Using photo elicitation to understand first-year student experiences: Student metaphors of life, university and learning

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SAGE Publications
© The Author(s) 2020. The transition from school to university is challenging and a greater knowledge of the first-year student experience will enable staff to better support their students. University- and government-run student surveys fail to capture the depth and breadth of the first-year experience and so qualitative research is needed to get a more nuanced and holistic understanding of students’ lives. The study described in this article used a photo elicitation method. We asked students to choose four images that represented their first year at university. The data – the chosen photographs and the students’ explanations of their choices – were thematically analysed, focusing in particular on the diverse metaphors students used to depict three dimensions of their experiences: life, university and learning. The findings highlight the dual nature of the transition to university – learning to be a university student and learning to be an adult – as well as the challenges and stresses of that process. The lack of agency that students felt is evident. The students likened their journey to a rollercoaster and talked of not being able to keep up with the fast-moving curriculum. They depicted themselves as passive acquirers of knowledge. The findings offer new ways for staff to understand the challenges that potentially disrupt student engagement in the first year. Both students and staff could benefit from recognising the metaphors in their thinking and, potentially, seeking new metaphors that might reveal different and more positive ways of experiencing the first year in higher education.
first-year experience, higher education, photo elicitation, student engagement
ACTIVE LEARNING IN HIGHER EDUCATION, 2022, 23 (1), pp. 35 - 47