Investigation into the academic performance of students in bioscience at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg, with particular reference to the Science Foundation Programme students.
Performance of individual students in a course at a tertiary institution is usually reflected in a final mark that determines their progress and transfer to higher courses. Performance of students in a first year course, Bioscience at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg (UNP) was examined to determine if there were any patterns emerging in differential performance between students, particularly the performance of subgroups within the class. Of particular interest were English second language (ESL) students, and previous Science Foundation Programme (SFP) students. The latter are mainly previously disadvantaged Black students. Performance ofstudents was compared in Bioscience 110 for the years 1995-2000 using Repeated Measures ANOVA. All subgroups of students showed similar trends in performance in Bioscience assessment tasks and final marks. However, the SFP students ' final marks were lower than the other subgroups, and showed a decreased performance for the same period. Most students, excluding SFP students, fell in the 50-59% category for the final Bioscience 110 marks obtained for the period 1995-2000. There was no correlation between students' SFP final mark and their final mark in Bioscience 110. The final Bioscience 110 mark is a combination of a class mark, practical examination and a theory examination and performance in these was investigated and compared to determine any patterns. Students performed best in class marks. All students performed poorly in the theory examinations. Theory examinations were investigated further, and were analysed in their component parts, namely multiple choice (MCQ), short questions and essay. Students performed best and consistently in MCQ. In contrast, students performed poorly in the short question and essay sections. Although the different ethnic subgroupings showed similar trends in performance, the SFP students showed the poorest performance. In particular, they scored lowest in the theory examinations where they performed more poorly than the other subgroupings in short questions and essays that require higher order cognitive skills. As SFP students are the main source of Black students who enrol for Bioscience at UNP, the performance of these students in their SFP Biology was assessed across years (1995-2000). Assessment marks were analysed to determine if they showed trends in the mastery of the skills and knowledge tested. Given the trends found by the study, there needs to be ongoing curriculum development in both courses examined. In particular, the types of teaching and the assessment used to award a final grade need to be examined. For example, the contribution ofessay writing, how it is taught and assessed needs to be monitored. The quality of test questions and writing assignments needs to be examined as part of course design and development. In addition, development of higher order thinking skills and the levels of these need to be examined at both SFP Biology and Bioscience levels.