Beyond access: Turning every day engagements into life-changing opportunities for students in transition

By Constance Khupe, PhD, Office of Student Success at the University of the Witwatersrand Johannesburg, South Africa.

I was 16 when I decided I would become a teacher. I was the first in my family, and even in my community to have gone this far with school. I was in my last year of secondary school and registered for Ordinary level examinations, which would lead to a subject-based qualification as part of the General Certificate of Education. My class had been given application forms for Advanced level placement as was standard practice in Zimbabwean schools. Staying on to complete A-level study, would have meant two more years in high school, two more years of tuition and boarding fees which my family could hardly afford. I had heard that no fees were required in teachers’ college, hence the decision to go to college instead of going for A-levels. Students were in fact remunerated in the second and fourth year while on teaching experience. That was it! I was going to become a teacher. Being the most exposed to education in my family, I was the ‘best’ positioned to make the career decision. My family were relieved at the prospect of my imminent income. They sent me off to college with nothing much more than my few clothes. I and those from backgrounds similar to mine were fortunate to have a government (then) that supported higher education institutions to be ready for the kind of student that I was. I only discovered a few days into college that what I thought was free higher education was a government, low-interest loan that enabled me to pay tuition fees, food and accommodation, stationery, and even a stipend. Although the rest is now history, you can probably imagine my first year experience!       

My personal history prepared me well to work as a student advisor at the University of the Witwatersrand (more intimately known as Wits University) in South Africa. Wits University is located in central Johannesburg, the largest city and the country’s economic hub. Johannesburg prides itself as “a world-class African city”, and it is. Wits University draws its student population from all over South Africa.

The University of the Witwatersrand, Campus East. (Photo by Shivan Parushath.)

I am based at the Office of Student Success (OSS) in the Faculty of Health Sciences, providing academic support to undergraduate students. I can relate with the experiences of most of my students. At least a third of Wits Health Sciences students are from low-resourced school either in the townships, in rural areas or informal settlements. About 30% of the students are first in their family to attend university.  More than a third of the students rely on government funding for tuition fees, accommodation and meals (University of the Witwatersrand Summary Report on Student Home and School Background Information, 2019). Wits University has made strides in terms of enabling access to previously disadvantaged population groups, with African students now constituting up to 52% of Health Sciences first year enrolment (University of the Witwatersrand Summary Report on Student Home and School Background Information, 2019). However, retention, progression and completion still favour historical patterns of privilege. It is in this context that the OSS contributes to creating a safe, welcoming, supportive and optimum environment necessary for student learning and success.

Wits first-year student during orientation week. (Photo by Wits University.)

At least 900 first-year students join the Faculty of Health Sciences annually. Academic Advisors work closely with all stakeholders responsible for first year experience programmes. Beginning with a week dedicated for the welcoming of new students to the University and Faculty, orientation continues beyond the first week through much of the first semester and indeed the rest of the year.

Early Needs Identification

Given the diversity of our students, systems have been put in place for early identification and proactive support for the new students. Students’ needs are identified from multiple forms of engagements and sources, and resultant interventions include the students’ voice.

The multiple needs-identification methods have, over the years, pointed to risk factors for students in transition. As academic advisors, we use this information to develop interventions that address risk factors before they become fulfilled in academic failure.

Whole-class Interventions

Many students, regardless of schooling background, come to university with inadequate skills to handle the significantly increased workloads as well as assessment that requires deeper learning than memorisation. We address these challenges through face-to-face and online learning skills sessions. These continue through the first semester. Additional classes are arranged as and when need arises.

Individualised Learning Skills Sessions

Students have access to Advisors for one-to-one consultations either on self-identified learning skills needs or after being referred by a staff member. The sessions are interactive, starting with students sharing their problem and learning experience and reflecting on their strengths and weaknesses, and continue through to planning for the desired change. Agreements are made for follow up and feedback as applicable. The feedback allows both student and Advisor room to re-think their strategy if necessary. The process encourages students to reflect on their engagement and responsibilities in learning situations, and the bigger aim is perspective transformation, to shift responsibility for learning from the teacher to the student.

Although it is resource-intensive, individualised support is most helpful in keeping students accountable and responsible for their learning. 

Peer Tutoring for High-Risk Subjects

Although Wits Health Sciences generally has high pass and progression rates, some subjects have over the years had lower pass rates. We introduced peer tutoring on the understanding that students ‘listen’ to students. We train and recruit senior students to assist junior students in small groups to encourage social learning. The tutor’s role is to clarify concepts and to encourage the tutees to think, identifying their mistakes and correcting them under guidance. The peer tutor programme reaches at least 400 students each year.

Interventions for Students from Low-resourced School Backgrounds

A critical goal that we keep in mind when working with students from less privileged backgrounds is to instill in them a sense of belonging to the university. Many already feel they are on the back foot because of language of teaching, computer literacy, and little familiarity with the city and with campus facilities. Academic Advisors host a day-long learning skills retreat for these first year students. The retreat has to be at a time when students have had at least a month on campus so that they have some experience to learn from, but also early enough for it to contribute to first year success. The retreat programme includes

  • general learning skills including the often taken-for-granted things such as using course documents,
  • a life skills component
  • student-student engagement among the first years and with senior students who come from senior backgrounds. This component includes group conversations and games.

The 2020 retreat will include playing the higher education simulation and transition board game, Success Prints Crash Course®.

Mental Health and Wellness

The OSS is mindful of the diversity of mental health needs. All Health Sciences students have access to psycho-education and psycho-therapy services. Students are trained to take care of themselves and others, while staff are assisted to identify risk factors when they occur among students.

Responding to as Many Needs as are Identified

Students who have to rely on government funding do not always receive enough to cover their food and personal needs. Student societies, staff in the Faculty as well as external stakeholders often donate food and toiletry items to the OSS for distribution to students who have need.  

Some students do not have required textbooks and others would appreciate assistance in basic stationery items: pens pencils, note pads and files. We have raised awareness regarding these needs, and both staff and students donate textbooks to the OSS for lending to students in need. We also welcome stationery donations. For students in need, these donations go a long way in reducing their financial burden.

Learning Through Pay: The Success Prints Crash Course board game

After many conversations with Tricia Seifert, we have introduced gaming to our package of interventions. Our hope is to adapt the board game to the Wits context and hopefully take it to other South African universities.  

Reflection

It is regrettable that more than 30 years after my own experience, there are students (albeit in a different context), who still arrive at university with hardly any information about the processes and resources that support their success. Fortunately, Wits University has progressively developed support structures that respond to students’ needs. How do we get the necessary information across to students in a format that they can relate with, and early enough in their university experience to support retention beyond first year? The answer to that question lies in practices that are responsive to emergent student needs, and plans that allow for student perspectives. In 2020, we are looking to use the Success Prints Crash Course board game as one of those interventions that students can relate better with that class-based information.

1 thought on “Beyond access: Turning every day engagements into life-changing opportunities for students in transition

  1. I love that the sub-heading in this post does not reference “at risk” students but “higher risk” subjects. This places the emphasis appropriately on the institution taking ownership of its environment and preparing students to thrive in it, as opposed to scapegoating the students as being deficient in some way. Well done, Wits University’s Faculty of Health Science Office of Student Success!

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