Making life easier in the first year

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In the autumn of 2004 a young woman came to my office, clearly very distraught. I recognised Gloria* from a session with struggling students earlier that week. The session focused on preparing students for their mid-year exams.

Stakes were high, because students who failed the exam would enter a year-long academic support programme. Up to this point Gloria had been failing all her assessments and only a miracle would pull her through.

She walked up to my desk and put a photo of herself in front of me. Taken at a cultural ceremony, it showed a radiant young woman in traditional wear looking almost defiantly at the camera. “This is me,” Gloria whispered.

I realised she was trying to convey to me that the person in front of me was not the person in the photograph. She felt alienated and she did not know the way forward.

Gloria was the top performer of her region, and when she left her rural home to study medicine at the University of Cape Town, her community rallied behind her. She received weekly phone calls from home. It was as if everybody pinnedtheir dreams on her.

When she failed the first assessment, she tried even harder, locking herself in her room to study. Regardless of her efforts, she failed again. At this stage Gloria did not want to communicate with people from home any more. She felt ashamed, helpless and scared. Most of all, she felt very alone.

There are many similarities between Gloria’s story and the one Nomusa Mthethwa related recently in the Mail & Guardian of her failure at university despite coming from an excellent schooling background and a supportive home environment (“How could I have failed varsity?”, January 11).

Unlike the picture painted in that story, though, the faculty of health sciences at the University of Cape Town offers excellent support services to students. During orientation week, substantial time is spent familiarising students with campus life and introducing them to the new ways of thinking and engaging in their new disciplines.

Each first-year student is assigned a mentor. Material problems such as financial aid and housing are addressed swiftly, psychological support is made available during the course of the first semester and there is an early-detection system in place to offer struggling students academic support.

Lecturers meet students on a regular basis to advise them on ways to improve their marks. Students who are unsuccessful in their first semester are placed in a specialised academic development programme, one that has produced excellent results, and the faculty has a very high graduation rate.

Nevertheless, the question remains: Why do seemingly well-prepared, top-performing students sometimes fail their first year, despite their good marks? The common-sense answer is that the rote-learning, mimicking practices of their schooling have not prepared them.

Although this is true, and outcomes-based education has not changed these practices, the answers are often more complex, and hidden, particularly for working-class and rural students. Recent research my colleague Professor Rochelle Kapp and I conducted at the University of Cape Town showed that first-generation students in particular have to negotiate significant academic, linguistic and identity challenges when they enter university.

Students arrive excited about the diversity and possibilities the institution is offering them. They are confident about their potential to succeed and they position themselves accordingly.

Some, however, discover within the first few weeks that they cannot easily decode and decipher their new context, both because of the linguistic challenges of working in their second language and because they have to negotiate values, attitudes and beliefs substantially different from their home discourses.

Many of these challenges are posed by the curriculum. Although classroom practice is based on small group discussions and engagement, students are often silenced by the speed and fluency of the exchange and by their own lack of confidence. Many are also shocked by practices within the institutional culture. They start to feel “different” from the rest of their peers and yet, based on results from the study, do not want to be treated differently, such as by being assigned to less diverse groups during learning activities.

As one student remarked: “We got exposed to a new environment where we can learn. There is no other way; we just have to go through it.”

Realising their underpreparedness, students tend to become withdrawn, simply mimicking the rituals associated with academic life. Rather than seeking help, many place their faith in hard work and religion — but still they are not successful.

After failing the first semester, they enter the academic support programme, adding on an extra year to their studies. With that comes the devastation and embarrassment of telling friends and family.

Our research documents the multiple crises students negotiate at different stages in their first year. Much of this “emotion-work” is hidden from the institution and students speak about their transitions only afterwards, with considerable hindsight.

So, what is the role of a university in this regard? Though we need robust and responsive support structures, we also need to recognise that these can reproduce dominant discourses and construct students in deficit terms. If institutions do not actively foster a sense of belonging and connectedness through transformation of classroom and institutional culture, they run the risk of not transforming dominant discourses and power relations, and of missing out on the multilingual resources that these young people bring with them to the institution.

This will result in silencing a substantial number of students, and furthermore, will place significant burdens on individuals to negotiate a lonely journey that comes with considerable emotional toll on their learning.

   * Not her real name

Picture credit: Mail & Guardian

  • Elmi Badenhorst is the deputy convenor of the MBChB intervention programme (see “Intervening for success”) and a lecturer in the department of human biology, faculty of health sciences, University of Cape Town. The research she refers to is published as Badenhorst, E & Kapp, R (2013), “Negotiation of identity and learning among first year medical students”, Teaching and Higher Education. This article was published on Mail & Guardian.

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