Adapting to a university education

Seminars, tutorials, workshops, and laboratories not only give feedback and opportunities to develop subject expertise, they are also a vital avenue for helping students to adjust to departmental culture, and the UK university system. Close contact with staff motivates students to engage with their discipline, and staff can support students to integrate into the department and collaborate with peers. Thomas argues that male and female students (and by implication staff) have contrasting experiences of adjusting to departmental life, and in situating themselves within a departmental culture (Thomas 1990). Although efforts need to be made to accommodate multiple approaches to learning, research shows that students whose approaches to learning match those of their discipline tend to engage most readily in their subject (Kolb 1981). Ramsden and Entwistle suggest that the ways in which teaching is organised and delivered in departments influences students' orientation to learning (Entwistle and Ramsden 1983, 188). Becher (1989) goes further, arguing that the use of particular learning and teaching methods within any single discipline is not only because they meet the needs of that discipline, but also because of the traditions and expectations that have developed in the discipline. Becher's 'academic tribes' welcome new members, but they must adjust their behaviour to fit in.

Students can therefore easily be made to feel 'outsiders', by failing to conform to departmental and institutional norms.

We can also approach this problem more specifically, using the example of women's experiences in higher education. According to Thomas (1990), gender inequality persists in higher education by assuming that intellectual qualities may be grouped into complementary pairings in all debate, e.g., male/female, sciences/arts, or worthy/unworthy of funding. In this way the differences become natural, inevitable and unchallengable, with women losing out on financial security and high social status. A change in attitudes might be brought about by breaking down disciplinary barriers, discouraging overspecialisation, reinforcing the holistic outlook and stressing connection and co-operation over difference.

Higher education does not actively discriminate against women but by adopting a code of values based on collective male experience, it becomes difficult for women to succeed (Belenky et al. 1997). Institutions use gender to force women to work within pre-existing frameworks which may be a distortion of experience for many, and alienation from the system follows. As outsiders, women in education are always engaged in the processes of negotiation and manipulation (Richardson and King 1991). They have to understand male views of the world as well as develop their own. Whether women accept the dominant values (women are naturally less able and can only succeed by being at least as good as men) or reject them (by refusing to play the academic ranking game) the outcome is the same, women's position remains subordinate.

This subordinate position of university women has further implications for learning. Few women hold permanent and responsible posts and so have little say in either curriculum content or how it is taught (Kohl 2000). Neither does a better future beckon if knowledge via the Internet is restricted because women have limited computer access (Spenneman 1996). Such factors must be incorporated into Web planning if inequalities are to be reduced.

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Last updated: Wed Aug 21 2002

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