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You are reading: Getting through the day and still having a smile on my face! How do students define success in the university learning environment?

Sarah O’Shea and Janine Delahunty

Published in Higher Education Research & Development 
July 2018

Abstract

The expression ‘student success’ has gained traction in the university sector and has been applied to various aspects of the higher education (HE) learning trajectory. Yet, ‘success’ is an amorphous term that means distinctive things to various stakeholders in any educational undertaking. When the literature on this field is examined, it is surprising that the ways in which students themselves articulate success within the university have rarely been explored in qualitative depth. This article details a study that applies the Capabilities Approach to understand how individual learners reflected upon success and how understandings of this concept might be used to enrich and inform the HE environment. The participants were all first in their families to come to university and approaching completion of their degree studies. This article draws on surveys and interviews to discuss students’ conceptions of ‘being successful’ in response to explicit questions on how they defined ‘success’ and whether they personally regarded themselves as successful in their student role. The deeply embodied ways students referred to success, often contextualised to their particular biographies and social realities, can inform how institutions better engage and support first-in-family students.

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