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Fixing The First-Year Experience: Studying Student Success At UWC

Author: Nicklaus Kruger

How do first-years navigate varsity life? What prevents students from completing their degrees on time? And how do we make universities more student-centric? Dr Sue Pather, head of UWC’s First-Year Experience programme, has a few ideas that might help.

(Published - 25 January 2019)

One of the greatest challenges in higher education is simply ensuring that students make it through their university careers and graduate on time - and that challenge begins in first-year where there’s often a clash between what students expect, and what they actually experience at university.

“One of the biggest challenges for universities dealing with first-years is simply knowing what it is they expect of us,” says Dr Subethra Pather, who heads the First-Year Experience programme at the University of the Western Cape (UWC). “The mismatch between expectation and reality can lead to a lot of confusion - dealing with stress, trying to find a sense of belonging and to attain success - and this is especially difficult for first-generation students.”

So how do we know what the difference is between what incoming students expect, and what they actually get?

Simple: just ask them.

Dr Pather conducted two surveys (a first-year “expectation” survey was conducted with students before they entered university, and an “experience” survey was then held towards the end of the academic year).

Many first-year students expected to be involved in social activities and engagements at university. But once at university, many of these expectations weren’t fulfilled.

“Commitment to part-time jobs, family obligations, public transport challenges, financial constraints and a lack of awareness of social activities and clubs on campus - all of these can influence social engagement.” Dr Pather notes. “This can lead to students feeling disconnected from the institution - and could eventually result in them failing or dropping out.”

The findings also indicated that incoming students have unrealistic expectations when it comes to academic preparedness. These expectations could be attributed to the students’ prior schooling experience and/or lack of knowledge of university academic demands.

“Universities need to be proactive to ensure that their incoming students feel a sense of belonging and connectedness to the culture of their institution as early as possible,” Dr Pather says. “An awareness of student expectations is the first step for university management and academics towards creating interventions that ensure students have a smoother university transition.”

Finding Footing: The First-Year Experience At UWC

The study recommends that an intentionally planned first-year experience programme is required to entrench a more inclusive and sustainable first-year experience for all students - one which could help close the gaps between students’ expectations and experience - and between access and success.

UWC’s First-Year Experience (FYE) project aims to provide student-centred initiatives to enhance FY student transition and a quality student experience, thereby enabling students to stay and succeed at UWC.

“FYE aims to place the first-year experience in context, and to develop first-year students for the 21st century,” Dr Pather notes, “Through being connected to the University community, and through the use of a multimodal approach to academic and social support and resources, first-year students will be able to successfully navigate their UWC experience to and beyond graduation.”

FYE provides student-centred initiatives to enhance student transition and provide quality student experiences to build a sense of community within and connectedness to the institution, and to promote active integration between staff and students.

“It is vital that the University expectation-experience gap be recognised. This would reduce students’ level of stress, enhance their social relations and sense of belonging, and improve academic performance.”

Want to know more about Dr Pather’s work? Let her explain it in her own words on The Conversation, or check out her original paper in the Journal of Student Affairs In Africa.
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