Ethnic minority, mature and working-class students should be more confident and persistent about asking for help at university, a research paper claims.
The University of Reading study says a mix of fear and pride can stop these “non-traditional” students from accessing available support services.
The study urges them to “swallow their pride” and come forward for help.
“Take advantage of your tutors and make use of the academic staff and support staff,” mature student Alexis says.
“Don’t be afraid to talk to your lecturers,” adds mature student Maggie. “Tell them if you don’t understand something.”
These two women were among 30 high-achieving students from non-traditional backgrounds at two post-92 universities (former polytechnics) in London, who were interviewed by the Reading researchers.
The students were a mixture of mature, ethnic minority and working-class students who were all on course to get a first in their degrees.
The researchers noted that these type of non-traditional students can often arrive at university as “fish out of water”, compared with their more advantaged peers.
“In short, affluent students are typically socialised with dispositions and resources that are valued and rewarded in higher education,” it said.
“Whereas students from poorer backgrounds, including non-traditional students, tend to have little or no prior knowledge or available resources to support their higher education, which often results in a range of struggles… as universities constitute a foreign or even hostile environment for ‘people like them’.”
The process of seeking help and support “appeared difficult or even uncomfortable for some students due to fear, but also pride”, the report says.
“I’ve never really approached a teacher, I don’t know why really, I think it’s the fear, the unknown,” mature Asian student Rya told the researchers.
“I don’t really ask anything from anyone in life,” said young black student Foreman.
The study says this sort of attitude can spring from a perception that, if they ask for help, they will not be seen as independent learners.
But as long as their “aspirations for independence” led to the avoidance of staff support, their “pathways to educational success” were being harmed.
For Foreman, the change came when a comment from his tutor, about how his academic writing style was letting him down, prompted him to seek support – something he wished he had done earlier.
“I realised the value of showing your lecturers your draft, I’ve learnt to let other people look at my work,” he told the researchers.
“I also send her [student support service] all my essays, I see the benefit now and she really helped with my English and grammar.”
When asked for his advice to new undergraduates, Foreman said: “I’ll tell them to swallow their pride, you’re going to need help, even if you have a system in place, it can be improved on.
“Don’t get too stuck in your own way. Take your shield down, just open yourself up.
“Go to the student support service if you have issues with your writing. Go and bother your lecturers and ask them to see drafts, go to every tutorial and make sure you are there for every session because you will learn something.”
Black mature student Janice added: “Even when you are screaming with fear inside but if you have that can-do attitude, you’ll be amazed to see what you’ll do.”
What can be done to help these students?
The paper recommends a number of ways in which universities can help students access support services:
- make the tutor support system a core part of the student experience, not an “optional extra”
- provide example assignments to help students understand the style of writing required
- involve students in decision-making about how support services are developed.
Report co-author Dr Billy Wong, lecturer in widening participation at Reading’s Institute of Education, said: “We need to dispel the perception that seeking support is reserved for those who are desperate or dependent, and promote the importance of students utilising their available support as a key attribute of an independent student.
“It seems that it’s not good enough to just provide the support available to help students to achieve, but make sure that any stigma associated with these services are removed and approaching your tutor isn’t seen as ‘getting help’ but ‘getting on’.”
The researchers did not use students’ real names to protect their identity.
Illustrations for this article created by Emma Russell.