The road to passing

2009-08-14 00:00

HI. My name’s Sharon Dell and I’m an assimilat­or.

Roughly speaking, this means I am a self-learner given to over-researching a given topic and getting bogged down in theory. On the plus side, however, I’m likely to be precise and thorough, organise facts and material well, and understand which issues have the highest priority.

Now, if I were currently a university student, this might suggest that I need help limiting my sources or lengthy discussions with a patient lecturer to feed my need for a thorough understanding of ... everything.

Having a chance to reflect on my personal learning style was one of the benefits of spending time at the recent academic monitoring campaign hosted by the Student Counselling and Careers Centre (SCC) and Local Students Representative Council (LSRC) at the university campus in Pietermaritzburg.

A festive two-day campaign earlier this month, which saw TV personality and Idols finalist and former UKZN student Ayanda Mpama visit the campus to participate in a discussion, was aimed at raising awareness among staff and students of the university’s academic monitoring system. Using student grades, the system keeps track of academic performance and uses the concept of a traffic light to keep students informed about their academic status. (See box.)

An initiative of the faculty of science and agriculture, which was approved by the university’s governance structures in 2006, the system is a constructive attempt to arrest South Africa’s worryingly high student failure rate, which ultimately leads to academic exclusions.

Earlier this year, Liza van Wyk, CEO of skills training organisations AstroTech and BizTech, was reported as saying that around 35% and 40% of students who enroll at tertiary institutions drop out before completing their studies, compared with an internationally acceptable rate of about 10%.

Ever since the late eighties and early nineties, when historically white universities started opening up to significant numbers of black students, academic exclusions have been an active area of focus for student representative councils.

Today, the issue remains highly relevant, particularly given the higher numbers of previously disadvantaged students embarking on university study. The position taken by the local SRC and expressed by one of its members, Morris Ndlovu, is that exclusions are unfair if “conditions around the lives of those students are not considered”.

LSRC president Mlungisi Manana said that there needs to be equal emphasis in the university on access and success. He said UKZN is moving towards a system which will give faculties more capacity to monitor the performance of individual students, some of whom continue to slip through a multi-layered network of existing support options, and often seek help only when it’s too late and an exclusion is unavoidable.

SCC director Khanyisile Nyembezi said that during the two-day campaign many students asked why the monitoring system had been kept a “secret”.

“The system is good, but much needs to be done at an implementation level to promote it,” she said.

Nyembezi said that while the two-day campaign is a “powerful start” which succeeded in raising awareness of the system, the SCC is committed to ongoing efforts to enhance communication and partnerships.”

Support for students currently ranges from peer educators and student mentors to professional career counselling available at the SCC. Students can also make use of academic development officers — students employed to teach in different subjects.

But it’s not all about academic performance. The SCC’s Mariam Jassat said that although the SCC can “identify learning problems and look at strategies — skills building, learning strategies — to deal with them”, counsellors are also able to deal with more personal issues, for example, by helping students to develop assertiveness when it comes to asking for help or clarification.

For Jassat, there is also a need to challenge the perception of the SCC as a place people go to when they have a problem. “We are trying to market the benefits of a more proactive approach to self development,” she said.

“STAY on the green and reach your dream” is the motto for the Robot System which colour-codes students’ academic performance and can act as an early warning system for struggling students.

Students receive the coding on their academic printouts every semester and are encouraged to take the appropriate action, depending on where they are placed.

. Green means “Good academic standard”. The student has passed at least 70% of credits in that semester and at least 75% of the credits expected by the faculty to complete a degree in the minimum time.

. Orange means “Caution ... at risk”. The student has passed fewer than 70% of credits or fewer than 75% of credits needed to complete his or her degree in the minimum period. At this point students are reminded of their responsibilit­y to attend compulsory academic counselling at the SCC.

. Red means “Danger. Act now”. It indicates serious underperformance and the student is referred directly to the SCC for compulsory academic and personal/career counselling. If allowed to continue by the faculty, the student may be put on strict probation for a semester or advised to redirect to a different faculty. The student will have to meet specific goals at the end of the semester before moving back into orangestatus.

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