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Managing the expectations–reality mismatch through aspirations, access and achievement: engineering a first year undergraduate student's habitus

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  Managing the expectations–reality mismatch through aspirations, access and achievement: engineering a first year undergraduate student's habitus
  1Managing the expectations-reality mismatch through aspirations, access and achievement, refereed paper. Managing the expectations–reality mismatch through aspirations, accessand achievement: Engineering a first year undergraduate student’s habitus Barnard Janse van Rensburg, Faculty of Engineering and Surveying, University of SouthernQueensland, AustraliaP. A. Danaher, Faculty of Education, University of Southern Queensland, AustraliaHenriette van Rensburg, Faculty of Education, University of Southern Queensland, Australia Abstract  Despite some criticisms, Bourdieu’s (1977) notion of the habitus remains a powerful conceptual tool for analysing how individuals perceive and engage withdifferent worlds. It certainly constitutes a generative explanatory framework for examining how first year undergraduate students navigate their ways through theoften competing pressures of university study, paid work and home life. In particular, the habitus is helpful to students and university personnel alike inmanaging the common mismatch between the expectations and reality of the first  year experience. This paper explores selected aspects of the first named author’shabitus as a first year mechanical engineering student in an Australian regionaluniversity. An audiotaped semi-structured interview clustered around the themesof aspirations, access and achievement is used to identify how the student engineers his habitus and also to posit implications for future practice by thestudent, his family, his friends and the relevant university personnel. Introduction A crucial theme in the burgeoning literature about the first year experiences of universityundergraduates is the student’s central place in managing those experiences. Among otherroles, students are involved in interacting with social learning spaces established to maximisestudent engagement (Matthews, Adams, & Gannaway, 2009), responding to assessmentfeedback opportunities (Potter & Lynch, 2008) and placing university study within the widergamut of their lifeworlds and cultural practices (Mattarozzi Laming, 2007). Students arethereby required to take the lead in synthesising and integrating the competing demands ontheir time and attention, and to display from the outset the capabilities and dispositions of independent learning – or at least dependent and interdependent learning leading toindependent learning.Yet the capacity to take this lead varies strikingly from individual student to student. Someachieve excellent results, some pass their courses unspectacularly and others become attritionstatistics (Rienks & Taylor, 2009). One among several possibly fruitful ways of explainingthis diversity lies with Bourdieu’s (1977) still very useful concept of the habitus, which hedefined as “the durably installed generative principles of regulated improvisation … [whichproduces] practices” (p. 78), and which Webb, Schirato and Danaher (2002) elaborated thus: A concept that expresses, on the one hand, the way in which individuals ‘become themselves’–develop attitudes and dispositions–and, on the other hand, the ways in which those individualsengage in practices. An artistic habitus, for example, disposes the individual artist to certain  2Managing the expectations-reality mismatch through aspirations, access and achievement, refereed paper.activities and perspectives that express the culturally and historically constituted values of theartistic field. (pp. xii-xiii) The habitus therefore provides a reasonably stable framework for guiding the individual’sinteractions with the world and is also changed in turn through these engagements; it is asimultaneously durable and dynamic phenomenon. For first year undergraduate students, ahabitus attuned to the world of university is particularly important in helping them to makethe transition through their programs (Fisher & McConachie, 2009) as well as in resolvingany mismatches between expectations and perceived reality that might arise during thoseprograms.This paper explores selected ways in which the first named author, a mechanical engineeringstudent in an Australian regional university, currently moving from first to second years in hisprogram, goes about engineering his habitus. We analyse extracts from a semi-structuredinterview between the student and the other authors in relation to three key themes:aspirations, access and achievement. What emerges is the student’s generally cleararticulation of his developing habitus as a prospective engineer, informed and in some wayscontradicted by his constructions of his program and other aspects of his life. It is by means of that habitus, we argue, that he attains a tentative and necessarily temporary resolution of theperceived mismatch between expectations and reality.The paper is divided into the following four sections: a selective literature review, conceptualframework and research design; a reporting of the three themes from the interview; ananalysis of those themes in terms of the habitus; and suggested implications for practice forstudents and university personnel.   Literature review, conceptual framework and research design The ongoing significance of students’ expectations of their first year experience vis-à-vis howthey perceive the reality of that experience is widely recognised in the literature (Andrews,2006; Jansen & van der Meer, 2007; McPhail, Fisher, & McConachie, 2009). Thissignificance centres on the degree of alignment between a student’s anticipation andfulfilment related to the respective university program, and is clearly influenced by a myriadof factors, some pertaining to the university and others outside its knowledge and control.Initiatives designed to maximise this alignment have included strategies using current socialnetworking technologies to enhance student engagement (Howard, 2009), developingspecialist support programs (Noble & Henderson, 2008), involving students in summativeassessment design and decision-making (Cuffe & Jackson, 2006) and drawing on the work of face-to-face and online student mentors (Dawson, 2007). While these have inevitably metwith varied success, all of them have been underpinned by a determination to fulfil first yearstudents’ expectations before commencing university study within the constraints of availableresources and what is perceived to be reasonable and sustainable.This same determination and potential tension are evident in the specialist engineeringeducation literature. Steer (2008) cited a student’s comment about an Engineering LearningCentre set up specifically for first year students: “You have a sense of identity by going inthere[;] you feel like an engineer” (p. 9), highlighting the non-academic and emotionaldimensions of the first year engineering experience. Other issues impacting on whether andhow students’ expectations are fulfilled range from effective laboratory use (Feisel & Rosa,2005) and online provision (Bourne, Harris, & Mayadas, 2005) to honing analytical and groupskills (Strauss & Terenzini, 2007) as well as assessment practices (Olds, Moskal, & Miller,  3Managing the expectations-reality mismatch through aspirations, access and achievement, refereed paper. 2005). As with the broader strategies outlined above, these engineering-specific initiativesvary in their degrees of effectiveness.As we also noted above, the paper’s conceptual framework is centred on Bourdieu’s (1977)notion of the habitus, whereby individuals “‘become themselves’ … and … engage inpractices” (Webb, Schirato, & Danaher, 2002, pp. xii-xiii). Or as these authors elaborated: The habitus constitutes Bourdieu’s most ambitious attempt to ground and explain practices in termsof both specific and general sociocultural contexts …. Habitus can be understood as, on the onehand, the historical and cultural production of individual practices–since contexts, laws, rules andideologies all speak through individuals, who are never entirely aware that this is happening–and,on the other hand, the individual production of practices–since the individual always acts from self-interest. (Webb, Schirato, & Danaher, 2002, p. 15) Given the preceding discussion, these dual aspects of the habitus are equally important:identity re/formation and material action go hand in hand in terms of aligning students’expectations and perceptions of reality as far as possible. This point also alerts us to the largerbackdrop against which individual strategies of support and teaching, and student responses tothese strategies, need to be understood; indeed, as Thomas (2002) has demonstrated, theinfluence of institutional habitus is equally significant. While we acknowledge criticisms of the concept of the habitus (Elliott, 2009, pp. 148-150), the first named author’s engineering of his own habitus constitutes the analytical framework for interpreting the data presentedbelow.The paper is part of a wider study investigating engineering students’ professional andpersonal experiences, with potential extension to South Africa and Venezuela. The study’sresearch design draws together principles of autoethnography (Buzard, 2003; Holt, 2003) andcase study (Stake, 2005; Yin, 2009), and is qualitative and interpretivist in orientation(Somekh & Lewin, 2005). A single, extended, semi-structured, audiotaped interview yielded alengthy transcript that was analysed in terms of emergent themes, framed by selectedelements of the concept of the habitus (Bourdieu, 1977). We now turn to present thesethemes, followed by a restricted analysis of the data. The three themes in the interview As explained earlier, the interview entailed the first named author’s engaging with a series of questions related to his expectations, followed by his experiences, of the first year of hiscurrent mechanical engineering undergraduate program. His responses were clustered aroundthe three themes of aspirations, access and achievement.  Aspirations There were four distinct elements of the first named author’s aspirations with regard toengineering specifically and contemporary life in general. The first was an intrinsic sense of motivation and curiosity: “I think engineering has always been a field that I found veryinteresting …. There are so many … [aspects of engineering], and I find it very interesting”.The second element was a determination to do the best that he could academically: In life, in general, I like to do the best I can in everything I do and I like to achieve well. I’m notnecessarily always satisfied with getting a C [passing grade] – that doesn’t really appeal.  4Managing the expectations-reality mismatch through aspirations, access and achievement, refereed paper. The third element was related to job security and financial independence: “ … the prospect of having a professional career where there are so many opportunities and things that you can do… ”.The fourth element was a clear-sighted view of engineering’s practical applicability and itscapacity to effect positive change in the world, to which the student also saw himself contributing directly and substantially. For example, he contended that “you can solve biggerproblems culturally and within countries” and that “the main reason” for his choice of profession “is what you can do with engineering”. This point was directly connected with hisstrong sense of personal and professional identity: In the end I guess my biggest ambition in life, and it’s a saying I picked up, is, “Be the change youwant to see in the world”, so figure out what it is that you want to change, figure out what it is thatyou want the world to be, and be that. I guess that’s my biggest ambition in life, to make adifference of some description. Many of these elements were combined and encapsulated in a specific dilemma faced by thestudent throughout his first year experience: the realisation that the major or specialisationthat he had chosen (civil engineering) was the incorrect choice for him, and the need to find areplacement (mechanical engineering): I think the first reason I was in civil was probably for the wrong reasons, being that I wasconstantly told by many, many professional engineers, amongst a lot of other people, that there’s alot better job prospects for civil engineers in Australia. They do seem to do better financially interms of the hierarchy in companies and so forth and so on. That was the initial reason forchoosing civil. However, when we were doing principles of engineering, we were doing a lot of case studies, and the ones we were doing about civil engineering just did not appeal and broughton as much excitement as the ones that involved mechanical field[s] or mechanisms and bits andpieces that turn, and that really appealed to me and that made me decide that yes, I would muchrather do [the] mechanical field and enjoy what I do rather than look at what the financial andother benefits are for doing civil. Here aspirations related to extrinsic and intrinsic motivation competed for priority and werefound to be in such disjuncture that the intrinsic motivation prevailed and a change of specialisation occurred. This disjuncture was also reflected in a striking contrast articulatedbetween the student’s pre-program expectations and the reality of his first year experience. Onthe one hand, he had expected “that you’d be building little bridges and testing a lot of thingsand doing exciting stuff and learning about how to build machines or anything like that”,based on “what you see on television or what you get led to believe engineers do all day,which is design and build and break stuff”. On the other hand, this applied dimension of acquiring an engineer’s habitus was quickly found to be only “a very small portion” of thefirst year program; “the first thing that was a bit of a let down” was that there was “a lot of general, basic knowledge that we had to study that seemed very basic and very across thefield”, as well as “a lot of group work” and “a lot of essays”.These various elements of the first named author’s aspirations and examples of the mismatchbetween expectations and reality in his first year experience were powerfully synthesised inthe following statement of the perceived links between his chosen profession and his identity: Being somebody who I would think is mechanically inclined and having the drive and the urgencyto do good for other people or to try and help people develop in whatever way is probably a verystrong bond I would say between the job and the discipline I’ve chosen and me as a person.  Access  5Managing the expectations-reality mismatch through aspirations, access and achievement, refereed paper. As someone who had clearly defined understandings of how and why he learns, the firstnamed author expressed distinct preferences and perceptions related to accessing differenttypes of learning support in his first year program. For example, he had achieved considerablesuccess through memorisation: I definitely [am the] sort of learner that likes a bit of repetition. I enjoy parrot learning. If there’ssomething I can learn and I can read it once, photographic memory helps to just be able to recallthat straight again. By contrast, he realised that this was not always possible or desirable; at those times, it wascrucial for him to be able to: “ … understand the topic or the underlying principle of what it’sabout, and therefore you can figure out your own way from there”. For this understanding tooccur it was crucial for him to have direct and easy access to his lecturers and tutors. Hecommented that they generally made themselves available to students and provided additionalsupport for student learning: “I like face to face study with teachers or lecturers if I have anyproblems”. For this reason he ensured that he had a very high attendance at lectures andtutorials.The student expressed mixed emotions about accessing learning via the group work that hadbeen such a prominent feature of his first year experience. On the one hand: Even studying in a group, I do enjoy studying in a group of people of my own choice, mind you,people that I believe are just as ambitious or would like to get ahead that are actually serious aboutstudying. On the other hand, being a member of a randomly assigned group was “when access [tolearning] does become hard”. He described the experience of being in such a group of eight ornine students and asking the other members “what we want to achieve this semester”, andbeing concerned when most of them stated that “they just want to pass” because they weresponsored by a company or needed only a passing grade to fulfil the requirements of theirvisas if they were international students. He confided that “access in that … [sense] doeshinder you a bit” – for example, having to learn “how to get couch potatoes to work”.The student also indicated that he disliked online provision as a means of accessing learning,finding it “very impersonal and very … out of it”. He elaborated “out of it” as conveying asense of feeling: … very detached, as in you’re sitting here, the other people are in a [different] room – they couldbe in a different country; you wouldn’t know – and it’s very impersonal, and I enjoy … socialinteraction. Therefore the computer is very impersonal, and I don’t really particularly enjoy usingthe computer [for accessing learning]. As with his aspirations, then, the first named author articulated a strong awareness of thefactors that facilitated his access to learning and those that did not, which in turn influencedhis sense of achievement during his first year experience.  Achievement   The student had achieved excellent results (four high distinction grades) in the first semesterof the program, which testified to his conscientious dedication to study and his effective timemanagement across all the areas of competing demands in his life. In the second semester hestill achieved very well, attaining one high distinction, two distinctions and one passing grade.Although he was “not entirely happy with that” outcome, he explained that a major
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