- Society for Research into Higher Education

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SRHE Seminar: Black and Minority Ethnic
Students’ Experiences and Attainment
Researching the causes
of differential attainment
Duna Sabri
20th March 2015
[email protected]
Overview
• Causation: in HE discourse, applied research and
theory
• Implications of different views of causation in
relation to:
– Curriculum
– Familial context
• Attainment in context
• HEFCE project on causes of differential outcomes
Causation in HE discourse on attainment
Viewed through different lenses coloured by:
• Fears of reputational damage and freedom of
information requests
• Assumptions about where the causes lie are
expressed in the choice of language: ‘achievement’,
‘under-performance’ or ‘degree classification’?
Among activists: student attribute causes labelled
‘deficit model’ or ‘blaming the students’;
institutional attribute causes branded ‘institutional
racism’
Causation in research on attainment
Politicised polarisation between ‘individualised’
explanations (e.g. prior attainment) and structural
(e.g campus environment) [Caplan & Ford 2014]
‘Were they pushed or did they jump?’ Gambetta
[1987] explores tensions between intentional
choice, causes beyond individual awareness, and
structural constraints on behaviour.
Debates about structure and agency are political
and have profound consequences for what is
believed to be a worthwhile intervention.
What if…
causation is
an interplay
between what a student brings and
what an institution provides,
understood through
a dialogic process of investigation?
What would constitute evidence of that
interplay?
Correlation demonstrated
through:
Experimental research
designs with control groups
Large-scale quantitative
analysis
BUT
In social sciences oftrepeated ‘negative advice’
that a correlation is not the
same as causation [Gorard
2002] acts as a general
warning to steer away from
causal claims.
+
Mechanisms [[Clarke et al 2014]
demonstrated through:
Experience
Observation
BUT
‘psychologically compelling
accounts’ do not constitute
evidence [Clarke et al 2014]
Context of elevation of ‘the
student experience (Sabri 2013)
Combining statistical patterns with qualitative data
Gorard (2002:62) proposes: relatively stable
association, a measurable effect from the intervention,
and at least a tentative theoretical explanation…
[cause] may operate at a distance… or come after
effect.
Clarke et al (2014) argue for integration of evidence of
correlation with evidence of mechanism, where
accounts of mechanisms are graded.
Why is my curriculum White?
www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dscx4h2l-Pk
Curriculum (and staff diversity)
as a product of interplay
between structure and agency
‘Some students just don’t sign up
to the intellectual project
that is the course.’
[Sabri, D. (2014) Institutional research project]
How does the dialogue differ when tutor shares, or
does not share, students’ cultural norms or references?
…I have disagreed with my feedback – in dissertation tutor
said it was a good question but too broad. Had to be narrowed
down… feedback wasn’t introducing me to new things to take it
another level. It was limited. Other students had two pages
of notes – bombarded with suggestions. I did ask if this
question would be good. Will I have stuff to write about it?
Another time I got a really high grade – don’t understand
why. I thought the more you wrote the higher the grade so I
was looking for a question where I could write a lot of
references.
Researcher: Did you look for a topic that you were really
interested in writing about? I couldn’t do that, there
wasn’t enough dialogue. I didn’t want to take the risk and
the tutor didn’t help with the choice.
Tutor stance: ‘Students set the agenda in feedback’.
interpretation of agenda is pivotal.
BUT
[Sabri, D. 2014, Feedback and Assessment Project, post-92
University]
Subject group for 2003-4 entrants: HEFCE 2010/13
Pakistani &
Black Bangladeshi Chinese
Indian & Mixed &
other Asian
other
Subject group
White
Creative arts
Foreign
languages
20,160
6,695
4%
515
95
2%
175
65
1%
225
50
2%
550
155
!%
635
280
5%
Humanities
34,430
610
665
135
900
930
Business
30,275
1,345
(27%)
1,340
645
3,115
1,030
Science
44,830
(26%)
1,105
2,225
(36%)
710
(30%)
3,655
(32%)
1,235
(24%)
Engineering &
architecture
11,745
365
410
310
865
335
Other
23,835
915
1,365
280
2,160
710
Total
171,965 4,945
6,245
2,350
11,395
5,155
By contrast, Woodfield (2014) analyses make up of disciplines by ethnicity, retention &
attainment
Interplay between familial contexts and HE
Images courtesy of
Shades of Noir
How are the different disciplines historically and
socially situated in different ethnic groups?
And conversely, how do the disciplines situate
different ethnicities?
Interplay between familial and HE experience.
Material and other cumulative (dis)advantage
can be traced throughout student cycle from
‘choice’, through to attainment and
(un)employment
What aspects of university provision – from
admission to curriculum to graduation - make
assumptions about students’ familial context,
resources and motivations?
Putting attainment into context
Four outcomes from HE
• attaining a degree
• attaining a first or upper second class degree
• attaining a degree and continuing to employment or
further study
• attaining a degree and continuing to graduate
employment (as opposed to any employment) or further
study.
Source: HEFCE 2013/15 Higher Education and Beyond
Causes of differences in higher
education student outcomes
A HEFCE-commissioned project
Research team
Anna Mountford-Zimdars, King’s College London
Duna Sabri, King’s College London
Joanne Moore, ARC Network
John Sanders, ARC Network
Steven Jones, Manchester University
Methodology:
An iterative relationship between research
strands
• Identifying patterns of difference (using existing
analyses and working with HEFCE to extend these)
• Meta-analyses of academic and ‘grey’ literature
• Stakeholder interviews
• International expert reviews
• Institutional case studies
Implications of causation theory for
HEFCE project
• What assumptions about causes are prevalent
in the literature? And among stake-holders?
• What do these assumptions mean for the
kinds of interventions that are proposed?
– Targeted and universal interventions
– Different levels of student involvement
• What are the challenges of evaluation,
especially, when assumptions are left implicit?
Further information
http://www.hefce.ac.uk/whatwedo/wp/current/differential/
Project director: Anna Mountford Zimdars:
[email protected]
Contact Duna Sabri about institutional research
[email protected]
References
Caplan, P. J., & Ford, J. C. (2014). The voices of diversity: What students of diverse
races/ ethnicities and both sexes tell us about their college experiences and their
perceptions about their institutions’ progress toward diversity. APORIA, 6(3), 30–69.
Clarke, B., Gillies, D., Illari, P., Russo, F., & Williamson, J. (2014). Mechanisms and the
evidence hierarchy. Topoi, 33(2), 339-360.
Gambetta, (1987) Were they pushed or did they jump? Individual decision
mechanisms in education, Cambridge, CUP
Gorard,S. (2002) The Role of Causal Models in Evidence-informed Policy Making and
Practice, Evaluation & Research in Education, 16(1), 51-65
Sabri, D (2011) What’s wrong with ‘the student experience’? Discourse: Studies in the
Cultural Politics of Education 32(5)
Woodfield, R (2014) Undergraduate retention and attainment across the disciplines,
York: HEA
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