Learning during turbulent times: an exploration of high academic achievement in undergraduate students during protest action at UKZN.
Schoeman, Monique Elizabeth.
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#FeesMustFall: the nation-wide movement that spread across South African institutions of higher education, and resulted in what seemed to be an abnormal and turbulent learning environment. It is remarkable that in such times, there were students who excelled academically. This study aimed to explore the phenomenon of high academic achievement in undergraduate students during protest action at UKZN. The primary objectives were to find out what enables and constrains these students’ academic achievement during times of protest action, as well as what kind of learning takes place for them during turbulent times. The study adopted a qualitative, interpretive approach, and drew on theories from a broad, socio-cultural perspective. Data were collected through one focus group discussion and three individual interviews, which were thematically analysed. The findings suggest that despite facing a turbulent learning environment, experiencing internalised turbulence in the form of negative emotional states and the difficulty of planning, high achieving students were able to draw on external mediators in order to ensure their academic success. These external mediators include relationships with family members, lecturers, and academic peers and communities, as well as resources such as textbooks and internet sources. Through their ability to draw on these mediators, and to view certain aspects of the turbulent protest action positively, high achieving students could be regarded as displaying academic resilience. Beyond this, the findings also point to how these students thrived – not only due to their high academic achievement in the face of turbulence – but because of the process of transformative learning that they experienced as well.