Studies in Learning, Evaluation, Innovation and Development > Vol. 2, No. 3 (2005)

Ensuring student success - the role of support services in improving the quality of the student learning experience

Deborah Peach, cqu


In recent years, Australian universities have gradually realised the contribution that student support services make to the learning environment and the strategic and pedagogical importance of student services in helping institutions to respond to issues such as student access, retention rates, completion rates and overall student satisfaction levels (Ramsay, Elphinstone & Vivekananda, 2003; Australian Parliament, 2001; McInnes, James & Hartley, 2000; Burke, 1997; Lashway 1997; Committee for Quality Assurance in Higher Education, 1995; Lingard, 1993; Bottery, 1992). This paper is based on the premise that universities have an obligation to provide adequate student support services, such as learning assistance (that is, assistance with academic writing and other study skills) and that in order to be effective such services must be responsive to the wider policy and social implications of student attrition and retention. The paper outlines briefly some of the factors that have influenced the development of learning assistance practices in Australia and America. This is followed by an account of experiences at one Australian metropolitan university where, in response to concerns about quality, learning assistance service provision shifted from a decentralised, faculty-based model to a centralised model of service delivery. As part of my doctoral research (Author, 2003) I asked stakeholders, including academics, librarians, students and learning advisers, in semi-structured interviews and focus group discussions, to describe the role of centralised learning assistance services in improving the quality of the student learning experience, to identify problems and tensions in service provision, and to suggest ways of improving work practices so that the student learning experience is enhanced. Several problem clusters emerged from the data and this paper considers the problem cluster referred to as contextualised versus decontextualised learning assistance. That is, stakeholders identified problems in centralised service provision such as the relevance of generic learning assistance services to students struggling with specific course related demands; the apparent tensions between challenging students and assisting students at risk of failure; and variations in the level of collaboration between learning advisers and academic staff in supporting students in the learning environment. Theoretical modelling derived from the tools made available through cultural historical activity theory and expansive visibilisation (Engeström & Miettinen, 1999) are used to first, analyse the problem cluster of contextualised versus decontextualised learning assistance and second, to identify ways of improving service delivery in order to reduce obstacles to student completion and hopefully ensure student success.

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