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Teaching and Learning Forum 2009 [ Refereed papers ]
Experiences of mature age female students studying psychology: Implications for the university learning environment

Ruth Ayres and Andrew Guilfoyle
Edith Cowan University

Universities encourage diverse student populations, within this diversity high attrition rates, amongst mature age female students, have been noted. Previous research indicated that these students experienced a complex relationship around expectations driven by their motivations, their ability to cope with the academic work load and manage family roles (Scott, Burns & Cooney, 1998). This study used a phenomenological approach (Moustakas, 1994) to understand experiences of university for 10 women aged between 40-49 years studying Psychology. Participants took part in a semi-structured interview and discussed: reasons for commencing study, formation of expectations about university learning; and whether discrepancies between expectations and reality affected adjustment to university. Life-stage and identity underpinned motivation to return to study and influenced social and academic expectations, together with expectations of ability to cope with study and other roles. Discrepancies between expectations and lived experience caused some problems in adjustment, and the findings suggested that mature age women were anxious about their abilities compared with younger students but experienced deeper engagement with academic content. These differences had the potential to cause problems between the groups. Mature age women also reported a need to feel acknowledged by the university. Recommendations for design of learning environments and transitions programs were made to assist this cohort of students adjust to university and successfully complete their degree courses.


Recent Australian Federal Government policies have resulted in increased accessibility, and encouraged participation by under represented groups into Australian universities (Krause, Hartley, James & McInnis, 2005). The student population has become increasingly diverse (Pascarella & Terrenzini, 1998) and the nature of the student as being full-time and straight from high school, has been superseded by a student population consisting of more mature students with diverse entry pathways into university (McInnis, 2001).

Increasing diversity has not come without problems and one area of concern has been low completion rates by groups of non-traditional students (Taniguchi & Kaufman, 2005). Within the new diversity, mature age females between the ages of 40 to 49 years, have become an increasingly significant proportion of the student population. In 2002, the population of mature age female students, between 40 and 49 years, enrolled in Australian universities was 4,975 (Lukic, Broadbent & Maclachlan, 2004). This group have been severely affected by attrition and during their first academic year, approximately 27% withdrew from their course (Lukic, Broadbent & Maclachlan, 2004).

It is important to address attrition for mature age students because it is both a moral issue, as students may suffer significant stress and anxiety when wrestling with the decision to withdraw from university; and a practical issue, because universities are funded on the number of students who complete their study (Darlaston-Jones et al., 2003). In order to improve university learning for these students, it is important to learn more about their experiences, how they have overcome problems that might lead to withdrawal, and use this information in the design of academic programs and student support services (Darlaston-Jones et al., 2003; McInnis, 2001).

Transition, expectations and adjustment to university

The adjustment or transition period often involves an assessment of whether university matches with expectations (Ramsay, Barker & Jones, 1999). In an examination of the transition experience of Australian students to university, Urquhart and Pooley (2007) conducted a study with first year university students studying psychology at Edith Cowan University and found that student cohorts recognise the need for social, emotional, and practical information support; thus it is important that universities understand the needs and motivations of diverse student groups in order to plan their transition and assistance programs accordingly (McInnis, 2001).

Internal expectations and adjustment into university

In order to manage the gap between expectations of university and reality, it is important to note that expectations are not only related to academic and social support services. They include internal expectations of ability to cope with academic and social pressures (James, 2001; Michie, Glachan & Bray, 2001).

Mature age students demonstrate higher levels of motivation towards studying; related to being older, having clearer motivations and making informed decisions (Murphy & Roopchand, 2003). Due to their high levels of self-esteem and motivation they tended to do well at university and gain in self-confidence as they gathered more positive feedback. Contrary to this, many mature age students report themselves as more anxious and less confident than traditional students (King, 1998 as cited in Murphy & Roopchand, 2003). However, if they achieved good academic results during initial study, positive feedback developed their self-confidence and self-esteem and increased their motivation to succeed (Murphy & Roopchand, 2003).

In an investigation of adjustment of mature age women returning to study, Cantwell and Mulhearn (1997) analysed experiences of 10 mature age women undertaking part-time study at the University of Newcastle. The women reported difficulties in time management as they negotiated their competing roles. Their motivation to study was related to identity regeneration and the researchers found that some women entered university with expectations for self-growth and identity development, but had little knowledge of the processes of university learning and the impact that study would have on their life outside of university. Hence, their expectations of university, in terms of self-development, were realistic but expectations of how they would manage the process of university learning and cope with other life roles were unrealistic. In order to understand this dynamic more fully in relation to mature age female students the characteristics of this group need to be considered in depth.

The characteristics of mature age female students

Cantwell, Archer, and Bourke (2001) conducted a study of students entering the University of Newcastle and showed that older students tended to outperform younger students. They related the higher attrition rates amongst mature age students to factors external to university such as the role demands from family responsibilities, the need to combine study with paid employment and financial pressures. Scott, Burns, and Cooney (1998) surveyed motivation amongst mature age female students with children. Some women reported high levels of motivation for study in an effort to discover new roles for themselves but underestimated their ability to cope with study and difficult personal circumstances. Other students reported development of new identity beyond that of 'wife' or 'mother' was their major motivator to return to study. For others, support from fellow students and academic staff enabled them to cope effectively with the demands of university (Scott, Burns, & Cooney, 1998). Due to the complexity of issues which affect mature age female students (Quimby & O'Brien, 2006; Reay, 2003; Scott, Burns, & Cooney, 1998; Taniguchi & Kaufman, 2005; Wilson, 1997) it is important to gain further understanding of the factors which influence the learning experience of mature age female students.

Research purpose

This study aimed to explore the experiences of mature age female students between the ages of 40 to 49 years, who were studying psychology, in the context of potential differences between expectations and experiences of university, and to discover how learning strategies can be implemented to help them address any gap.

Research methodology

A phenomenological research methodology, described by Schwandt (2001) as an exploration of a person's 'lifeworld', is suggested. Phenomenological research analyses lived experiences and attempts to make sense of them, and to describe and understand them (Polkinghorne, 2005). Holstein and Gubrium (1994) suggested that one of the basic tenets of phenomenological research involved interpretation of the particulars of lived experiences in order to render meaning to the experience. This involved collection of data from people who had experience of the subject being investigated, and from what they communicate to the researcher, to develop a description of the 'essence' of the experience (Moustakas, 1994: Racher & Robinson, 2002). The essence comprises forming deep understanding of lived experiences (le Vasseur, 2003). Essentially to unpack the complexity of motivation, life stage, expectations and roles, it is necessary to know about what the lived experience of mature age women students holds.


The rationale for this design choice was driven by Polkinghorne (2005), who advocated data collection methods which had vertical depth, that is, allowed for explanation, understanding and reflection and would enable participants to explore meaning of their experiences and relevance of interrelationships. Qualitative phenomenological based interviews would allow researchers to redirect or rephrase questions enabling collection of information which would be multilayered and complex in nature reflecting the true nature of issues under examination.

The research, therefore, followed a phenomenological approach as defined by Moustakas (1994) and formed an in depth qualitative study describing the lived experiences of women aged between 40 and 49 years, why they decided to study at university, what their expectations were and whether experiences matched expectations.


The experiences of the first author as a mature age woman studying at university have provided a focus for the study, and through bracketing of these experiences researcher interpretative biases are made explicit (Cresswell, 2007). This bracketing included my idea that mature age women's motivation to return to study may be related to life stage and their desire to address issues surrounding their identity (Erikson, 1968). Within this I thought that expectations of study may not take account of conflicting life roles and for some women significant stress may occur in the resolution of the conflict between expectations and reality (Scott, Burns, & Cooney, 1998; Quimby & O'Brien, 2006). Mature age females studying psychology became the focus of the study because they provided a unified but diverse student group and enabled the researcher to analyse reasons behind the decision to attend university, development of expectations and the relationship between experiences and expectations of university study.

The participants were 10 female students, aged between 40 and 49 years, studying psychology at Edith Cowan University. The participants were purposefully selected via advertisements on noticeboards in the School of Psychology and Social Science. Information and informed consent letters were distributed to participants.


Five open-ended questions were used in a semi-structured interview to gain information about the social and cultural contexts affecting the mature age women students. The questions were: what were the factors determining your decision to come to university; what were your expectations of university; when you started at university how did your experiences differ from your expectations; what did you do when your expectations did not match up to your experiences at university and what could the university have provided which would have helped you to make the adjustment to university? The questions were followed by prompts such as "Can you give me more information about." (Rice & Ezzy, 1999). A portable recorder was used to record the interview.


The interviews took place at a mutually convenient location agreed between the researcher and participant. Each interview took between 1 hour and 1 hour 30 minutes approximately. The interview was digitally recorded and reviewed and selected segments were transcribed verbatim.


Prior to analysis the researcher acknowledged her own biases and prejudgements in order to make an unbiased analysis of the data (Cresswell, 2007). All possible meanings and perspectives were sought to create frames of reference and describe how the phenomena were experienced by the participants in the study (Smith & Osborn, 2003). The researcher reviewed the tapes several times to become familiar with the data. Verbatim transcripts of noteworthy segments were made. Significant statements relevant to expectations, discrepancies between expectations and reality and information related to reasons for attending university were identified. Significant statements were grouped into units of meaning, and then described. Clusters of meaning were defined through cross-case analysis and common themes and issues grouped together (Cresswell, 2007).

To ensure rigour in the analysis records of the classification, and categorisation of the data were kept and a full audit trail of notes, coding and any revision of documents was kept (Mays & Pope, 1995). Researcher bias was acknowledged and notes kept in the audit trail or researcher's notes were assessed by the project supervisor to ensure that any bias by the researcher was acknowledged in the reporting (Mays & Pope, 1995).

Findings and Interpretations

The major themes that emerged from the data were; motivation for attending university, preparation and support. Throughout all themes, the relationship between expectations and reality was essential to understanding the experience of the mature age female student.

Motivation for attending university

Emerging from the data was the theme that mature age women started university because they felt they were at a time in their lives when they were looking for new direction. This concurred with the findings of Cantwell and Mulhearn (1997), they also identified that a woman's reasons for return to study centred around self growth and identity generation. Because of their life circumstances, and the ages of their children, the women in the study reported that they were able to engage in fresh opportunities.
I was at a stage with my children. They were older ... I had never gone back to work after I had them and one was already at high school .... and I was beginning to think I don't need to be at home any more. They couldn't have cared less that I was home or not.
Another participant describes the motivation to return to study as:
I just needed to do something for myself and I suppose show that I was much more than just being a mother and a wife.


For some women their reasons for return to study related to how they adapted to changes in their children growing up, for others it was stepping away from being a wife or mother, and these changes were realised as an opportunity to return to study (Scott, Burns & Cooney, 1998). For some of the women, the decision to return to study was made suddenly, based on their realisation that their children were no longer so dependent upon them. Focused in this motivation some of the women had not thought through their transition to University and a common theme reported was that they enrolled without investigating fully what they would be undertaking. Their expectations were not based on detailed preparation or research, but on making a general change in life:
I didn't really go into it with my eyes fully open about what it was really going to be like ..... the demand on your thought processes, to analyse and to critically think about things and there were some concepts that were very difficult.
The statistics - that was something that totally came out of left field ... that was not something I was expecting to be part of a psychology degree.
I was thinking psychology would be about depression and anxiety and mental illness - how to diagnose and recognise symptoms and counselling.
This finding supports work by Cantwell and Mulhearn (1997) who found that some women entered university with the expectation that university study would aid their self growth and their identity development, but otherwise had little knowledge of the processes of university learning. For another group of women the decision to return to study was detailed and complex, but again tended to be delayed until their children were less dependent:
And this had been in my head for about ten years. But at that stage I knew that it was ... when I first started the seed was starting to grow; I knew that it was very hard because young children at that time and all the other things that were going on in our lives.

Academic support

Perhaps because of the general lack of specific expectation about the processes of university learning, students in this study generally considered themselves to be exceptionally well supported academically:
When I came into the program here I was just amazed about how professionally it was run, the amount of communication that was happening, the support that the students got in terms of resources.
The effect of the academic support enabled the students to develop academic self confidence and this concurs with a study undertaken by Murphy and Roopchand (2003) who suggested that if mature students new to university achieved good academic results and gained positive feedback, they grew in self confidence and self esteem and became increasingly motivated to study:
when I got my first result back and I had done quite well then I thought ... I can do this and I am good at it.
The mature age women in the study reported that they received excellent academic support but they had not expected that the learning environment would be geared around their needs:
I expected that I was going to be old and I was going to be in a class of kids who hadn't long been out of school and I wasn't sure that I would fit in until I actually got here and realised that not many ... were straight out of school.
The women reported feeling under-confident when they compared themselves to the younger students, especially in relation to computer knowledge:
I just felt really stupid - truly I thought it was just me because ... I was just old. I thought it was just me, I didn't put blame on the university but once I sorted out where it was [Blackboard information]
Feelings of self doubt and anxiety when the mature age student compared their abilities with those of the younger students was also found by King (1998 as cited in Murphy & Roopchand, 2003) and this was noted especially in the early stages of the mature age women's time at university. As the women progressed through their studies they developed in self confidence. As confidence in their abilities increased they reported a high level of engagement with the academic work load and they noted that their experience was different than the cohort of younger students:
I suppose just a bit more acceptance of the fact the maybe someone might be here just for the sake of learning something rather than a young person starting their career.
This finding supports the work of Murphy and Roopchand, 2003, who also found that mature age women had higher levels of engagement and motivation towards their studying.

This difference in approach to learning between the mature age and younger students had the potential to cause a friction between the groups and the way that these differences were acknowledged by academic staff could exacerbate the tension:

when you were mixed in with the really young kids and the lecturers would highlight maturity in age and you could hear the young kids mumbling "we're just as busy". There wasn't really an understanding amongst the cohort that it is different for mature age students to do what they are doing and I don't know that we should have been stood out as being different.

Induction and transition support

The women described a lack of personal interaction with the university. Most of the women reported that the decision to return to study had been a difficult and complex one, for some it had been a sudden decision, taken when they had realised that their children were less dependent upon them; for others return to study involved several years of research and anticipation. The application process was fairly straightforward but it represented the prospect of major change in these women's lives. One woman stated:
I just remember getting a letter saying right you are accepted ... that was it, there was no more contact, nothing personal, no names and contacts of people to give you help and advice.
As Urquhart and Pooley (2007) found, most student cohorts recognise the need for social, emotional, and practical information support to help them through their university career. But the women in this study reported their first interaction with the university to be distant and unwelcoming. In particular women reported a need for more personal recognition and acknowledgment at the start of their course:
this was a major thing for me ...but they didn't even have my name on a list ... I think they could have done a lot more for some of the mature age students.
Although the academic support was considered to be excellent, an underlying theme was that they expected that there would be some connection with the academic establishment of the university, as one woman said "I suppose I wanted to feel welcomed and feel a part of it". A feeling of "isolation" and not knowing "who to turn to, who to ask" was identified. Peer support programs were rarely mentioned by the women and they were not acknowledged as being a source of support:
I know they have introduced mentors and I have phoned them up a couple of times and even that, it seemed like support but then it wasn't. You still felt isolated; the mentors were always busy as well ...
This feeling of lack of acknowledgment and anonymity from the department became apparent as one woman reflected upon people withdrawing; she commented "you just don't see them again". Because of this anonymity the easiest option would be to go "back to what I was doing in my other career and ... family". This was an area where the reality of their experience did not meet their expectations. And as one woman concluded:
no one really knows you so if you didn't turn up or come back no one would really miss you.

Social support

The majority of mature age female students had very little expectation for social support at university. Their expectation tended to focus on attending university, getting the work done and not being distracted by social contact. They expected that they would be socially isolated from the younger students and 'not fit in'. This finding indicated that they underestimated the value of social support networks prior to commencing university but as they progressed through their courses most participants reported that they used friendship groups to exchange information on assignments and find out about tutorials and lecture schedules. In reflection, one participant who had mentioned that she had not expected to gain social support at university stated that her adjustment to university would have been easier if there had been more 'connection'
more in terms of friendship and connection... I expected the bigger social thing happening and I think this didn't happen because there was nowhere to go ..... In first and second year it was just come in do your class and go home.

Family support

Scott, Burns and Cooney (1998) reported on the complexity of the interaction that women face when juggling the demands of family, work and study and a major theme identified by the current study was the importance of family support. Most of the women planned their study around the needs of the family. In the majority of cases this involved part-time study; most of the women were willing to take longer to complete their degree and felt the need to reduce the impact that their studying had on the family:
my husband encouraged me initially ... but because I have always been at home he has worked full-time he hasn't had to think "what are we going to have for dinner"... he was finding it a bit hard to cope so I just slowed it back down again and just went back to the two units. It took longer to finish the degree than I would have liked but obviously I had to consider everyone else.
The overwhelming theme was that university study had become so important to them that they were willing to juggle and manipulate their lives in other areas in order to continue their degrees but they could only do so if they felt that they were looking after the needs of their families. Although some women reported that they were financially supported by their partners, and that their families were supportive, the majority of the women felt that they had responsibility for nurturing their families and they felt that it was their role to rearrange their study to ensure that the family was not inconvenienced. Most of the women felt that they had to 'consider everyone else' and that studying was something of an indulgence that could only be undertaken when their family's needs had been met. This finding highlights the complexity of role demands and concurs with the findings of Scott, Burns and Cooney (1998) who found that women's roles outside of university can have a negative influence on their studies.

Conclusion and Recommendations

This study aimed to explore the experiences of mature age female students between the ages of 40 to 49 years, who were studying psychology, consideration was given to the relationship between motivation and development of expectations; whether the reality of university study met with these expectations, and if any discrepancy between expectations and reality led to problems in adjustment? Recommendations to help support these students at university were also presented.

This study found that the main themes which mature age female students identified as important in their experiences of university were: motivation behind the decision to return to study; preparation for study, and support. Within their motivation to return to university, and underpinning their decision to return to study, the women described the importance of being at a stage in their lives when they perceived that their family commitments were lessening and they could develop their lives outside of the family environment. Their expectations of university focussed on their opportunities for self growth rather than the practical aspects of how they were going to cope with the demands of their multiple roles, and manage the practical issues related to succeeding academically. Motivation to return to university was linked to identity development and finding identity away from that defined by a woman's role as wife and mother this concurred with the findings of Cantwell and Mulhearn (1997).

The difference between their expectations and the real experience of university influenced how they prepared themselves for university, with some women reporting undertaking little detailed preparation prior to enrolling for a course.

The interrelationship between their expectations and reality also underpinned their perceptions of the support that they needed and that which was available to them. Because the women focussed on university providing opportunities for self growth and identity development and not on practical issues surrounding how they were going to cope at university, the support that they receive is crucial to the retention of this group at university. Practical support at induction may play a crucial role in helping this group reconcile their expectations with reality.

The women also reported that they felt that they would be isolated from the younger students and that support would be geared towards the needs of the younger students, they felt that university was designed for the younger student and that they should not take up lecturers' time with their queries. Central to this was the expectation that younger students would be more knowledgeable about university systems and that the mature student would be disadvantaged because they did not have up-to-date knowledge. This gap between mature age and younger student groups had the potential to develop into a frictional situation in the learning community and required careful handling by lecturers and tutors.

The mature age female students also tended to underestimate their need for social support and expected that they would be isolated from other students. This expectation may cause the mature age students to take longer to form social networks and put them at higher risk of attrition because they do not have social support in the university environment.

The women reported that academic support enabled them to succeed at university and when they achieved success they began to feel that they belonged in the university community and that they could engage in it more fully. From their reflections on their expectations and the reality of their experiences it is possible to make the following recommendations which may be of use in the development of learning strategies:


Induction and transition support

Social support

Academic support

Family support


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Authors: Ruth Ayres and Dr Andrew Guilfoyle, Edith Cowan University. Email: rayres@student.ecu.edu.au, a.guilfoyle@ecu.edu.au

Please cite as: Ayres, R. & Guilfoyle, A. (2009). Experiences of mature age female students studying psychology: Implications for the university learning environment. In Teaching and learning for global graduates. Proceedings of the 18th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 29-30 January 2009. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://otl.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2009/refereed/ayres.html

Copyright 2009 Ruth Ayres and Andrew Guilfoyle. The authors assign to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.

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