Valuing the knowledge and ways of understandings students bring to university

There are inextricable links between good practices around teaching first-in-family (FiF) students and good teaching principles in higher education. However, students who are the first members of their family to attend university, discussed in the United States (US) as first generation college students (FGCS), experience difficulties transitioning to university. These transition difficulties suggest these students (as individuals) require more attention or the pedagogy and curriculum to which they are exposed requires attention. In his article, ‘Deepening understanding of prior knowledge: What diverse first-generation college students in the U.S. can teach us’, Castillo-Montoya (2017) identifies a way of improving the outcomes and experiences for FiF students by incorporating their prior knowledge, not just of what they know but how they have come to understand what they know, into their learning.

In a study undertaken in two sociology classrooms at colleges in the United States the author observed 57 students for 90 hours (in class) and conducted semi-interviews with 2 teachers and 18 students. The students were diverse as they came from mixed race/ethnic backgrounds, were different ages and were studying toward a range of majors. The author suggests, rather than using standardised tests (such as high school attainment and course prerequisites) to assess student competence we should consider gauging the knowledge and understanding students bring to university through three linked dimensions which he identifies as a conceptual framework. These are determining the ‘content of students’ prior knowledge’ (p. 589) which requires educators to first gain insight into what students’ know. He then suggests ascertaining how they have come to understand what they know, which is described as ‘prior thinking: students’ habits of mind’ (ibid) and then he moves to the third dimension ‘students making mental conceptual maps’ (p. 590) which requires supporting them to contextualise new ideas by helping students link new concepts with what they already know and understand.

Castillo-Montoya (2017) discusses the conceptual framework and then presents the findings from his study in support of it. Reading the article reminded me of three issues not explicitly discussed by the author but linked to his study. These are firstly, the need to reconsider how we identify students’ capacity to learn at university, which may involve revisiting ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank). Secondly, the importance of ensuring FiF students and those from diverse backgrounds are not ‘problematised’ (Devlin & O’Shea, 2012; O’Shea, 2016; O’Shea, Stone, Delahunty, & May, 2016). Thirdly, determining what the ‘threshold concepts’ for our subject areas are and supporting students to develop them (Meyer & Land, 2018; Zepke, 2013).

Although the article focusses on the study of sociology in a US university the author argues, his research is a starting point. He recommends ‘Research on students learning other course topics or at other types of institutions’ which may add to and further develop what has been uncovered in this study ‘and provide other nuances to our understanding of students’ prior knowledge’ (Castillo-Montoya, 2017, p. 600). I recommend further studies in this area are undertaken by staff at Flinders University and would be happy to work with anyone willing to undertake it.


Castillo-Montoya, M. (2017). Deepening understanding of prior knowledge: What diverse first-generation college students in the U.S. can teach us. Teaching in Higher Education, 22(5), 587-603. doi:10.1080/13562517.2016.1273208

Devlin, M., & O’Shea, H. (2012). Effective university teaching: Views of Australian university students from low socio-economic status backgrounds. Teaching in Higher Education, 17(4), 385-397. doi:10.1080/13562517.2011.641006

Meyer, E., & Land, R. (2018). Threshold concepts: Undergraduate teaching, postgraduate training, professional development and school education: A short introduction and a bibliography. Retrieved from

O’Shea, S. (2016). Avoiding the manufacture of ‘sameness’: First-in-family students, cultural capital and the higher education environment. Higher Education, 72(1), 59-78. doi:10.1007/s10734-015-9938-y

O’Shea, S., Stone, C., Delahunty, J., & May, J. (2016). Discourses of betterment and opportunity: Exploring the privileging of university attendance for first-in-family learners. Studies in Higher Education, 1-14. doi:10.1080/03075079.2016.1212325

Zepke, N. (2013). Threshold concepts and student engagement: Revisiting pedagogical content knowledge. Active Learning in Higher Education, 14(2), 97-107. doi:10.1177/1469787413481127

Contributed by Dr Ann Luzeckyj
Senior Lecturer in Higher Education – CILT

Posted in
Teaching Tips

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