Exploring foundation life science student performance: potential for remediation?
This study is postpositivist. Adopting an ontological framework of critical realism requires the researcher to take the position of “modified” objectivist, and explore opportunities for the qualitative interpretation of quantitative data. Grounded theory is explored as the primary methodological approach, and as such the study takes on an inductive, theory-generating form in an attempt to describe and explain student performance within the context of alternative access to tertiary science studies. True to grounded theory, the researcher begins the study without a theoretical framework, this being built as the study progresses. The researcher’s experience of teaching educationally disadvantaged students Foundation Biology in the Centre for Science Access on the Pietermaritzburg campus of KwaZulu-Natal is used as a starting point, from which the initial research question emerges, namely the performance of the Access students in a first-year Life and Environmental Science stream module relative to direct entry students. Results from quantitative data analysis on students’ final marks in the first-year module pose a second research question: what factors contribute to the differing success of the student groups in the first-year module? Drawing on extant international and South African literature on factors affecting university student performance in conjunction with Regression Tree Analysis on the first-year module final mark, a theoretical framework begins to emerge. The concept of the “advantaged disadvantaged” calls for the notion of Access to be reconsidered, and curriculum responsiveness is examined in some detail. Grounded theory method of constant comparison, seeking core categories, together with efforts of triangulation prompt the third line of enquiry, specifically to establish what factors are influencing the performance of the Foundation students in their Access year. Using students’ final Foundation marks as the outcome variable, further Classification and Regression Tree analysis is conducted, including biographical, socioeconomic, school history, and academic factors as well as a measure of student motivation. In addition, literature around Access contributes to theory building. This systematic abstraction and the conceptualization of empirical data result in a substantive theory: that it is English language proficiency, above all other possible variables that can best explain Life Science (Biology) student performance. Selection into the Foundation Biology module is found to be at odds with selection into the Programme as a whole, necessitating curriculum responsiveness at the modular level. The emergent grounded theory, and the notion of “fuzzy generalization”, seen to be appropriate to critical realist research, allows opportunities to explore remediation in the curriculum on the basis of these research findings. Attention is paid specifically to scaffolding literacy in biology through a “learning to read”, “reading to learn” approach. These measures are dicussed within the context of assisting students to achieve epistemic access that will enable them to successfully participate in the academic practice of Science.