Background  The Problematic  Research question  Methodology  Audiences  Findings  References  Bio


The genesis of my research question - how do professional staff in universities contribute to student outcomes - was a paper presented by Stuart Middleton at the August 2006 ATEM conference.  Middleton introduced a set of 13 "propositions", which were derived in a meta-study by Prebble et al. (2004), and that were proposed to support student outcomes.   Although the focus of these propositions in the Prebble study was either academic staff or "the institution", Middleton suggested that general staff also contribute to the behaviours described in the propositions. Middleton introduced a new metaphor, that of the “student journey”. Middleton expanded this metaphor to characterise the journey a student undertakes through an institution from initial enquiry to graduation as a journey on an underground railway network.

The Problematic

My research examines the work undertaken by professional staff in Australian universities and focuses on how professional staff contribute to student outcomes.   The aim is to address the overarching research question: how do professional staff contribute to student outcomes?  As a professional population, professional staff remains under-researched with little known about its contribution to higher education, particularly apropos learning and teaching.   In the context of rapid and significant changes to the higher education environment, this research helps fill the gap in knowledge about the work of professional staff, specifically in relation to student outcomes.  It expands the professional knowledge in this general field, adding to the growing body of work being published by professional staff, about professional staff.  Using a portfolio approach to presenting the research outcomes, this work speaks to a variety of audiences, including professional staff themselves.

Research question

In order to answer the overarching research question, how do professional staff contribute to student outcomes?, my research builds on the work of Prebble et al. (2004).   Prebble et al. (2004) derived 13 propositions for student support, which they suggest enhance student outcomes in terms of retention, persistence and achievement.  My research investigates these propositions (Prebble Propositions) in relation to professional staff and poses several further specific questions, using a two-stage research design.

Stage 1 (Delphi study) research questions:

To what extent can the Prebble Propositions be used to describe the work of professional staff in relation to student outcomes?

  • According to professional staff, to which of these Prebble Propositions for student support do professional staff contribute?
  • What is the order of significance of this contribution, as viewed by professional staff?
  • What other activities do professional staff undertake that support positive student outcomes?

Stage 2 (case study) research questions:

How can the framework of Prebble Propositions be used to describe the work of professional staff in relation to student outcomes?

  1. What pedagogical partnerships do professional staff form that contribute to student outcomes?
  2. How are the work and identifies of professional staff changing?
  3. How do these changes in work and identities enable or inhibit contributions to student outcomes?


The reality of workplaces is highly complex, and there is a substantial body of literature on the impact of increasingly complex environments on academic identities.  While various approaches could be used for this research, naturalistic, qualitative, interpretative approaches lend themselves to contexts in which reality is multilayered and complex, and hence are eminently suitable approaches to this research topic.  Using a pragmatic constructivist approach, my research design has two distinct stages:  a Delphi study, to establish a framework, followed by case study to explore two cases in depth.

In the Delphi study, I investigated the relative importance of the 13 propositions developed by Prebble et al. (2004), based on the Stage 1 research questions above.  Results of this study has been published in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management (Graham 2010).

With the findings of the Delphi study providing a thematic framework for further study, I then used a case study methodology to elicit rich data that illustrated and illuminated the research topic by exploring the Stage 2 research questions above.


Being research for a professional doctorate, the outcomes speak to three difference audiences:  the profession, the workplace and the academe.  The nature of the workplace and profession for this research is such that there is significant overlap with academe.


After Lee, A., Green, B. & Brennan, M. (2000)


Findings from my research study can be found under the Publications tab on this website.


Lee, A., Green, B. & Brennan, M. 2000, 'Organisational Knowledge: Professional Practice and the Professional Doctorate at Work', in J.G.C. Rhodes (ed.), Research and knowledge at work: perspectives, case studies and innovative strategies, Routledge, New York and London,, pp. pp. 117-136.

Middleton, S. 2006, 'The Divided House in Tertiary:  The Importance of Service Departments in Positive Academic Outcomes', paper presented to the Association for Tertiary Education Management, Sydney, NSW, 28-30 August 2006, viewed 21 April 2010 <http://pandora.nla.gov.au/pan/10533/20061010-0000/www.temc.org.au/downloads/papers/TheDividedHouseinTertiary_MIDDLETON.pdf>

Prebble, T., Hargreaves, H., Leach, L., Naidoo, K., Suddaby, G. & Zepoke, N. 2004, 'The impact of student support services and academic development programmes on student outcomes in undergraduate tertiary study: A synthesis of the research.', viewed 9 May 2008 <http://www.educationcounts.govt.nz/publications/tertiary_education/5519>.

Carroll Graham

Carroll GrahamCarroll has worked in higher education for more than 18 years and is now focusing on research and teaching in higher education management.  Carroll’s enthusiasm for working in higher education stems from the crucial role that universities play in developing and disseminating new knowledge, and in developing the leaders of the future.

Carroll complete her doctorate part-time in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at UTS while working full-time as a higher education professional at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, UTS.



University of Technology Sydney
PO Box 123, Broadway, NSW 2007
carroll [dot] grahamatuts [dot] edu [dot] au