Every year about 190 000 South African students make the leap from high school to university. They land in the deep end of a learning and teaching environment that’s markedly different from school. And they’re expected to swim.
Fortunately, around 15% of these first-year students land in the safety net of extended courses offered by universities and other tertiary institutions. This alternative pathway into higher education allows access to a wider range of students. It also improves their chances of successfully achieving an academic qualification.
Extended curriculum programmes are part of a suite of government interventions that attempt to offset South Africa’s structural inequalities. Without this alternative, many students – particularly from under resourced schools – might otherwise be excluded from being academically successful at university.
Financial aid, scholarship and bursary schemes provide access to students who can’t afford tertiary education. But extended curriculum programmes go further. They’re credited with contributing significantly to ensuring the academic success of thousands of students who might have otherwise been excluded from university.
Nonetheless, many first-year students might still feel anxious. They might be worried about the idea of not directly entering into mainstream courses. Or they could be concerned that the quality of instruction might be lower than what’s being offered to their mainstream peers.
These issues, and a host of others, are explored in a recently published collection, Teaching in Extended Programmes in South Africa. These are a range of articles that shine the spotlight on the classroom environment of different extended programmes at five South African universities.
The examples set out in the book provide some thoughtful and authentic examples of lecturers who have placed their students’ academic development, success and well-being at the centre of their teaching practice. Their experiences will help ensure that more undergraduate classrooms don’t exclude or leave vulnerable students behind.
Fresh hurdles to clear
The book is organised around short case studies. All the authors teach on extended programmes in the country’s universities. For the purposes of the book, these lecturers subjected aspects of their teaching practice to deeper reflective inquiry. This enabled them to provide a window into the often diverse and frequently complex teaching and learning spaces that characterise the first year of university.
The lecturers all faced quite complex challenges. One was the increasingly diverse academic needs of their students. Another was institutional structures that didn’t always respond fast enough or in suitable ways to these needs.
But the personal and thoughtful narratives showed that the lecturers stayed engaged and were constantly seeking ways to improve the learning experiences of their students.
A key theme that emerges in all the case studies is the care lecturers have for their students, their academic development, success and well-being at university. Irrespective of where they teach or what subjects they teach, the notion of care comes out as an overarching principle. This clearly guided the kinds of teaching activities the lecturers used. And how they interacted and worked with their students on a daily basis.
Their focus on care for the student often meant that they acted as mediators. For example, they often helped students navigate difficult subject matter or introduced tailor-made interventions aimed at alleviating student anxieties about learning certain subjects like maths or physics.
The classroom spaces described in the case studies shows how the environment created by the lecturers validated the students’ experience and what they brought into the classroom. In one example, students completing an extended course at a traditional research intensive university were encouraged by their course lecturers
not to leave themselves at the door of the classroom.
The contemporary undergraduate teaching and learning environment is an extremely complex terrain –- for both new students and their lecturers. The case studies, through honest and personal accounts, tell the stories of the everyday teaching realities and experiences of these undergraduate lectures.
Despite being confronted on a daily basis with the contradictions, complexities and challenges that come from a societal, schooling and university system riddled with inequalities, the lecturers showed a willingness not to shift the blame onto their students. Nor did they force students to carry the responsibility of their learning and success at university.
By placing their own curricula and teaching practices up for interrogation and critique, the lecturers showed an acute awareness of how important it is to teach in ways that are inclusive, responsive and socially just.
Lecturers are a central resource in the task of improving and enhancing the learning experiences of all students who enter a university. The key is to ensure lecturers get the necessary support to become more thoughtful, aware and critical of their classroom practices.