Student Experience and the European Context—A Literature Review

Literature concerning the student experience is varied and rich. We summarise the key findings of our literature review in Table 1. We identified high level themes and sub themes of the student experience drawn from the literature .

The vast literature exposes specific aspects of the student experience, yet the threshold concept approach and liminality remain underdeveloped in understanding the holistic higher education student experience. The Threshold Concepts (TC) framework was developed by Meyer and Land (2003) and has features that are transformative, irreversible, integrative, bounded, potentially troublesome, discursive and reconstitutive. It emphasises acquisition of knowledge. Liminality is identified as a core TC and refers to the period or space of transformation that students undergo or are challenged by. Liminality is the transition from old to new being and understanding (Meyer and Land 2005). The British Cultural Anthropologist, Victor Turner (1920–1983) defined liminality as the in-between time and place in the process of transformation (Turner 1969). Such ways of framing specific aspects of the student experience emphasise the epistemological and leave little room for the study of complex and often invisible social and cultural phenomena, such as events and actions, over time. Our research deals specifically with a threshold concept approach in the broader sense, coupled with liminality, and we explore the processes and implications, the enactment, the performance, and the doing that are not discipline specific, but which characterize every student's experiences. It sheds light on the need for further partnership and meaningful collaboration between all stakeholders. A better understanding of the student experience offers the potential to contribute to the development of methods used to support the student experience by aligning theory with the lived student experience and the practice of university staff.

The Student, 'Threshold Concepts' and Liminality

In this paper, we specifically reflect on how students navigate today's complex world of higher education, and use 'threshold concepts' as a lens for analysis (Meyer and Land 2003). Student-hood, we argue, is a specific and provisional identity. Students are assigned official status as university students once they fulfil institutional and programme requirements. Often, the most significant parts of student-hood lie in imagined becomings and measured outcomes such as exam results, certificate, degree, graduation and career. As one student noted in our study, the most significant outcome was perceived as 'being able to get my degree in a well recognised establishment' (Second year female undergraduate student 2013). Here, we focus on the processes, and periods of greatest personal and academic

Table 1 Select literature review

High level themes

Sub themes

Select references

Bologna Process mobility

Student experience

Altbach (2002, 2004,


Student qualifications

Bekhradnia et al. (2006)

Student experience

Academic ability

Booth (2009)

Overall judgement

Bordonaro and Richardson (2004)

Institutional commitment to student learning

Student aspirations/expectations

Bent (2008)

Biggs and Tang (2011)

Student engagement

Adjustments: school-university

Brinkworth et al. (2009)

Christie et al. (2008)

Widening participation

Academic adjustments

Cook and Leckey (1999)

Colvin (2007)

Student transition

Academic orientation

Roberts and Tyler (2007)

'Learning to learn'

Academic application

Harvey et al. (2006)

Student engagement with learning

Huet et al. (2009)

Students' critical engagement

Identified need for early support from universities'

Hultberg et al. (2008)

Becoming 'co producers of meaning'

Intellectual stimulation

Hussey and Smith (2010)

Scaffolding students into autonomous learning

Sense of belonging

Kember (2001)

University proactive management

Student departure

Leese (2010)

Treatment of curriculum as an academic milieu

Student satisfaction with teaching, learning and course

Lumsden et al. (2010)

First year experience and retention


Mayhew et al. (2010)

Peers and peer mentoring

Reason et al. (2006)

Student success and methods of learning

ICT, library resources

Bordonaro and Richardson (2004)


Rivza and Teichler (2007)

University resources

Social class

Storrs et al. (2008)

University monitoring of achievement

Trotter and Roberts (2006)

Academic leadership


Walters (2003)

Nationality and age

Wingate (2007)

growth that lie in the unnamed and often ill-defined periods of change that characterise a student's university journey (Cross 1999).

When students commence their university education, they experience ontological shifts and identity transformations that may be akin to 'passing through a portal' and an 'opening up of a new and inaccessible way of thinking about something' (Meyer and Land 2005). Threshold Concepts, as defined by Meyer and Land (2003) are 'threshold' because they have features that are transformative, irreversible, integrative, bounded, potentially troublesome, discursive and reconstitutive. We acknowledge that there are many threshold concepts that come into play when becoming a student, including those relating to language, knowledge creation, theories, frameworks, writing, creativity and many more. We focus specifically here on aspects of the liminal space experienced by those who are learning to be a student, rather than identifying the specific threshold concepts themselves. Once a student registers at a university and begins a specific programme of study, there are multiple thresholds and transitions that students must negotiate in order to successfully complete their university journey within the particular programme. We consider what happens when students at all levels, across all programmes, are positioned in a higher education transitional space that requires the crossing of interwoven and multilayered thresholds.

For us, the theory of Threshold Concepts and Liminality (Meyer and Land 2003) captures the processes of a university journey, the pivotal stage-like trajectories[1] of a university experience. Liminality reflects the transitions (positive and negative, smooth and choppy) that transform old to new being and learning along the student journey. Liminality helps us better comprehend the complex and multi layered nature of a university experience; it helps to understand and support transitions or 'transformed internal view of subject matter, subject landscape … [and] world view' (Meyer and Land 2003, p. 1). In this paper, we aim to capture and qualify the transitional process characterised by liminality and explore its potential to influence practice for all stakeholders within higher education. This area of study has previously received little attention in a European student experience context. We draw on empirical data collected through an institution-wide student experience survey (SES) conducted at University College, Cork (UCC). The UCC SES aims to capture 'close-up' expectations, perceptions, hopes and aspirations of students at all stages and at all levels of the student journey.

  • [1] Akin to 'rites of passage'
< Prev   CONTENTS   Next >