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Teaching and Learning Forum 2009 [ Refereed papers ]
LiFE - Learning interactively for engagement: A pilot teaching and learning program for refugee students at Curtin University in Western Australia

Jaya Earnest, Clancy Read and Gabriella de Mori
Centre for International Health
Curtin University of Technology

A rising number of university students are from diverse socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, and some of these students have arrived in Australia on Humanitarian Visas. Given this changing demographic profile of refugee students in tertiary institutions, it is evident that tailored approaches and new teaching and learning methodologies are needed to accommodate the teaching and learning needs of these students. A paucity of research and literature on the learning styles and academic needs of refugee students in tertiary institutions resulted in a successful Australian Teaching and Learning Council funded collaborative project between Curtin and Murdoch University in Western Australia. The research study titled "LiFE - Learning Interactively for Engagement." hopes to address this gap in research by developing a teaching and learning program for academics. Initially, a needs analysis was conducted with a small cohort of refugee students. The results from the needs analysis revealed the multiple challenges students on humanitarian visas face and informed the design and delivery of a pilot teaching and learning training program at Curtin University. This paper discusses the design, delivery and evaluation of the pilot teaching and learning program to improve academic success among refugee students. Academic staff and teachers who work with refugee students would benefit from attending this session.

Background to the study


In the past decade issues of diversity have moved from periphery positions into central concerns of higher education institutions (Brown, 2004). This diversity of current student bodies in higher education poses new challenges for the engagement of students for whom the university may be a culturally alienating place (Krause, Hartley, James & McInnis, 2005). Students from refugee and disadvantaged backgrounds frequently find the culture of tertiary institution alienating and often experience difficulties in forming social bonds. Facilitating the early engagement of students with their studies and campus life has shown to lead to greater student satisfaction and improved rates of retention (Krause et al 2005, p.3). The challenge remains how to provide opportunities for these students for whom the university culture may often be an overwhelming and daunting experience.

Researchers and educators note that the implication of this imperative is that universities need to develop new and specifically tailored programs to impart the necessary skills and sensitivities for student diversity (Kramer & Weiner, 1994). These programs need to be developed in a manner that enables students to become active members of a learning community and have a sense of belonging to the university culture. Students who feel under-prepared (that is, they do not have an understanding of how the university operates and how to succeed within the culture), will especially require a more specific tailored induction into the university system, so that they are strategically positioned and equipped to meet its challenges. Northedge (2003) notes that the key skills students need to learn is "to acquire the capacity to participate in the discourses of an unfamiliar knowledge community" (2003, p.17).

Australia's humanitarian visa intake

The UNHCR definition states that a refugee is a person "owing to well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable to avail himself of the protection of that country; and owing to such fear, is unable and unwilling to return to it." (UNHCR, 2007)

In 2006-07, 13 017 visas were granted under Australia's Humanitarian Program. This number included 11,186 visas granted under the offshore component and 1,831 granted under the onshore component (DIAC, 2007). For the past five years, African nations have accounted for five out of the top ten humanitarian target group entrants to Australia, lead each year by Sudan. Western Australia has settled 4688 African humanitarian entrants from 2002 to 2006 - 60% of those being under 19 years old (see figure 1).

Figure 1

Figure 1: Top 10 Countries of Humanitarian entrants in WA: 2001-06
(Source: DIMA, 2006)

This influx of humanitarian entrants has also seen a steady growth of the number of refugee students in West Australian Universities. Therefore, it is essential that educators and academics be prepared in understanding the diversity in student intake, to ensure provision of the best possible support for refugee students.

Theoretical underpinnings

Diversity in tertiary Institutions: implications for educators

Changes in the tertiary education sector have resulted in staff having to accommodate a higher proportion of students from diverse backgrounds with little increase in resources needed to ensure that students' needs are properly accommodated. A national survey in 1999, undertaken in the US found that 69% of academics believed that providing academic support to, presumably, 'under prepared' students was one of the most significant factors in the increase in their workload The most critical finding with respect to diversity was that the proportion of academics who say that dealing with 'too wide a range of abilities' in the classroom is a major hindrance to their teaching (McInnis 2003, p.388). This perception by academics, coupled with their increased workloads, reinforces the need for creating targeted and flexible pedagogical strategies that can be effectively embedded into mainstream units. McInnis also notes that successful programs that initially targeted small groups have "after a few years come to be adopted by the whole institution that is mainstreamed" (McInnis 2003, p. 391). In light of these issues and concerns, it is essential that educators in today's increasingly diverse learning environments are supported and equipped themselves to recognise differences among students, so that all students, particularly refugee students, are enabled to gain competencies that assist them in successfully functioning in a pluralistic society.

Effective learning environments

The pluralism imperative in universities globally now requires that particular attention be given to students who have little, if any, experience in academic settings, who often struggle to develop an understanding of the expectations of academic culture. Their key challenge is "...to develop an effective voice through which to 'speak' the discourse, whether in writing or in class ...support in establishing voice is a vital component of courses for students from diverse backgrounds" (Northedge, 2003, p.25). There is significant evidence that effective educational practices, which facilitate students' engagement, provide a boost to under-represented and lower achieving students commencing tertiary education. Data from the National Survey of Student Engagement conducted in 2006 found that student engagement activities such as "collaborating with peers on projects inside and outside the classroom helped students overcome previous educational disadvantages" (Wasley, 2006, p.1). Additionally, the survey findings also revealed that there is a strong relationship between approaches to learning and self-reported gains in intellectual and social development (National Survey of Student Engagement, 2006). Other studies (Krause 2005 and Tinto 2005) have shown that early engagement of students with their studies and campus community life can lead to greater psychosocial well-being, student satisfaction, better performance and improved retention rates within the university.

Learning strategies for diverse student groups

Tertiary institutions have typically addressed the challenges that arise from an increased diversity of students by 'adding on' units or courses to address specific problems (Tinto 2004). This strategy has generally been found to be ineffective: better outcomes are achieved when specific learning needs are addressed within mainstream programs: The "redesign elements that seem to especially benefit such students include high expectations, a requirement that students participate in specific experiences or exercises, and on-demand support services" (Twigg, 2005, p.1). Programs developed in this project will therefore be designed to have the potential and long term vision to be integrated into mainstream units.

Refugee students

For students from refugee backgrounds, the acculturation process that is required for successful outcomes at university has three distinct aspects as described by Birman, Trickett & Vinokurov (2002): language competence, behavioural participation, and identification, as they allow individuals to communicate and function in differing contexts. Whilst a small percentage of this cohort make the transition to university successfully, students from this group very often find the multiple challenges of academic study, coupled with resettling in a host country and having to adjust to new belief systems, values and mores, too overwhelming. Identification especially, in particular ethnic identity, is linked to outcomes such as self-concept and psychological adjustment (Burnett & Peel, 2001; Davies & Webb, 2000).

Most refugee students have encountered the violent death of a parent, injury and/or torture towards a family member(s), bombardment and shelling, detention, beatings and/or physical injury, disability inflicted by violence, sexual assault, disappearance of family members and friends, and witnessed murder/massacre, terrorist attack(s), parental fear and panic, famine, forcible eviction, separation and forced migration (Burnett & Peel, 2001; Davies & Webb, 2000). Currently, although the numbers of refugee students in universities are relatively small, the number of refugee students has been steadily growing in recent years in West Australian Universities (Earnest, Housen & Gilleatt, 2007). Therefore, it is essential that educators need to be prepared for understanding the diversity in student intake, to ensure provision of the best possible support for refugee students.

The Learning Centre at Curtin University in Western Australia

The Learning Centre offers the following learning support services to undergraduate and postgraduate students, both domestic and international: At Curtin University, in 2007 student enrolments for those with permanent Humanitarian visas, by country of birth were: Afghanistan (3), Ethiopia (2), France (2), India (1), Iran (4), Iraq (4), Liberia (3), Malaysia (2), Rwanda (1), Sierra Leone (2), Somalia, (1), Sudan, (21), Uganda (1).

Curtin University implements a number of programs for its equity students: bridging and tertiary access for indigenous students, enabling and foundation studies for rural and isolated students, learning support for Australian 'at risk' students (Institutional Assessment Framework Portfolio, Curtin University, 2006). There is currently no academic program specifically tailored for refugee students at Curtin University. The University's 'Teaching and Learning Enabling Plan' includes the following key strategic priorities which are addressed in this proposal:

LiFE - Learning interactively for engagement: The design of a teaching and learning pilot program

Stage one: Needs analysis

In the first stage of the project was a needs analysis undertaken with a small cohort of refugee students through the use of in-depth interviews in late 2007 and early 2008. The subsequent analysis revealed the multiple challenges students on humanitarian visas face. Some of these challenges were: being academically ill-prepared; balancing work, study, family and community commitments; learning new teaching and learning systems; struggling with English proficiency and computer literacy; and negotiating traditional cultural and gender roles. The themes derived from the needs assessment were:
  1. Hurdles and motivation
  2. Difference between African and Australian educational systems
  3. Previous education
  4. Difference from Australian students
  5. English
  6. Gender issues
  7. External pressures and commitments
  8. Use of services and technology
  9. Participation at university
  10. Future goals
The results from the needs analysis clearly support the assertion that universities need to develop new teaching and learning methods to impart the necessary skills to improve learning outcomes for students from diverse groups. Each identified need was taken into consideration when designing the teaching and learning pilot program.

The design of the program

The pilot program was designed through collaboration between Curtin University LiFE Project members (the chief investigator and first author), the research assistant, and the head of the Curtin University Learning Centre. Several meetings were held to draft the aims and objectives of the program, to define the training modules, the timetable and details for the pilot training program.

Several concerns and issues were raised in preliminary meetings that revolved around gender, logistical, individual student level and ethical concerns. Initially, the design team discussed the appropriate way to refer to the targeted students. The team had varying experiences of how refugee students' referred to themselves, and how they preferred to be referred to. Although refugee students were the many participants in the research, many of them did not consider themselves refugees any longer as they had gained Australian citizenship. Using the term 'former refugees' as an alternative was considered, however it was decided to use the broader term 'students who came to Australia on a humanitarian visa'. This was a term that was descriptive enough, yet had fewer connotations than the term 'refugee'.

As the participants came from a range of courses, a key issue would be finding core skills that all students would need for their courses, so that the program was beneficial for everyone. Additionally, there was insufficient time to teach all necessary skills such as referencing, research skills, time management or computer skills, and these were also covered by other Learning Centre short courses. Drawing on results from the needs analysis, the design team felt that the key skills necessary for successful university life were to learn how to navigate the university system, and for students to find their own voice within the system. Therefore, the key aim of the pilot teaching and learning program was to empower and support students to overcome the inevitable roadblocks they will encounter in universities, and to remain motivated and confident during this time.

The pilot program was designed and tailored to accommodate and include the specific findings from the needs analysis conducted in Stage One of the LiFE Project. The experience of the design team was that students responded well to support systems and people who were more consistent and; they preferred to see the same person each time, especially when discussing personal issues, and needed longer than one session to be comfortable, and trusting of the available support systems. Curtin University decided to set aside a two hour drop-in session on Wednesdays, the common lunchbreak at Curtin University, for students to come see the Pilot Program facilitator at The Learning Centre. It was hoped that this would also become an informal peer support group where the students would take comfort in knowing other students in similar situations.

Lastly, the design team raised concerns over gender and ethnicity drawing from previous experience: it was noted that female participants are less likely to participate in such programs, and are likely to be shy or uncomfortable participating in mixed gender learning settings. The program also had to accommodate cross cultural and mixed religious understandings, examples and interpretations of what was being taught.

The pilot program: Framework and design

The Design team developed a framework that underpinned the design of the pilot training program (see Figure 2)

Figure 2

Figure 2: The Framework
Design of an innovative teaching and learning program to meet the needs of refugee students

The pilot teaching and learning program developed was designed, having been guided by the learning needs uncovered in the needs analysis and through a desire to accommodate educational, ethical, political, gender and cultural considerations. The final delivery of the pilot program was a one day, 6 hour catered training session, with breaks for morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea. Transport to and from the program was provided, and participants were provided with a gift voucher for spending time at the pilot training session on a Saturday when most would be working.

Each student was provided with a set of take home resources called the 'Get Set Workbook' as well as participation certificates. The 'Get Set Workbook' was a manual that included notes, hints, templates and information on the 5 sessions that would be delivered during the day. The sessions conducted on the day included:

  1. Adult learners - structured reflection and road clearing strategies
  2. Concept mapping
  3. Time management
  4. Personal SWOT analysis
  5. Motivation and resilience.
The day long session was led by The Learning Centre Facilitator, who prepared all handouts, PowerPoint copies and equipment needed for the exercises, which were then included in the students workbook as the day went on. The sessions were designed to equip students with key skills, both practical and psychological: students were taught 'Concept mapping' and 'SWOT analysis' templates, as well as ways to self motivate, draw inspiration from those around, and utilise the support services available on campus.

The program was structured and presented in a semi-formal manner, striking a balance between presenting a professional student seminar, and making the participants comfortable and able to enjoy the day. The sessions were interactive, with games, activities and discussions planned to get the students to participate, interact with others and to share their own experiences. Students were asked to present their activities to the class if they were comfortable, and encouraged to ask questions as any time. At the end of the session, certificates were presented to the participants, and evaluation forms were distributed, so that the design team could improve the program based on the evaluation.


A varied group of students participated in the pilot teaching and learning program. In total, 14 refugee students participated in the program and participants varied in ethnicity, gender, age, courses, academic levels and family commitments.

Figure 3

Figure 3: Participant demography: Nationalities of refugee students for the pilot training program

A total of 14 students participated in the pilot training program - nine females, four males. The majority of participants (8) were under the age of 25 and five participants were over the age of 25. The students came from a variety of backgrounds. Sudanese (5), Liberian (1), Sierra Leonean (2), Kurdish (1), Somali (3), Eritrean (1), Afghan (1) [see Figure 3]. The students were undertaking courses in public health, commerce, science, international health, education and nursing. 11 were undergraduate students, 2 were postgraduate students. Among the undergraduate students, 6 were first year, 7 were second and third year. 4 participants had families and children so had work, family and financial commitments along with study. Apart from the participants there were four observers: the project chief investigator, the project manager and two project research assistants.


Overall, the pilot teaching and learning program was very successful. The program created the right learning and socialising environment, which students of all ethnicities and religions felt comfortable in. Additionally, this wide group of students responded well to the use of our selected analogies and metaphors and most importantly, to our chosen facilitator as the evaluation forms consistently noted. Because of this, the students were open to discussion, to share their personal experiences and enjoyed listening to the others share their stories.

Students' educational, teaching and learning needs were catered for through the 5 sessions. Consequently, the LiFE project has made meaningful and long lasting relationships with the refugee participants, who felt honoured that so much time and effort was being put into their needs, and who are now happy to participate in the later stages of the entire LiFE project, including the development of an educational DVD for university academic staff.

Evaluation of the pilot program

Three forms of evaluation methods were used; process, program and impact evaluation of the training program. The non-participant observers and the refugee student participants felt that the program was well executed well, and noted that all students had enjoyed themselves and were happy to participate in the activities and share their personal experiences.

Refugee students were asked by the facilitator on the day of the pilot training to write down the issue that most affected their university learning. The top four recurring themes/issues faced by the refugee students were related to finances, time management, English language skills and issues relating to their refugee life experiences. This activity confirmed that our program was targeting the right issues and that each student would gain significantly from the program designed.

Evaluation forms were especially designed to evaluate the impact of the program, encompassing two components. The first component was a survey that asked students to respond to 15 questions in 4 sections that covered the topics of Training Session, Teaching, Learning Material and Overall impressions. The second half of the evaluation form was open ended and students were asked three questions: indicate the important characteristics of the training valuable to overall learning experiences, what participants felt was important to them personally and any additional comments that they would like to share. A few key quotes from the evaluation forms include

I felt like I can't be afraid to do anything any more because of good people like your learning centre are life saver, you made sure one feels good about themselves

Everybody was willing to participate & exchange views freely

It was a great workshop and encourages you more because it really encourages students both at higher institution and lower and over

Very interactive, Very conducive and organised environment, Very good time frame, more inspirational and thought provoking

The results were overwhelmingly positive to all sections of survey; 8 participants responded 'strongly agree' to 100% of the evaluation questions; no participants ticked the 'disagree box' on any of the survey items. Overall, the participants' evaluation responses were extremely positive. Students consistently noted that they felt comfortable to be there and to participate and express themselves in the learning environment; that it was a safe sharing environment and the overall really enjoyed the day. They responded well to the facilitator, handouts, inter-active activities and to the other participants. Participants felt the program was worth while for them and that they had gained valuable skills and strategies that they would re-use again. After the pilot teaching and learning program, a select group of six refugee students who had participated in the program were invited to take part in a video interview. Some quotes from interviews with selected students post event document a positive experience that they would like repeated:
At the end of the day it was so enjoyable, I enjoyed the day it was really good. Because at the end there was more interaction with different people and more ideas from different people you know.

...it was just really good to get together and other students listen to their stories helps students to open up...it was really good.

I liked the idea of people getting together... I felt comfortable in that environment, hearing from students who are not saying are better than me but student who are just the same as me... it feels like you find it easy to talk to them and just to hear them share their ideas and stories where they came from, how they came to Australia and what struggle they went through. It just makes you think or appreciate what you have.

Despite the overwhelming positive response of the program, there were several challenges to designing, and implementing the program. In addition to the initial concerns and issues that were addressed in the preliminary meetings, it proved difficult to recruit participants to the pilot program, especially as it was on the weekend. Therefore, incentives were used to attract participants and accommodate some students who had to leave half way through the day. The program itself was run for a wide variety of students: some participants were just starting their first semester, while others were post graduate students, who were more familiar with the skills taught in the seminar and may have found the content repetitive. Currently drawing from the evaluation, the pilot program is being refined to modify the current design and develop a teaching and learning program that will be implemented next year.


This Australian Teaching and Learning Council funded project; LiFE - Learning Interactively for Engagement being undertaken at Curtin and Murdoch University in Western Australia is documenting the experiences, needs and perceptions of refugee youth in universities from diverse socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, arriving in Australia on Humanitarian visas. The needs analysis revealed that tailored approaches and new teaching and learning resources would be needed to accommodate the learning of these students if they are to become successful at university.

In the one day program, the refugee students were presented with a workshop and a series of sessions covering; structured reflection, road clearing strategies; concept mapping; time management; personal SWOT analysis; and motivation & resilience. The evaluation of the pilot teaching and learning training program revealed positive feedback regarding all aspects of the program. This feedback from the pilot training is informing the design and delivery of a tailored program for refugee students to be trailed and implemented in the first semester of 2009. The information from the students will also assist in the design and development of a teaching DVD for academics, to assist them to understand the different learning styles and unique challenges refugee students face and respond to the specific needs of refugee students.

Both educators and policy makers in tertiary institutions in Australia need to sensitively understand the complexity of factors that influence the learning of refugee students and these challenges need to be taken into account for program development, implementation and evaluation. The design of appropriate teaching and learning programs will need to involve an examination of the social, cultural, educational and spiritual aspirations of refugee students and acknowledge the different learning needs of this cohort of students.



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Authors: Jaya Earnest, Clancy Read and Gabriella de Mori
Centre for International Health, Curtin University of Technology
Corresponding author: J.Earnest@curtin.edu.au

Please cite as: Earnest, J., Read, C. & de Mori, G. (2009). LiFE - Learning interactively for engagement: A pilot teaching and learning program for refugee students at Curtin University in Western Australia. 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/earnest.html

Copyright 2009 Jaya Earnest, Clancy Read and Gabriella de Mori. 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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