'Non-traditional' student identity: developing a hybrid ethnographic framework to explore attitudes within a new University teaching and learning context

  • Harry Nicholson

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


‘Non-traditional’ student is a term associated with widening participation in higher education. This broad label contains a number of subgroups and characteristics, many of which relate to intersectional aspects of identity. Concerns have been raised in wider literature that the term can be negatively applied. Observations in practice indicated that tutors used the term divergently. One application celebrated student diversity; another labelled the student as lacking sufficient academic ability.
The demographics of the university studied indicate the high representation of students from ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds. The institution’s vocational facing orientation means that a significant number of the tutors are recruited for their practice experience and many come from ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds too.

To make use of this opportunity to compare how the two participant groups navigated their personal educational journeys and how they responded to the term ‘non-traditional’ in relation to their sense of identity. The aim was to develop separate dialogues that could then be used to inform aspects of professional practice. Specifically, to raise the voice of students and tutors and engage them in shared learning and to reduce potential stigma attached to ‘non-traditional’. To promote an inductive framework of research to iteratively explore issues relating to student identity within a teaching and learning environment.

The two main data sources were interviews and practice reflection. An ethnographic lens was integrated to frame the inquiry and to support exploration of student identity, largely through consideration of class, gender and ethnicity.

The students were predominantly unaware of the term. Some felt it devalued their efforts, others held it as a badge of honour or as a valid passport to a professional career. The tutors understood it as a loaded and outdated term. They demonstrated empathy and insight into the challenges their students faced, as they had shared many themselves. How the university could work more proactively in response to student need and profiling was a key area of concern. Reading wove through the narratives for both groups. For some tutors, the lack of it marked out many of their students. The students interviewed valued one to one tutor support most and felt a positive sense of belonging. While students being black may be considered a norm, this was not always the case with tutors working with in the institution. The monographs reveal exciting potential to be adapted as teaching and learning resources.
Date of AwardFeb 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Coventry University
  • Buckinghamshire New University
SupervisorKeiran Henderson (Supervisor) & Fiona McCormack (Supervisor)

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