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.

Do Something that Scares You

We invited contributors to share a promising practice or innovation they are testing in their work with students. In the post below, Tricia Seifert shares the process of creating a game to assist students in the transition to post-secondary education.

A friend’s advice: Do something that scares you. For some, launching into space is scary. For others, writing for a professional audience is scary. Writing scholarly and practitioner-oriented journal articles and blog posts from a decade’s research from the Supporting Student Success and Blueprints for Student Success projects didn’t scare me. I’m an academic; writing is what I’m trained to do.

Launching my research into a totally different orbit, now that is scary. Check it out here.

Success Prints Crash Course is launching. Check us out here.

It began by creating a board game, Success Prints Crash Course, which incorporates findings from a decade of my research conducted across North America. Designed to help students transition to higher education, I found the process of developing the board game exciting, exhilarating even. My creative energies were on fire. Rather than writing about the findings from my college impact and student success research, I was re-presenting, re-fashioning the implications directly for the people the research was intended to help, students and those invested in their success.

I have found so much joy in developing Success Prints Crash Course for students, with students. Not long ago, the Magic Sail Games team (Branson Faustini, Waylon Roberts, and Austin Boutin) confronted higher education’s hidden curriculum themselves. They brought this student perspective to the game’s central challenge: managing time to maximize academic performance and social connections while managing stress, earning enough money to pay tuition, and rolling with life’s unforeseen events.

Bran and Waylon with the first game prototype on the first 1000 mile road trip around Montana.

For the last 18 months, we’ve designed, played, iterated, and played some more. I’ve presented at 8 state, national, and international conferences; run 100+ play test sessions; and traveled 10,000 miles to share the game with students, parents, teachers, counselors, and higher education professionals.

None of this scared me.

What scared me was how to respond to the inevitable question at the end of a test play or conference session: how do I get a copy of the game?

I didn’t have an answer. I had been traveling with 2 prototype copies in the trunk of my car or on a plane. I didn’t know how to go from 2 games boards to 2000. I knew nothing about game manufacturing or how products are brought to market.

But I knew I had to push beyond my comfort zone if the game was to reach its potential and intended audience. I had heard high school students like the ones in rural Montana exclaim the game helped them realize they could ‘do college.’ I had played with first generation students, huddled around a game board during orientation, testing out their time management strategy. I had shared the game with higher education faculty and staff who emphatically stated how much they wished such a game existed when they were in school. It was from this group that I imagined how valuable the game could be for new faculty (or even better, tenured faculty) to understand the many demands today’s students balance.

How was I going to go from 2 game boards to 2000? There was a clear answer; I had to start a small business. I needed to source game manufacturers. I had to create a website to sell the game. I had to learn all the back-end business functions from shipping to search engine optimization.

This scared me. I am an academic after all.

I created Success Prints, LLC because it allows me to get my research into the hands of the people who can benefit from what I’ve learned in a form that will resonate with them, a game. Success Prints Crash Course is for students, parents, teachers, counselors, and higher education faculty and staff. Some call this ‘knowledge dissemination’ — I am disseminating in new and innovative ways what I’ve learned from talking to hundreds of students, staff, and faculty in both high schools and higher education institutions about students’ questions and concerns and the support needed to promote their success.

The website is now live and people can purchase copies of Success Prints Crash Course for their classrooms, residence hall lounges, or dining room tables. We are able to ship to Australia, Canada, South Africa, and the UK — — all countries where students are playing prototype versions. I invite you to check us out: https://successprints.shop/

It’s been a crazy road and it’s just the beginning. I feel better knowing as I get more comfortable, it will scare me less. In many ways, I feel like the first-year student who has pulled up outside of the residence hall and is unpacking to begin their post-secondary journey. They are scared and the idea of leaving home and starting in a new world feels uncomfortable. But if they can just hang in through the first two weeks, they will find the rhythm and flow. Their discomfort begins to shrink and their comfort zone grows.

Here’s to doing something that scares you and growing in the process. Here’s to harnessing the power of games to teach students in fun and engaging ways.

Dr. Tricia Seifert is Associate Professor of Adult & Higher Education and Head of the Department of Education at Montana State University. She is also a game designer and student success innovator. You can follow the trajectory of the Success Prints Crash Course game @TriciaSeifert and @_blueprints on Twitter; @blueprints4success on Instagram; and Blueprints for Student Success – Montana on Facebook.

Gaming the Transition to Post-secondary

“The first week was confusing.”

This was overheard from a student playing the first round of Tabletop University, a game designed to simulate students’ first semester in college or university.

“You know what else can be confusing?” asks the game master.

“The first week of college.”

Social events, the start of classes, and the litany of questions: What’s your name? What’s your major? Where are you from? Figuring out what to do and with whom can be bewildering for students in their first year of post-secondary study.

Players confront all of this and more in Tabletop University, the Blueprints for Student Success college transition board game. The object of the game is for players to manage time strategically with the goal of maximizing GPA and social connections while earning enough money to pay tuition and managing life events and stress. Simulating students’ first semester, it’s a lot to manage in a game. But it’s also a lot to manage in real life.

In addition to time management, players (or teams of 2 to 3) learn about the student success programs and services that exist on college/university campuses. Dr. Seifert’s research team has shown that students may be unaware of these supports and benefit from peers who connect them with campus services. By playing Tabletop University, students are introduced to areas such as Financial Aid and Supplemental Instruction. Players choose whether to allocate time to take advantage of their benefits, like grant monies/bursaries or enhanced peer-to-peer tutoring.

Tabletop University is the result of a collaboration between Dr. Tricia Seifert, Associate Professor of Adult & Higher Education and Principal Investigator of the Blueprints for Student Success project, and Magic Sails game development company. Dr. Seifert approached the Blackstone Launchpad at Montana State University where she met Waylon Roberts venture coach and game developer. After sharing an early prototype, Waylon suggested Magic Sails could bring to life a game focused on the college transition.

After several iterations and game play with hundreds of students in Montana’s rural communities, the verdict is in. The game is fun AND students learn from playing.

Grade 12 students playing Tabletop University

Recently, Dr. Seifert and Wendi Fawns of Valley Oak Education Resource Center played with students at Darby High School, Florence High School, and Victor High School, small rural schools in Montana’s Ravalli County with fewer than 30 students in their graduating class, as part of an #iGraduateMT grant project.

One of the school counselors observed,

Anyone who has ever worked with high school students knows you can tell them a piece of information and a month later some will tell you they never heard that piece of information before. Watching students play Tabletop University, I could see the information being imprinted in a different way than just informing students about college.  For example, students were able to hear about academic advising, and then make a strategic decision about how to spend their time and money that week in the game.

Students at our school were paired in teams, so they were able to discuss strategy with each other.  It was obvious that this information was being imprinted on students watching them play the game for a second time when they were advising each other and talking strategy about the nuances of the game. One student was overheard saying; “Last time I played I did academic advising and my GPA rose, so we should definitely do that.”

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Meeting with an academic advisor and identifying a good academic fit ignites interest in the subject matter and results in a higher GPA. Students learn this and other strategies through repeated play. The first time students play the game they may spend all their time in academics and have no friends at the end of the game. Let’s face it; it is hard to be successful in college with no friends. The next time students play they allocate their time in a way that balances academics as well as social life. Moreover, they realize they don’t have to do it all alone; they recognize the people, programs, and services on campus that can help them along the way.

Games allow students to try, fail, learn, and succeed in a space where the consequences are as simple as a ‘do over.’ This is the beauty of game-based learning. This is not the case when students are flung onto a post-secondary campus without the practice and knowledge of how to ‘do college.’ The consequences in this case can be dire. Students try college for a couple of weeks, fail to connect academically and socially, and deem they are simply not ‘college material.’ The key motivation for the Blueprints for Student Success project is to assist students to develop what David Conley and others refer to as the ‘college knowledge’ they need for early and ongoing success. This contributes to students persisting and achieving the academic and personal goals they set for post-secondary study.

It’s exciting times for the Blueprints for Student Success project with plans to make Tabletop University available for high school, college and university educators. It’s not enough, however, to make the game available. The long-term plan is to follow-up with students as they transition from high school to college, examining if they engage differently as a result of game play. If you find this as exciting as we do, we would love for you to be a part of this project. Let us know of your interest by leaving a comment and stay tuned!

If you would like project and game updates, follow Blueprints for Student Success – Montana on Facebook or @_blueprints on Twitter.

Generous funding to support the development of Tabletop University and the Blueprints for Student Success research project has come from:

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A collaborative grant project of the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation, Office of Public Instruction, and Montana Department of Labor & Industry

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College of Education, Health & Human Development at Montana State University

Montana State University’s Outreach and Engagement Council