The Unwritten Rules Of Engagement: Social Class Differences in Undergraduates’ Academic Strategies (Summary)

Author: April Yee

Published: The Journal of Higher Education, Volume 87, Number 6, November/December

2016, pp. 831-858


Yee’s study examines how students from different class backgrounds approach learning in their first years of university. Her research involved reliving the exhilarating and awkward experience of attending university for the first time, shadowing  undergraduate students through their classes, study and social situations, in addition to conducting interviews (for the uninitiated, this is ethnographic research).

The students all understood that studying at university would be different to high school, as their teachers would not be as proactive in pushing them. However, students from different social classes drew different conclusions from this knowledge. Students from middle class backgrounds concluded that it was their responsibility to approach their teachers for help, and often did so. First-generation students (students from a lower social class who were the first in their family to attend university) interpreted this to mean they would need to work harder and more independently, and were reluctant to approach their teachers for help.

The students were all actively engaged in their education, attending classes, studying and completing assignments to achieve academic success. When challenges arose, middle class students would often approach their teachers for help, while the first-generation students used independent strategies, such as reading the material again.

The middle class students achieved higher scores than the first-generation students, which Yee attributes to the middle class students using a wider range of academic strategies to achieve success.

Yee notes that students who interact less with their teachers may be incorrectly perceived as disengaged. To achieve an equal playing field for all students, she calls for higher education professionals to expand their definition of student engagement to include students who are working hard independently.


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