Students excelling academically: exploring academic staff members’ and students’ perspectives on exceptional academic achievement at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
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Student learning and academic achievement are understood to be interactively linked to teachers, teaching and university systems. Therefore, this study on exceptional academic achievement among undergraduate students at the University of KwaZulu-Natal aimed at understanding how exceptional academic achievement occurs from both academic staff members’ (teachers) and high achieving students’ points of view. The study was theoretically grounded in social cognitive theory and used a qualitative method. Specifically, the researcher used purposive and convenient sampling methods to select 14 participants for the study (i.e., eight academic staff members and six high achieving undergraduate students). All participants either worked or studied in a Humanities field. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with academic staff members while a focus group discussion was held with the high achieving students. The data collected from the participants was transcribed, and thematic analysis was used to analyse the data. The findings from the study suggest that exceptional academic achievement among students is highly influenced by the teaching and learning processes (including clear communication, availability and consultation with lecturers, mentoring and support) that takes place between academic staff members and students. The findings from the study also highlight multiple (intrinsic and extrinsic) enhancers and barriers which influence exceptional academic achievement outcomes amongst undergraduate students. Some central enhancers are peer support, implementation of technology, implementation of tutors, and internal motivation. Some key barriers are lack of space, noisy and over-crowded learning spaces, and lack of trained tutors and practical issues with the use of technology. Nevertheless, being consistent, hard-working and taking responsibility for their learning enables high achieving students to overcome barriers that they experience at university. Improvements are being made by the university and lecturers, to help students excel in their academic outcomes by creating conducive learning environments, creating visible learning structures for students to follow and creating curriculums to suit students’ needs. Lastly, in this study, it was found that it is important for students to excel in their academics as it creates good self-esteem, motivation, healthy competition, consistency and an attitude of commitment to hard work.