The phrase “social class achievement gap” was coined by Stephens and her colleagues and highlights the differences in outcomes, including degree completion rates, between lower-SES students and their higher-SES peers. In the research I present today, I am exploring the social-class achievement gap through the experiences of 30 first-generation college students; these are students whose parents have not completed a 4-year college degree. In focusing on social class, I am not intending to obscure the very real racial achievement gap. Students of color are more likely to be first-generation students and they are represented in my sample. In future work, I intend to explore my data in relation to the racial achievement gap.
If it isn’t already apparent, I am more familiar with the US context. In both the United States and the United Kingdom we talk a lot about access to higher education and increasing access or widening participation for students from minoritized or marginalized backgrounds. Even though at the national and institutional levels, we have been successful in widening participation, students from lower-SES background still experience diminished outcomes and are less likely to persist to degree completion.
I’d like to briefly highlight two contributors (OF MANY!) to this gap, but two that we often overlook in academic libraries, particularly in the US. The first contributor is the difference in low-SES students’ social and cultural capital. How many are familiar with these concepts? The underlying assumption here is that our society is stratified into different social groups, some with more power and others with little to no power. Social capital is about who know that can either help you to maintain or advance your position within society (i.e. staying in a powerful social class or being upwardly mobile). Through your social capital, you acquire cultural capital which signals your belonging in particular social group. This acquisition can be conscious or unconscious. Examples of cultural capital would be how you dress, what you know about literature, art, music, the way you speak, and when cultural capital is internalized, it affects your ways of thinking and acting.
If we then think about and reflect on our own academic culture and it’s historical roots, it’s not surprising that higher education tends to reflect middle- and upper-class, white, patriarchal, heteronormative values. Students who do not belong to these dominant cultural groups may not have internalized the ways of thinking and acting in the same way that students from higher-SES backgrounds may have. In addition, this can lead to feelings of academic alienation or marginalization.
Three potential outcomes: Students don’t see their identities or experiences represented in the curriculum or their academic work (Jehangir, 2010) Students, through no fault of their own, are viewed as “intellectually inferior” or “lacking ability” (Burke, 2012) Students feel they must change their identity to fit in (Mann, 2001) or are a traitor to their “home” culture (Jehangir, 2010)
Although the skills and behaviors associated with information literacy are bigger than our higher education contexts, our professional associations’ definitions and conceptualizations of are rooted within the higher education context. Therefore, I argue that information literacy is firmly rooted within and representative of academic culture.
In my study, I draw upon the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education. While I believe the Framework is a step in the right direction, because it attempts to make more transparent the dispositions and knowledge practices we expect students to demonstrate, we do need to think critically about how we translate or model these dispositions and knowledge practices for students who come from marginalized backgrounds. Given that threshold concepts are transformative, meaning that once a student has crossed a threshold, it’s difficult for them to see the world in the same way they did before…I argue that this is an internalization similar to the internalization of cultural capital. Therefore, I’m approaching information literacy as a form of capital within academic culture, which can signal to instructor who belongs and who does not belong….a potential source of alienation or marginalization.
In my own practice, I have found the “scholarship as conversation” threshold concept to be a valuable gateway to developing the other threshold concepts. Students might not realize that when they are given a research assignment they are expected to join an existing conversation about their topic by asking a question or developing an argument. Once students have understood that scholarship is a conversation and they are expected to participate in that conversation, it becomes easier to discuss the key points within the conversation, who does and does not have authority in the conversation, where to find the relevant pieces of the conversation, and how they will contribute to the conversation. However, joining an ongoing conversation about a relatively new topic, particularly in an academic context, is challenging for many college students (Leckie, 1996).
In my research, I have chosen to focus on first-generation college students’ experiences with research assignments for two reasons. One, at least in the US context, research assignments are ubiquitous; it’s hard to imagine any student graduating college in the US without having to do several assignments that require them to locate, evaluate, and use information. Performance on research assignments has direct implications for students’ performance (i.e. grades). Despite this, they have been neglected in research investigating first-generation students and academic engagement. Second, research assignments are often artifacts of academic culture and they require students to demonstrate proficiency with disciplinary vocabulary, theories and concepts, and methods even as they are novices in the discipline. The focus on research assignments allows us to explore how students cope with this and the strategies they use to succeed.
Not going to focus on the students who drew on prior knowledge/interests as a response to an extrinsic motivator. These will focus on four students who demonstrated an intrinsic motivation to learn more about topics that were meaningful to them. These are not the only examples that emerged in the study; they are examples selected from many.
Laila is a Black, female in her fourth year of study in the biological and health sciences. In her first year a college, Laila had a research assignment in her honors sociology course. She was a student athlete, and she was required to attend regular study halls. Laila used her observations about other student athletes’ behavior in study hall to develop a topic for an honors sociology research project in her first-year of college. Laila hypothesized that the student athletes who were in season were more likely to be doing their work in study hall, because they did not have as much free time on their hands. This research assignment allowed her to apply what she was learning in her honors sociology course, including gaining first-hand experience with empirical research, to satisfy her curiosity about what she had observed.
Cheyenne is a white, female in her fourth-year of study in communication and the arts. In her third year of college, Cheyenne was wrestling with a tragedy that happened at her high school alma mater, an incident of student-on-student violence. This incident received heavy coverage in the local news outlets, including the debate about whether the perpetrator should be tried and punished as a minor or as an adult. Cheyenne had strong opinions about this and wanted to write about them for a research assignment in her rhetoric and public policy course. While the professor approved her topic, she also encouraged Cheyenne to look at the topic from a different lens. Rather than simply reaffirming affirming her existing beliefs, the assignment and the support she received from her professor helped her to think critically about this incident and to make sense of the tragedy; the reasons for violence are complex and emotionally charged reactions may prevent one from exploring these tragedies from multiple perspectives. Cheyenne said, “As I kept doing research and everything like that and learning more about different mental illnesses, I wasn’t as angry, and I learned a lot of different things.” What may have seemed like a minor discussion about how to focus a topic for a research assignment had implications for Cheyenne’s ability to think critically about public policy issues to which she could personally relate and to begin to make sense of a tragic incident.
Gabrielle is a black, female in her fourth year of study in the behavioral and social sciences. Gabrielle selected a topic for a research assignment to develop an authoritative voice that she could use to educate others about issues are meaningful to her by leveraging her own lived experience. The theme of her criminal justice capstone course was racism in the United States, and she was one of several Black students enrolled in the course, despite the campus being predominantly white. She did not understand how some of her peers were “tired of talking about racism,” saying, “How could you be tired of talking about it when you’re living in it?” For Gabrielle, strengthening her authoritative voice to educate others meant facilitating difficult discussions with a diverse group of students in order to educate herself at the same time. This meant that she was learning alongside her peers, trying to truly understand their perspectives so that she could educate them about her own. It also provided her with the opportunity to facilitate these discussions and practice using her authoritative voice.
DeShawn is a black male in his third year of study in management and education. On the second day of classes, one of his intermediate college composition classmates used a racial slur. DeShawn’s experience is a bit different than the other students discussed in this section, because the topic of his research assignment, which included both a paper and a presentation, was not related to his experience as a Black/African-American student; rather, it was rooted in his love of music. However, for the public portion of the assignment, the presentation, DeShawn felt that he had an opportunity to educate his classmates and intentionally incorporated music from Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West into his presentation. He wanted to provoke his classmates to think about these songs and their lyrics and how they were representative of the Black/African-American community. The presentation portion of his research assignments allowed him to practice and assert his authoritative voice and be an advocate for his community.
Each of these students had something to say…in other words, they demonstrated an intrinsic motivation to join a conversation about their topics because they were drawing upon their funds of knowledge.
Drawing on Identity and Prior Knowledge to Join the Conversation in Research Assignments - Folk
Drawing on Identity and Prior Knowledge to Join the
Conversation in Research Assignments
Amanda L. Folk
Head, Teaching & Learning
How do you help
students to understand
that scholarship is a
THE SOCIAL CLASS
What contributes to this gap?
Social and cultural capital (Bourdieu)
Burke, P.J. (2012). The right to higher education: Beyond widening participation. New
Stuber, J. (2011). Inside the college gates: How class and culture matter in higher
education. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
Mann, S.J. (2001). Alternative perspectives on the student experience: Alienation and
engagement. Studies in Higher Education, 26(1), 7-19.
Jehangir, R.R. (2010). Higher education and first-generation students: Cultivating
community, voice, and place for the new majority. New York, NY: Palgrave
HOW DOES THIS
Research study information
Hermeneutic phenomenology (van Manen, 1990, 2004)
Attempts to understand what it’s like to experience a particular
30 first-generation students in their third or fourth years study at
two regional campuses of a large research university in the
Exploring their environment
Whenever I was in our mandatory study hours, I would look around at
the different athletes. I’d be like, “That person does this,” and, “Hmm,
they’re not doing homework.” “This person plays this.” “They’re doing
a little bit of something.” …I’m like, “Okay, they’re not in season now,”
and like, “Okay, they’re in season now”… Sophomores didn’t [have
mandatory study hall] if they had a certain GPA, but there were
some… juniors and seniors there. You didn’t have a high enough
GPA but still had to do study hour, so you’re like, “Okay, what’s
going on here?” That made me think, too.
She also helped me look at different things that I didn’t even think to
look at or to do research on. That definitely opened up my eyes to
just all different things. I didn’t even—when I started I wasn’t even
really looking at the mental illnesses. Then she told me to at least
take a gander at it and see if that has any effects to these kids
[perpetrators of school violence], which it does… As I kept doing
research and everything like that and learning more about
different mental illnesses, I wasn’t as angry, and I learned a lot of
Educating others – developing an authoritative
It was more so like I didn’t just wanna leave out of the class and not
take nothing from it, so what I did was I got a small group together,
and we actually sat down and just talked about it… Like, “Tell me
something that you don’t know, and I’ll tell you something that I don’t
know, and we’ll try to educate each other.” Because I’m not gonna lie,
sometimes it does get frustrating to continuously keep talking
about it, but it’s always gonna be there, so you gotta try to at
least educate someone else about it that doesn’t know. It was
like, well, maybe I’ll just do my project on it.
Educating others – asserting an authoritative voice
The thing with this is, I saw this as an opportunity for
me. I could either (a) run and go to a different college
or (b) stand my ground and educate people... an
opportunity to educate the white populous who
really don’t understand what it is or what it
means to be an African-American student.