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Distel, KD 2013, 'The elusive other : a self study action research project with diverse learners in higher education', PhD thesis, Southern Cross University, Lismore, NSW.

Copyright KD Distel 2013


Mature-age diverse learners in higher education need recognition and support. Diverse learners remain largely unrecognised and unsupported within existing higher education legislation and practices. This research explores how teaching practices could maximise learning and well-being support by engaging such learners more fully using methods linking prior learning experiences and health issues thus maximising empowerment.

The research involved eight mature-age students, six women and two men, at an Australian regional university. The investigation focused on the effects of such invisibility on these diverse learners, exploring the psychological, social and health effects of their participation.

Initially planned as participatory action research, the methodology evolved into self-study action research as my own role as practitioner researcher became integrated within the research. This allowed exploration of my approach to empowerment, serving my values as my "lived experience". The research narrowed over three action research cycles as the focus broadened from dyslexia to diverse learners. By the third cycle, both health and learning issues were discussed in keeping with a social learning model. Collaborative decision-making processes were individualised; action learning strategies included self-listening and self-regulation methods.

The data analysis involved two stages. In the first, co-researchers focused on listening and dyslexic characteristics checklists to start conversations then later identified individual codes and produced learning stories. The second stage, a thematic analysis, revealed co-researcher learning stories and their commonalities and differences. Synthesised, these identified two themes: firstly, that to their learning the co-researchers brought negative prior learning stories reflected in their learning styles; secondly, that in their learning environments they now experienced inconsistent learning support and understanding of their disability, inadequate supervision, and varying degrees of marginalisation and vulnerability.

The research concludes that mature-age diverse learners need more attention to be paid to linking their learning experiences and health issues. Stress and vulnerability can be exacerbated by fractured inconsistent engagement with educators, inadequate supervision, varying degrees of marginalisation, inconsistent learning support and misunderstanding of their disability by support staff.

My recommendation for increasing engagement with hidden minority diverse groups and increasing awareness and action for their issues is using self-study action research in the professional development of higher education support staff and educators. Further research needs to challenge and develop processes at all institutional levels to make these issues more transparent in support and teaching policy and practice, so that tertiary institutions work more directly towards becoming an inclusive habitus.