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Learning the Rules of Engagement: Exploring First-Generation Students' Academic Experiences through Academic Research Assignments

Folk, Amanda L. (2018) Learning the Rules of Engagement: Exploring First-Generation Students' Academic Experiences through Academic Research Assignments. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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Despite efforts to improve retention and degree completion rates, American higher education suffers from a persistent social-class achievement gap (Stephens, Hamedani, and Destin, 2014). This gap is often explored quantitatively through the examination of academic outcomes of first-generation college students (i.e. students who parents have not completed a college degree) in comparison to their continuing-generation peers. This approach has resulted in a deficit approach to first-generation college students, focusing on ways in which they need to be remediated, rather than an interrogation of the ways in which academic, disciplinary, and institutional cultures may present barriers to success for this student population.
The purpose of this hermeneutic phenomenological (van Manen, 1990, 2014) study was to explore the ways in which first-generation students navigate collegiate academic culture through the lens of a specific and ubiquitous academic experience—the research assignment. Thirty first-generation students, who were in at least their third year of study at two regional campuses of a large research university, were selected to participate in semi-structured interviews using maximum variation sampling (Patton, 1990). A unique combination of the community of practice concept (Lave & Wenger, 1991), social capital (Bourdieu, 1986), academic literacy, and information literacy formed the study’s conceptual framework.
Four key themes emerged from the data. First, students perceived their initial positionality within the community differently based on their success in applying the skills and strategies they had developed in high school to their new college environment. Second, students’ perceptions of their initial positionality within the community were related to the nature and frequency of early interactions with faculty and the development of an academic support network. Third, when given the opportunity to do so, students used their prior knowledge, lived experiences, interests, and identities to select topics for their research assignments. Finally, many students seemed to employ the same checklist approach to evaluating and using information in research assignments they learned in high school throughout their college career, rather than demonstrating the development of critical thinking related to information use.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Folk, Amanda L.folk.68@osu.edualfolk0000-0002-3511-9672
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairDeAngelo, Lindadeangelo@pitt.edudeangelo
Committee MemberGunzenhauser, Michaelmgunzen@pitt.edumgunzen
Committee MemberKelly, Seanspkelly@pitt.eduspkelly
Committee MemberSheila, Corrallcorrall@pitt.educorrall
Date: 24 September 2018
Date Type: Publication
Defense Date: 27 July 2018
Approval Date: 24 September 2018
Submission Date: 8 August 2018
Access Restriction: No restriction; Release the ETD for access worldwide immediately.
Number of Pages: 186
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: School of Education > Administrative and Policy Studies
Degree: PhD - Doctor of Philosophy
Thesis Type: Doctoral Dissertation
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: first-generation college students, information literacy, research assignments, undergraduate students, academic engagement
Date Deposited: 24 Sep 2018 15:36
Last Modified: 24 Sep 2018 15:36


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