressions belonging to these three categories were moulded into the form of short narratives in order to create a meaningful, explicit and coherent whole from partly short and fragmental utterances.

During these two stages of analysis the student data and the personnel data were analyzed separately. Therefore, after the second stage, there were two collections of narratives: those constructed from the students’ descriptions and those constructed from the descriptions provided by the teachers and other staff. However, the purpose of the study was not to search for differences in students’ and personnel’s conceptions, but to find common prospects.  Therefore, the analysis was proceeded and in the last stage of the analysis common elements for a good first-year experience were identified from both sets of narratives. This was done by identifying similarities in the three categories – psycho-social point of view, material point of view, and pedagogical point of view – relating to students’ identity construction, professional growth, participation, sense of belonging and engagement. On the grounds of this comparison five elements for a good first-year experience was identified.

Findings – Basic elements for a good first-year experience

In a university of applied sciences, a good student experience is associated with practices, situations and events which affect students’ learning and well-being. In the data-production discussions, the students, teachers and other staff brought out themes related to the psycho-social environment, the material environment and the pedagogical environment. On the basis of the research material, five elements for a good first-year experience were identified: personalization, mentoring-guidance, authenticity, collaboration and adaptability. These elements can be understood as a basis for promoting students’ agency, participation, sense of belonging, and engagement in their studies, and thus for supporting students’ identity construction and professional growth. It is important to point out that the five elements of a good first-year experience are not distinct from each other but overlap; changes in one element resonate throughout the others. However, this kind of theoretical separation helps when it comes to applying them for the purposes of assessing and developing the prevailing practices and systems.  In the following description of each element there is a short example from the narratives to illustrate the features of the element concerned. The question the participants were asked to reflect on was: What would the students tell about their first-year experience if everything had been ideal in our university of applied sciences?

a) Personalization

Studying has changed my life – my aims are more ambitious than before. I have grown as a human being and have got new perspectives. I have found my own strengths and possibilities and I know what I want from the future. I already have enough professional pride to take responsibility for my own choices and also for the choices we make in team-work. In our school, students can follow their own interests and develop their ideas further. You can choose what you study, make your own timetable and even choose the teachers you want to work with. There are lots of study modules to select from, and each student’s timetable is tailored on the basis of individual choices and plans.

Personalization included many kinds of action which allows individual decisions. Studying was seen as a personal project and during the process the student start to recognize his or her own capacity. Learning to become a professional involves not only new knowledge and new skills, but also personal growth and new perspectives to oneself. Students can make choices and influence their own study paths Learning is tailored to the individual needs of each learner. This kind of personalization of studies can take many forms, including accreditation of prior learning and “studification of work”. Studification of work is a new, alternative way to study at universities of applied sciences.  It is a model of studying where learning is brought from the classroom to the workplace and formal studies are combined with work.

Prahalad & Ramaswamy (2000) make a distinction between personalization and customization. Customization assumes that the manufacturer will design a product to suit a customer’s needs. Personalization, on the other hand, is about customers, i.e. students in this case, becoming co-creators of the content of their experiences. Personalization includes tailoring of content and action to the individual student’s frame of reference, and enables students to have personal learning paths that encourage them to set and manage their individual goals. This does not mean that individual students are separated from each other (see the fourth element: collaboration).

The main thing in personalization is that it strengthens the student’s engagement by increasing psychological ownership (Pierce, Kostova, & Dirks, 2003, 86) Psychological ownership is a cognitive-affective state in which students feel a sense of ownership in the process of studying. They have a positive attitude towards studying, a realistic self-concept, and a sense of responsibility for the results and outcomes. This sense of possession (the feeling that the learning objectives or assignments are ‘mine’ or ‘ours’) promotes engagement in the processes of studying and learning, and facilitates identity work. The emergence and development of ownership is supported by letting students have a greater say in their own learning activities, and in how they deal with assignments which require complex action, thinking and planning.

In working life, work is supervised to an increasing extent by employees themselves, involving negotiations in various communities. Supervisory and managerial responsibilities are also in motion, and are not permanently associated with specific people. (Järvensivu & al. 2014.) In complicated assignments, employees have to exercise autonomy and use their own discretion; the choices they make are heavily influenced by their work-identity or professional identity (Pierce, Jussila & Cummings 2009.) Similarly, learning assignments which are too carefully preplanned by the teacher do not necessarily support the development and maintenance of ownership. Putting the onus on students to formulate their own goals and assignments is the basis for the use of scaffolding.

b) Mentoring-guidance

I have the feeling that studying here is meaningful for my life. My own field of study seems worthwhile and my perspectives and goals have become more explicit and clear. Even my professional identity has strengthened. I feel that the staff are really there for you. The teachers and other staff are kind, human and approachable – not like robots. Individual guidance is much more available than ever before; I have never felt lonely or abandoned at any time during my studies.

The atmosphere is really good, democratic and tolerant. The students are treated as adults and the teachers appreciate the students. I feel secure, knowing that I can get help whenever I need it.

Successful mentoring-guidance requires mutual respect, listening, encouragement, dialogue and emotional sensitivity. Teachers, other staff members and representatives of working life can encourage students’ engagement in their own learning and performance improvement by guiding students in planning their own learning and studying. Personal meaning-making will be emphasized in constructing positive future scenarios. The goal in mentoring-guidance is that, within a dialogical environment and participatory culture, students become aware of themselves and their own potential.

What does it mean to you to become a professional in your own field? That is a question every student should have time and opportunity to consider and discuss. The role transition from student to employee in working life may happen quickly, but identity work needs time and support. Identity construction, i.e. the person’s conception of who he or she is and where he or she belongs, requires a conception of where he or she is coming from and going to (Taylor 1989). Students must have a future vision in order to engage in their studies and form their own professional identity.

Meaning-making is at the core of mentoring-guidance. Meaning is formed on the basis of experience, reflection, speech and action.  It is based on previous experiences and expectations of the future, and is a holistic way of integrating past and present experiences, together with ideas about what the future holds (Stelter 2014). Mentoring-guidance helps to regulate the development of competencies and supports the learner’s ability to apply skills, knowledge and experience to new situations and processes (Michael 2008). It is a form of dialogue where participants focus on creating space for reflection through collaborative practices. The target is to encourage students’ goal-orientation, and engagement in their own learning and performance improvement. Parsloe (1992) argues that the function of mentoring is to help and support people to manage their own learning in order to maximize their potential, develop their skills, improve their performance, and become the person they want to be. This applies to mentoring-guidance too.

c) Authenticity

Individuality and diversity as well as differences between students are respected. I have been treated with respect – as myself. People here are truly interested in your learning and your future.  The goals of every study module are directed towards working life. Already during the first year you can participate in development projects together with students from other fields of study and representatives of working life. We carry out activities in which you can learn and practice work-life skills in real situations with real customers and professionals.

Authenticity was connected both to learning environments and to the quality of interaction.  Working in real projects with representatives of working life was seen as essential part of learning.  One important aspect in authenticity was that students are not only defined by their institutional role as students, but their personal and individual needs, situations and goals are also taken into account.

Authenticity is a complex and multidimensional phenomenon.  No single unanimous definition of authenticity exists, but core elements of its meaning are being “real” or “genuine”.  For the purposes of this study, three definitions by Kreber are worth mentioning.  First, authenticity as being true to oneself means not being defined by others but using self-knowledge to establish one’s own identity. Another view of authenticity – acting in the interests of learners – means that teachers and other members of staff care about their students and want them to succeed. The third definition refers to transformation, or the process of becoming. In this view, authenticity develops via a process that involves ongoing critical reflection. Transformative learning goes beyond changing what students know – it can change who they are. (Kreber 2010.)

In higher education, the terms “authenticity” and “authentic” are usually associated with real-life situations, environments and tasks which are exploited in some way for learning purposes.  However, authenticity occurs not in the learner, the task, or the environment, but in the dynamic interactions among all of these. It is cognitive authenticity rather than physical authenticity that is of prime importance in the design of authentic learning environments. (Barab, Squire & Dueber 2000; Herrington, Oliver & Reeves 2003). Authenticity enables learners to engage in activities which present the same type of cognitive challenges as those in the real world (Honebein, Duffy & Fishman, 1993). Working with tasks and problems which replicate the particular activity structures of a context enhances transferability and application of theoretical knowledge to the “real world”. Along with technical procedures, students should be learning the schema through which professionals recognize and solve problems. Expert thinking involves the ability to identify and solve problems for which there is no routine solution. According to employers, the most important skills in new hires include teamwork, critical thinking/reasoning, assembling/organizing information, and innovative thinking/creativity. (Hart 2006.)

Authenticity can also simply mean that something is personally relevant or interesting to the learner (Jonassen 1999). Authentic problems engage learners because they represent a meaningful challenge to them. Thus authenticity goes hand in hand with the drive for student engagement and partnership. Authenticity can be enhanced by helping the students to recognize their own starting points, thinking, action and prior knowledge, supporting them to formulate their own learning objectives, and encouraging them to reflect on issues concerning theory and practice.

d) Collaboration

The students work in small groups or teams (not too big) – both within the institution and together with representatives of work life. There is a lot of project-based learning in co-operation with work life. Student counselling functions very well.  The students’ union is active and constantly develops new kinds of ways to influence the practices within the organization. Students, teachers and other staff know each other, which is a good basis for co-operation. ICT is widely used in teaching and teamwork and communication with regional, national and international partners.

The principle of collaboration includes any kind of action that is done with the student or for the student. Thus, one-on-one encounters, group or team discussions, co-operation between different fields of study, services and departments are all encompassed within this concept. In addition, collaboration included networking with representatives of working life and regional policy-makers, and web-based participation in nationwide and global discussions.  Digitalization, social media and mobile technology was seen as essential tools of communication which are opening up new opportunities for agile interaction. Furthermore, these tools enable technical scaffolding, such as web links, online tutorials, or help pages, for the guidance of students (Yelland & Masters, 2007).

Collaboration entails working together toward a common goal. Students invest in their own learning and take responsibility as team members (see also psychological ownership). Learners use a variety of research tools (digital and mobile) as they actively participate in different projects, working not only with internal partners but also with representatives of working life.

Collaboration is a process in which individuals negotiate and share meanings relevant to the problem-solving task at hand. (Roschelle & Teasley 1995). In working life, employees are increasingly organizing their work flexibly among themselves. Work is flexibly reorganized, rescheduled and replanned in response to changing situations and needs. (Järvensivu & al. 2014.) These flexible working skills can be practiced during the studies. Collaboration is a coordinated activity that is the result of a sustained attempt to construct and maintain a shared conception of a problem. This enables, for example, role-switching, where teachers/practitioners become learners at times, and learners sometimes teach. Collaboration can be seen both as a way of studying together and a way of creating knowledge.

The use of new devices for communication are an essential element in collaboration. However, students’ ability to exploit mobile devices and other emergent technologies as effective study tools cannot be assumed; this issue requires deliberate attention. Furthermore, personal factors such as students’ prior knowledge and their metacognitive and collaborative skills, as well as contextual cues such as cultural compatibility and instructional methods, influence student engagement. (Laru 2012.)

e) Adaptability

Accreditation of prior learning and work experience enable students to make individual study plans and study paths. I didn’t have to study the same things I had already studied before. It is possible to study and learn new, interesting and useful skills or shorten the studying time and move earlier into work life. This kind of possibility increases motivation. It is possible to affect your learning environment, teaching, the spaces you work in and the equipment you use. Bureaucracy is very low and even administrative matters work well. Unexpected changes in a student’s life situation are understood and accepted. Plans are flexible and they can be reorganized.

 Adaptability was understood as a multilevel phenomenon. On a personal level and group level, adaptability refers to the ability to take on new challenges at short notice, and to deal with changing priorities and workloads. On an organizational level – both in educational and work-life settings – adaptability means the capacity to modify plans, curricula and organizational structures to meet changing demands in different situations.  An essential feature of adaptability is the creation of learning spaces that are flexible and plastic while supporting the teaching and learning processes. Adaptability – like personalization – includes tailoring of content and study processes to the individual student’s frame of reference.

Adaptability can be defined as the capacity to deal with new, changing, and/or uncertain situations (Martin 2010). Thus, adaptability can be understood as a mindset, a way of thinking or a habitual attitude. This kind of flexibility is one of the key competencies in working life. Järvensivu & al. (2014) argue that when today’s students enter the workforce, they will need to cope with complex environments, production networks and online work communities.  They will face chaotic situations, demanding high-level management – and self-management – skills.  This will require a capacity for continuous shared learning in response to the changes in the work environment.   From the educational and vocational viewpoint, the changes in working life present enormous challenges, particularly for the improvement and up-dating of competencies.

Discussion and conclusions

The focus of this study was on inquiring into first-year student experience; the research question was: What elements are important for a good first year experience in a university of applied sciences, according to students, teachers and other staff members?  Higher education ought to equip students to enhance their capacity to adapt and manage an unknown future. The five elements of a good first-year experience identified from the data – personalization, mentoring-guidance, authenticity, collaboration and adaptability – can be seen as guidelines for supporting students’ identity work and professional growth, and for promoting their acquisition of the competencies needed in working life. These guidelines could serve as an example of how curricula can be linked to world of work (c.f. Singh & Little 2011, 38). Beijaard & al (2004) emphasize that identity is an ongoing process. Thus identity work continues even if the student has finished his/her studies.

The results of this study are significant in that they give voice both to the students and to the personnel by allowing them to specify the elements of good student experience. The results highlight the importance of student agency, responsibility, and participation in decision-making. Students, teachers and other staff should have opportunities to engage in mutually-supportive communities, and contribute to building a participatory and dialogical learning, teaching and working environment. The five basic elements help us to understand how to enhance engagement in the processes of studying, what is important in interaction, and what should be taken into account in executing plans and processes. These elements can be applied in any discipline or field of study, at any stage of the student journey, and in the whole range of student services.  By providing opportunities for every party – students, teachers and other categories of staff – to articulate their opinions, constructive dialogue becomes possible, enabling progress towards a more positive alignment between student expectations and their actual experience (c.f. Morgan 2012, 10).  This in turn will raise levels of student satisfaction.   According to Williams (2011, 46) for example the experience and knowledge of people working in student support services is usually not utilized enough. A future-oriented and positive approach is needed in order to identify, acknowledge and reflect on daily practices, and ultimately determine what action should be taken if some of the basic elements are being neglected.

The findings of this study provide strong justification for practices which enable students’ agency and participation, and give students responsibility. Further research is needed in order to work out how these five basic elements can be implemented in practice, and to analyze what impact they have on students’ experiences. Answers to these questions should be sought in collaboration with students, teachers, other categories of staff, and representatives of working life.  As times, places and tools for work are all in flux, so the times, places and tools for learning, teaching and education have also been reconsidered. It is important to consult the people working with the students during their practical training periods and in projects, and to involve them in investigating what the broader conditions are that maintain particular ways of thinking, acting and relating, in the context of supporting professional growth. Collaboration between employees in universities of applied sciences and workplaces should be enhanced in order to create a common understanding of the ways to support students in their identity work, and to facilitate their acquisition of the competencies needed to meet the demands of working life in its current state of change. The implementation of these elements could help students to endure uncertainty and hermeneutic experiences (c.f. Gadamer 1979) and their orientation to their own zones of proximal development (c.f. Vygotsky 1986).

This study was carried out in a university of applied sciences. As the five basic elements of a good first-year experience are not related to any particular subject or field of study, they can be applied in many kinds of institutions and in all manner of situations where learning, professional development and identity construction are a high priority. They can be applied even in work-life organizations for assessing current practices and organizational culture. In educational institutions, teachers and other categories of staff can use them in planning, assessing and developing their work.  Work communities can use them for assessing learning environments and making the working culture more collaborative in nature.  Students can use them when planning their studies, and representatives of working life can use them for developing new ways of supporting students’ learning in project work and in practical training settings.

It is important that the five basic elements identified in this study should be applied not only during the time spent in the institution, but also during the practical training periods in work-places, and in other situations involving cooperation with companies and representatives of working life.  The five elements give a good basis for building a participatory culture where students, teachers, other staff members and representatives of working life engage mutually in creating dialogical learning environments (c.f. Haworth & Conrad 1997; Annala & al. 2012). This would provide a good basis for enabling students to become competent partners for research and development projects, and valued employees who are capable of developing their organizations and work communities.

Author

Harri Kukkonen, PhD, MSocSc, Principal lecturer, Tampere University of Applied Sciences, harri.kukkonen(at)tamk.fi

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