Exploring How Students Come to Understand the University

Deb Bennett, Glen Ryland

While philosophers and educators have been hammering out the purpose of the university, students have rarely been asked what they see as the university’s purpose and place. We neglect to introduce students to the university as an object of study in its own right, except perhaps in a graduate level philosophy or education class. Petruzzelli and Romanazzi (2010) found that universities would have more success with student retention if they could show students how the university is a service toward an individual student’s objectives for attending in addition to stressing the social value of the university.

Scholarship of teaching and learning research has explored motivations for attending university and choices students make while at university. Many explore such diverse notions as the utility of the university and the student experience. Other studies on student perceptions focus on the way students engage and experience the university. What is missing is an understanding of the university itself, especially as its students perceive it and where they fit within it. Only a few SoTL studies venture into such areas. Absent are studies that explore how university students come to understand the university: its aims, its purposes, its history, and its challenges.

Our SoTL study began with the question: how do undergraduates perceive meaning, purpose and the social roles of the university and its graduates? Within our poster presentation we will be sharing the initial findings of our qualitative study which utilized an interpretive inquiry approach. This methodology was a critical approach for this study as student understandings can be explored through the interpretation of phenomena and the meanings made by study participants (Cohen, Kahn, & Steeves, 2000).

This SoTL study took place within in a variety of sections of our undergraduate studies courses: Effective Learning in the Undergraduate Context. This course is open to all students in our university, allowing a variety of perspectives, experiences and backgrounds to be explored. Through student interviews and class reflections we gleaned information on how students come to understand the university. We plan on continuing this work with additional sections and dialogue with other SoTL scholars will inform future research and curriculum development.

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