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Class in the Classroom: How to Support First Generation Students at Bristol

Introduction

In 2020 a group of staff and students established a First Generation Scholars Network in the School of Humanities at Bristol. The network brings together scholars at all levels, from freshers to professors, who were the first – or one of the first – people in their family to go to university. Through a combination of online resources, talks, discussion forums, social events, and mentoring, it provides a support community for those with little inherited knowledge of how to navigate the challenges of university life.

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In April 2023, as part of our ongoing activities, network co-ordinator Mark Hailwood (Senior Lecturer in History) and Arts Faculty Engagement Officer Kate Fox (from the Widening Participation Team) held ‘focus group’ conversations with a number of undergraduate members of the network, to discuss their experiences of the university classroom as first generation students. Their input was illuminating and invaluable, and we wanted to share some of the insights emerging from those discussions with the wider learning and teaching community at Bristol.

What follows is a summary of some of the key issues and challenges raised by our students, and some thoughts on how they might potentially be addressed if we want to create a more supportive learning environment for all students coming to Bristol. Some of the suggestions might best be dealt with by groups like the First Generation Scholars Network, and we will certainly be taking some of these forward. But others could be implemented, or at least reflected upon, by individual lecturers, seminar tutors, and personal tutors; or indeed at Departmental or School level across the University of Bristol.    

Challenges and Suggestions

Language used in seminars often feels exclusionary… 

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  • Students noticed that some of their peers use overly academic and unnecessarily florid language in early seminars, which was off putting and unfamiliar to first gen students – reinforced existing idea that Bristol is a ‘posh’ university, first gen students don’t belong and aren’t widely represented here.
  • Students felt tutors were often reinforcing, rather than challenging, this tone.
  • Students cited this as having a negative impact on their confidence to participate in seminar discussions as they didn’t feel able to express their ideas in this way – particularly in first term of first year.
  • Students discussed feeling judged by peers if they contributed using more informal language.
  • First gen students would, however, still advise new first gen students to speak up in seminars, and not lose their voice.

Potential Action: Seminar tutors could reassure students at the start of term that it is best to make your points in your own words, and highlight that marking criteria value clear and concise language over ambiguous ‘academese’.  

Participation in seminars can feel ‘risky’…

  • First gen students cited that participation in seminars felt ‘risky’ and to participate they must have a fully formed idea and use the ‘correct’ language. The perceived risk was getting ‘shut down’ by peers and seminar leads, not being able to clearly express their ideas and being misunderstood.
  • Students felt that support and encouragement from seminar leads was varied.
  • A more encouraging seminar tutor seemed to more positively influence a student’s enjoyment and experience of a module, rather than the topic of discussion.
  • Students valued having an open dialogue with seminar leads and wanted to be able to contact them with any problems or concerns.
  • Students enjoyed more structured and interactive seminars, where not forced to speak in front of the whole group.
  • Students enjoyed small group break out discussions, with seminar leads going around to each group. Liked reassurance from seminar leads about good points made when talking in these smaller groups, and then felt more confident feeding back to wider group.

Potential Action: Departmental discussions/resources around best practice for facilitating inclusive seminars, especially for first term teaching, that take into account the experiences of first generation and other non-traditional and widening participation students.

Difficult to know what is expected from essays…

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  • Use of academic and florid language in seminars led to confusion amongst first gen students about the tone and language to use in academic work – first gen students often mentioned trying to make essays seem more ‘academic’ by using more florid language, which often doesn’t lead to the clearest argument.
  • Wanted tutors to be more explicit in giving guidance about writing styles, academic language and voice, and what was appropriate and effective in essays.
  • Students called for writing guidelines, essay examples and more guidance to be shared early on on what makes a good essay.
  • Academically, first gen students cited finding the transition to writing university essays hard.

Potential Action: Additional study skills/essay writing support could be provided to first year students through the First Gen Network – and/or embedded more effectively in existing courses. Whilst ‘sample essays’ are not always a popular idea with staff, they can be invaluable for first gen students in their first term.

Parents cannot help with essays…

  • First gen students expressed frustration that peers were able to get practical support from those at home who attended university with their essays and assessments, e.g. parents editing their essays.
  • Students cited general lack of understanding of university processes at home, and HE jargon does not help: e.g. parents would not understand what a 2.1 meant, or what a Dissertation was.

Potential Action: The First Gen Network could help to facilitate a peer-to-peer essay support network, with students reading each other’s work and providing feedback or editing help. A ‘jargon-busting’ guide for new students – and their parents – could be useful.

Career support is especially important…

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  • First gen students felt like they have ‘more at stake’ than their peers – additional pressures of choosing arts subjects and having to justify and explain their choices to family, as well as pressure to know what they are doing after graduation.
  • Feel a pressure to succeed from families which can have negative impact on wellbeing.
  • First gen students had a perception that careers programmes are really oversubscribed and competitive which was off putting for first gen students. Issue of confidence rather than aspiration, and desire for a confidence boost and encouragement for first gen students to engage with career service.
  • Similar issue to essay support, many felt parents were not able to support with job applications, reading CV, giving advice, etc, in the way some of their peers’ parents could.

Potential Action: Additional and targeted career support sessions through the First Gen Network (something we have done before) and more signposting to career services/relevant internships/opportunities in Network comms. Alumni events with former Network members could explore first gen experiences of graduating and entering workforce/navigating next steps e.g. postgrad study.

Transition to university can knock confidence…

  • Difficulties in the classroom early in the degree impacted confidence and sense of belonging, which then impacted their wider university experience and transition. Need to have a positive classroom experience, to have a positive wider uni experience, as can impact self-confidence and self-esteem at a key transitional time.
  • Students cited the knock to confidence and feeling out of place when arriving at uni, and speaking differently to peers in seminars added to this feeling. Negative experiences in seminars shape, and are shaped by, wider social transition to uni. Felt like it took longer to settle in.
  • While some students were coming in confident – often having been top of the class at school – and then lost this, others were feeling nervous before arriving and expecting a hard transition.
  • We need to consider what can be done to support these students as early in their transition as possible and explore why some students are anticipating a hard transition more than others.

Potential Action: Create buddy/mentoring system for first year first gen students with students in later years of their study. Connect up with Student Inclusion Team to see how they can support this work further. Consider diversity of experience within first gen students when designing support. 

First Generation Networks can be a valuable resource…

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  • Students seemed to really value the space and community created by the Network.
  • Students often cited coming to Network events in later years of study, but often wished they had been involved sooner as help was most often needed at the start of their studies. Often students felt overwhelmed during transition and missed comms, or may not strongly identify with first gen label when first arriving.
  • As Network grows, could have more targeted support for specific student groups e.g. Mature first gen students, Black and Asian first gen students.

Potential Action: Target first year students with Network activity at key moments – Welcome talks, early full-cohort lectures – as transition is often cited as a hard time for first gen students. Work with students in later years to consider how this may be done effectively. How can we make the Network more visible and welcoming for first year students?

Conclusion

We need to keep talking to our first generation students to help us identify and address the challenges they face when coming to study at Bristol, but we hope this blog post provides a useful reference point for individual academics, as well as for those with overall responsibility for units and degree programmes. What is clear is that supporting first generation students is something that needs to be addressed inside the classroom if we are to make Bristol an inclusive teaching and learning environment for all.

We would like to thank the student members of the First Generation Scholars Network that took part in the conversations that informed this blog post.

If you would like to know more about the Network, and to join our Blackboard site, email m.hailwood@bristol.ac.uk.

Please refer to the supporting infographic what focuses on actions that can be taken.

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