Empowerment and academically exceptional students.
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This dissertation reports on a study, which explored psychological empowerment and exceptional academic achievement in a South African higher education institution. The significance of exploring the relationship between psychological empowerment and exceptional academic achievement of students rests on the current discourse of underachievement in South African higher education. The study offered a contrasting perspective within the South African higher education sphere. Firstly, the study was situated within a historical-contextual perspective, and secondly, was positioned in the transformative paradigm. The transformative paradigm was explicated from a social justice agenda, and with a critical lens of South Africa’s neoliberal transformative paradigm in higher education. In the quantitative phase of the study in response to the historical-contextual perspective of higher education in South Africa, the study sought to explore whether a relationship existed between psychological empowerment of undergraduate students and academic achievement. The qualitative phase of the study specifically incorporated a methodological Photo voice activity that offered a meaningful exploration of psychological empowerment and the phenomenon of exceptional academic achievement. Within the context of their exceptional academic achievement, the study explored the people, places, structures, and processes that had influenced their exceptional academic achievement. In line with the historical-contextual and conceptual perspectives, and the research questions, a social justice stance was assumed and a transformative mixed methodology was employed. The methodology involved two concurrent phases that were situated in a higher education institution that was both racially transformed and internationally ranked. In the quantitative phase of the study, the Psychological Empowerment Instrument (PEI) which had been validated in over fifty studies was used to investigate the level of psychological empowerment Psychology 101 students felt they had in relation to their learning environment. From the PEI, a correlational model was developed. The model was developed from a sample of 84 Psychology 101undergraduate students who were currently registered for a variety of degrees at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Other analyses included Cronbach’s Alpha to establish the internal consistency and reliability of the scale, while a secondary exploratory factor analysis using principal components was run to establish the number of factors on the scale after the wording had be adjusted. The correlational model identified that there was no relationship between empowerment scores and students’ final results for their Psychology 101 module. However, the type of degree a student registered for revealed a practically significant result when compared to their final results for Psychology 101. In the qualitative phase of the study, two South African and four international female and male students who had attained exceptional academic achievement were purposively invited to participate in the study. Using the transformative paradigm and an interpretive analytic perspective, the important meaning participants gave to their Photo voice activity was used as a data collection method. Furthermore, all six of the participants engaged in photo-elicitation interviews with the researcher. The themes generated from the data revealed that multiple factors/holistic perspective (emotional, psychological, physical, and spiritual factors) influenced each participant’s exceptional academic achievement. Some of these influences were inspirational role models, strong family support systems, academic and peer support, psychological and physical boundaries being challenged, cultural practices and religious beliefs. Moreover, the findings highlighted conscientised students situated in an educational context of previous injustice and oppression. The findings further highlight that despite the participants’ socio-economic and educational background, their exceptional academic achievement within a persistently unjust higher education system, was attainable. The current and historical dynamics involved in the academic paths of undergraduate students who excel academically, reveals that, when set in a transformative educational context with the goal of social justice, exceptional academic achievement and the socio-political transformation of lives is possible.