What We Know About Student Learning Support

This text is from Chapter 1, Introducing Student Learning Support by Glenda Crosling and Graham Webb in Supporting Student Learning: Case Studies, Experience & Practice From Higher Education. Edited by Glenda Crosling & Graham Webb. Published by Kogan Page Limited 120 Pentonville Road, London N1 9JN, UK and Stylus Publishing Inc. 22883 Quicksilver Drive Sterling, VA 20166-2012, USA. http://www.styluspub.com/ Copyright© Individual contributors, 2002. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

The student learning field is wide, and this may account for the limited literature available of an integrative or general nature. On the other hand, there are many books available concerning best practice for support programme providers. In the following sections we attempt to identify some of the key dimensions relating to the fields of student learning support.

Emotional and Affective Issues

The literature identifies the significance of affective as well as cognitive issues in supporting student learning. Learning supporters should therefore be equipped with understandings that include behavioural, cognitive, social learning, motivational and adult learning approaches, and be able to select and adapt these for particular cases. They should also be aware of the principles of higher education student development, sociolinguistics, metacognition, motivation and group dynamics. The importance of affective factors in learning support suggests that students need to be valued, regardless of their situation, and that learning supporters need to be authentic and empathetic in their approach. This then suggests that they require listening and non-verbal skills, the ability to reflect before responding, to paraphrase a studentís comments, and the skill of questioning. Relevant ethical issues also include confidentiality, care when intervening between student and tutor, and drawing the line between work with student learning and therapeutic counselling (Jones, Siraj-Blatchford and Ashcroft, 1998 (citing Rogers); Casazza and Silverman, 1996).

Programme Diversity

Because of the diversity of the student population, programmes offered should be comprehensive, to cater for the range of issues and situations that arise for high risk students. Programmes should be proactive and offered early when "at risk" students are vulnerable and could drop out of their studies. Students who are struggling do not always identify the existence of problems ands often do not seek assistance. For instance, recently arrived international students may need early assistance to acculturate to the expectations of Western higher education study, including its emphasis on critical analysis (Ballard and Clanchy, 1991; Leki, 1992). Mature aged students who have been away from the educational system for some years may need to adapt to styles of teaching and learning that differ from their previous educational experiences. Students with learning disabilities may need ongoing support, as may students with English language difficulties. All of this points to the need for a diverse mix of support programme offerings.

Embedding Support in Mainstream Courses

Support programmes need to embed their activities within broader academic preparation and global tasks. This is based on research that shows that decontextualized programmes are not effective in developing skills and understandings for academic study. Programmes should also emphasize higher order skills, use high quality communicative (rather than lecture) teaching, and complex, meaningful problems that encourage multiple thinking strategies, communication and collaboration among students (McGrath and Townsend, 1996). Evaluation processes should be integral to programmes as the basis for continuing achievement, improvement and innovation (Casazza and Silverman, 1996).

Transition to Study in Higher Education

The literature suggests that the period of transition to higher education study is problematic for many students, regardless of their background. At this time, students should be encouraged and assisted to make friends with other students so that they can feel that they belong to their institution, faculty and/or department. They also need to become familiar with institutional structures and procedures, and teaching and learning processes, especially appreciating the independence expected of them in their own study. In this period, to encourage them to persist with their studies, students need to be motivated to perceive a purpose for their studies, and have some awareness of the academic standards of their disciplines (Tinto, 1975; Pascarella and Terenzini, 1983; McInnes and James, 1995; Clark and Ramsey, 1990; Abbott-Chapman, Hughes and Wyld, 1992).

Studying in Disciplines

Highly relevant to support and fundamental to academic literacy is the view commonly found in the literature that knowledge is structured in particular ways across the disciplines. Becher (1989), for example, explores the interconnections of academic cultures and the nature of knowledge. For success in their disciplinary studies, students therefore need to adjust their general understandings of academic literacy to those of their specific discipline (Candlin, Bhatia and Hyland, cited in Candlin, Gollin, Plum, Spinks and Stuart-Smith, 1998). Some research investigates the characteristics of the discourse of particular disciplines such as medical English (Mather, 1986), legal English (Bhatia, 1993) and economics (Henderson, Dudley-Evans and Backhouse, 1993). Some texts, principally aimed at students, are useful for learning support providers too, as they investigate the assumptions and expectations of particular disciplines (eg Trimble, 1990: science and engineering; Riley, 1991: law, especially in relation to ESL students; and Crosling and Murphy, 2000: law for business studies).

Writing in the Disciplines

Writing takes on different forms across disciplinary fields, and the prevailing view is of writing as a social practice of the particular discipline, rather than a set of skills to be transferred to any setting (lea and Stierer, 2000). To write suitably, the writer needs to appreciate, perhaps unconsciously, the processes and practices through which disciplinary knowledge is represented and upon which it is based, its position relative to other disciplines and the traditions underpinning the preference for certain genres and styles (Swales, 1990; Lea and Stierer, 2000). Swalesí (1990) view is that although various genres pertain to all disciplines, these are emphasized differently across disciplines. Also relevant in the writing process is the writerís identity and how writers position themselves in relation to their readers (Ivanic, 1998). Hinds (1987) suggests that reader and writer responsibilities differ across cultures and that a writer in a Western culture needs to be explicit for the reader in direction and evaluation. If a reader-responsible position is adopted, the links would be left to the reader, and this may contravene the expectations of readers with Western expectations. Postgraduate students face an even more complex set of expectations in their research and thesis writing (Mauch and Birch, 1993; Ryan and Zuber-Skerritt, 1999; Swales and Feak, 1994).

Academic Reading

As a further significant factor in academic literacy, appropriate academic reading can be seen as the basis for critical thinking, problem solving and effective expression (Pugh, Pawan and Antommarchi, 2000). It requires several abilities, including synthesizing, organizing and interpreting ideas, especially when an abundance of material is now available electronically. Again, academic reading should be seen as interactive in that the readerís experiences are harnessed in meaning construction (Pugh, Pawan and Antommarchi, 2000; Rosenblatt, 1994).


These then are some of the fundamental aspects of student learning support and areas in which there has been research. While the list is far from being comprehensive, these are also areas that we believe apply widely throughout student learning support. Further references concerning specific areas can be found in the Further Reading section of this book on page 185.


  • Abbott-Chapman, J, Hughes, P, and Wyld, C (1992) Improving Access of Disadvantaged Youth to Higher Education, Department of Employment, Education and Training, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra
  • Ballard, B and Clanchy, J (1991) Teaching Students from Overseas, Longman Cheshire, Melbourne
  • Becher, T (1989) Academic Tribes and Territories, Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press, Buckingham
  • Bhatia, V (1993) Analysing Genre: Language use in professional settings, Longman, London
  • Candlin, C, Gollin, S, Plum, G, Spinks, S and Stuart-Smith, V (1998) Researching Academic Literacies, Department of Linguistics/National Centre for Language Teaching and Research/Centre for Language in Social Life, Macquarie University
  • Casazza, M and Silverman, S (1996) Learning Assistance and Developmental Education, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco
  • Clark, E and Ramsay, W (1990) Problems of retention in tertiary education, Educational Research and Perspectives, 17 (2), pp 47-59
  • Crosling, G and Murphy, H (2000) How to Study Business Law, 3rd edn, Butterworths, Sydney
  • Henderson, W, Dudley-Evans, T and Backhouse, R (1993) Economics and Language, Routledge, London
  • Hinds, J (1987) Reader vs writer responsibility: a new typology, in Writing Across Languages. Analysis of L2 texts, eds U Connor and R Kaplan, Addison-Wesley, Reading
  • Ivanic, R (1998) Writing and Identity, John Benjamins, Amsterdam
  • Jones, M, Siraj-Blatchford, J and Ascroft, K (1998) Researching Academic Lieracies, Department of Linguistics/National Centre for Language Teaching and Research/ Centre for Language in Social Life, Macquarie University
  • Lea, M and Stierer, B (2000) Student Writing in Higher Education, Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press, Buckingham
  • Maher, J (1986) English for medical purposes, Language Teaching, 19, pp 112-45
  • Mauch, J and Birch, J (1993) Guide to the Successful Thesis and Dissertation: A handbook for students and faculty, Marcel Dekker, New York
  • McGrath, D and Townsend, B (1996) Strengthening the preparedness of at risk students, in Handbook of the Undergraduate Curriculum, eds J Gaff and J Ratcliff, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco
  • McInnes, C and James, R (1995) First Year on Campus, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra
  • Pascarella, E and Terenzzini, P (1983) Predicting voluntary freshmen year persistence/withdrawal behaviour in a residential university: a path analytic validation of Tintoís model, Journal of Educational Psychology, 75 (2), pp 215-26
  • Pugh, S, Pawan, F and Antommarchi, C (2000) Academic literacy and the new college learner, in Handbook of College Reading and Study Strategy Research, eds R Flippo and D Caverly, Lawrence Erlbaum, Mahwah, NJ
  • Riley, A (1991) English for Law, Macmillan, Leicester
  • Ryan, Y and Zuver-Skerritt, O (1999) Supervising Postgraduates from Non-English-Speaking Backgrounds, Open University Press, Buckingham
  • Swales, J (1990) Genre Analysis, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
  • Swales, J and Feak, C (1994) Academic Writing for Graduate Students, University of Michigan Press, Michigan
  • Tinto, V (1975) Dropout from higher education: a theoretical synthesis of recent research, Review of Educational Research, 45 (1), pp 89-125
  • Trimble, L (1990) English for Science and Technology, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge