Academic intervention experiences of 'at-risk' students : a case of an undergraduate programme in a South African university.
Mngomezulu, Samukelisiwe Dorothy.
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The higher education landscape in South Africa has significantly changed upon attainment of democracy in 1994. Access to higher education has been increased for students from previously disadvantaged groups. However, access to higher education has not been met with success as a significant number of students fail to complete degrees in the minimum time required or drop out of programmes completely. Universities have to be responsive to such challenges hence there is a need for institutionalization of academic support programmes. This study sought to ascertain students’ experiences of causal factors and of academic support interventions in one of the Schools in a South African university. The study is underpinned by the Ecosystemic Perspective Theory, Attribution Theory, Vygosky’s Social Development Theory and Chickering’s Theory of Identity Development theories. Informed by the interpretive research paradigm, the study adopted a qualitative case study design in which data were solicited from a purposive sample of ‘at- risk’ students participating in academic support programmes offered by the School. Data was collected through document analysis, focus-group as well as individual interviews. Interpretive phenomenological analysis was used to analyse data. Content analysis through emerging themes was also used to analyse data. Data presentation is in the form of thick description in which verbatim quotations are used to present participants’ views. Findings were analyzed and collated into common themes which revealed that ‘at- risk’ status is caused by multiple factors emanating from both secondary and higher learning education. The study revealed that some challenging factors emanating from secondary schools were prevalent at a higher institution. Academic and non-academic factors were considered to be the main factors that contributed to poor academic performance. Participants revealed that they dealt with challenges differently depending on the nature of the problem. It emerged that warning of ‘at- risk’ status created a plethora of emotional and psychological experiences. It also emerged that intervention support participants received was beneficial to participants but some felt it was reactive rather than being pro-active. In conclusion, the study showed that student performance was negatively affected by academic and non-academic challenges that were both in and prior to university studies. Academic support programmes in place assisted the students and to a certain level but the timing of support and a non-holistic approach remained a challenge. I recommend an inclusive approach to student support within higher education which is largely data driven and includes all registered undergraduate students. Furthermore, early warning detection systems should be built into the data- handling systems so that students, staff and the intervention student support services can respond appropriately and timeously to potential impediments to students’ academic progress.