Lived experiences of undergraduate physical education students studying gymnastics and dance education

David Scott shares a summary of his LSA 2019 paper. David was awarded the Leisure Studies Journal Editors Award for Best Conference Paper

Picture the scene: you’re a student just starting your undergraduate Physical Education degree. You’ve just found out that one of your first modules is Dance and Gymnastics – not only do you have to do this module during your first year, but for every year of your 3-year degree. For these modules you’re expected to produce your own routine with 2 or 3 of your fellow students in 12 weeks. During the final session you have to perform your routine, not only in front of the rest of the class, but also in front of the lecturer who is video recording and judging your performance on the complexity, technical challenge, and execution of your routine. Your entire grade for the module rests on this performance – how does that make you feel?

If you feel anxious, disenfranchised, or terrified, then you’re not the only one. We realised that a lot of students have struggled to engage with these Dance and Gymnastics modules in the past, and so we decided to ask them why that was the case. Although we understood that this may have been due to students having minimal experience of such embodied and aesthetic activities before, we thought that there was potentially something deeper at play here. Physical Education consists of a lot of ‘assumed’ pedagogical work, where students unquestionably invest their physical selves into the programme and transition into broad-minded physical educationalists throughout the degree. However, how do we know how students experience these modules, and how do their wider life experiences influence their engagement?

To explore this we interviewed 7 current students about their Dance and Gymnastics experiences, both during the module and before coming to university. We expected to find a lot of data about how the students develop an understanding of their bodies as the module progressed, and how they learnt to embody the knowledge they were being taught. However, what we actually found were that their experiences were more widely bound-up within their personal socio-cultural experiences. The influences of their past experiences of dance, gymnastics, sport, and learning were inescapable and highly personalised to each individual. We found it best to compare and contrast each experience by employing a metaphor of a castle, drawbridge, and villagers: each individual built up the walls of their castle to varying degrees depending on their understanding of their past experiences, their willingness to engage with the challenges presented by the Dance and Gymnastics modules was represented by the drawbridge, while the villagers were the wider social and environmental influences upon their learning experience. We then attempted to explain each student’s individual journey through a characterisation of their identity, which we named negotiating and surviving White space, strategic masculine competitor, seeking reassurance,racially strategic to be unique, seeking dependence to achieve, strategically insular, and willing explorer.

The main finding from this study is something which shouldn’t be revelatory, but unfortunately still needs saying; we need to recognise our students as people who bring with them their own individual stories which greatly influence their Higher Education experience and engagement with learning, no matter the course or module. We as lecturers need to find the space and time to understand our students as such in order to provide suitably challenging environments which remove unnecessary barriers to learning.

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