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Psycho-social challenges of underperforming students at UKZN
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psycho-social challenges of underperforming students at UKZN Kalenga Chimbala Rosemary Kalenga@ukzn.ac.za Mngomezulu Samukelisiwe Mngomezulus1@ukzn.ac.za. Abstract

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psycho-social challenges of underperforming students at UKZNKalenga Chimbala Rosemary Kalenga@ukzn.ac.zaMngomezulu SamukelisiweMngomezulus1@ukzn.ac.za

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  • Abstract

  • This study explores Psycho-social challenges faced by students AT-RISK. Resiliency theory underpins the study. The study used a qualitatively approach. The findings indicated that practical intervention strategies may improve their academic performance. The paper concludes that a well organized and accessible academic intervention program is the key to student success.

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  • Introduction and background

  • This study is a reflection of our own work

  • Higher education institutions have been developing in many ways. One way in which evidence is seen, has been through implementing intervention programs to support students towards completion of their studies. Some of these interventions are of a personal and academic in nature.

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  • Students that are at risk of not completing their qualifications have been identified tracked and monitored through several mechanisms to promote throughput. The majority of these students come from disadvantaged backgrounds and they become students At-risk not only because they were under-prepared for higher institutions but also because of language barrier, financial difficulties and lack of family support (Frymier 1992).

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  • The University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) tracking mechanism shows ‘At-risk’ students in colour coding. They implemented three-colour academic standing system, to be visible on the central Student Management System. This system alerts students (and support staff) to take action (UKZN, 2009).

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  • The green color indicates good academic standing: the student has passed ≥70% of the normal credit load for the semester; and has passed ≥75% of the credits expected, at that point, for regular progression in the selected degree (for completion in the minimum time). No action is required; however, optional counseling and support are available if requested, to support the goal of passing all modules in the following semester (UKZN, 2009).

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  • The orange color indicates that the student is ‘At-risk’: either because s/he has passed less than 70% of the normal credit load for that semester; or because s/he has passed less than 75% of the credits expected, at that point, for normal progression in the selected degree. The student is required to take immediate action, with the goal of returning to green status by the end of the following semester. Compulsory academic counseling prior to the start of the semester initiates a compulsory developmental program. Available components (depending on the student’s needs, the degree concerned and the available resources) may include a modified curriculum (or a one-semester suspension, should no valid curriculum be feasible) with a set target; academic support of various types; and referral to Student Counseling for personal or career counseling. Financial Aid and residence status remain unchanged. The onus is on the student to participate in this developmental program, and to achieve the set target (UKZN, 2009).

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  • The red color indicates serious under-performance that progress is below faculty minimum progression requirements. After compulsory academic, personal and career counseling, should the student wish to persevere with the degree, s/he may continue in the Faculty for one further semester on strict probation, with specific and realistic conditions to be met at the end of the semester. Continued academic support is available, and it is recommended that financial aid and residence status remain unchanged. The onus is on the student to participate in the developmental program. Red status can only be assigned once incoming first-year students have completed two full semesters at the university, to allow adequate time for transition from high school to university (UKZN, 2009).

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  • On this account of UKZN’s process of identification and monitoring of students ‘At- risk’, shows that institutions of higher learning are taking this issue seriously and endeavor to contextualize the students challenges and take every individual student case as unique, requiring specific tailor made intervention strategies under specific contexts.

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  • This paper, therefore, attempts to contribute towards the theoretical discourse on students’ real experiences, hidden Psycho-social issues that hinders their academic progress. It also addresses the importance of higher institutions responding to individual student’s needs. Higher education institutions have improved access for students with disadvantaged backgrounds.

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  • During this process, other issues have emerged which tend to cancel out the gains achieved by increased access for disadvantaged students. These issues are related to student dropout and throughput rates, which are a major concern in higher education. Speculations abound regarding the causes of these throughput and dropout problems, and different responses by institutions of higher learning have been noted.

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  • Definition of ‘At-Risk’ student

  • The definition of the term ‘At-risk’ varies depending on who uses it and the context in which it is used. Ferguson (2000) and Ferez (1998) define the ‘At-risk’ student as someone who is learning-disabled and under-prepared or someone who lacks skills in meeting the academic demands of post-secondary institutions. In other words, Manning and Baruth (1995) defined ‘At-risk’ learners as those in danger of failing to meet their potential.

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  • A broader view of students ‘At-risk’ is taken by Montgomery and Rossi (1993) which noted that neo-natal conditions, health, family characteristics, peer influences, community climate and resources, and social status affect a student’s readiness to learn. Frymier (1992) defines children ‘At-risk’ as those who are likely to fail at school or in life. Johnson (1994) conceptualized educational risk within an ecological framework, in contrast to an epidemiological model, which assumed that the causes of children’s school failure resided within the child’s ‘inadequacies, limitations, incompetences and deficiencies’.

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  • He then projected a new paradigm: children were ‘At-risk’ when they were placed in environments for which they were not prepared. Johnson’s paradigm organized the child’s environment interactions in four nested ecosystems that mirrored four levels of educational risk: micro-risk (classroom interaction); (b) meso-risk (domestic interaction); (c) exo-risk (community interaction); and (d) macro-risk (socio-cultural interaction). Therefore, according to Johnson, educational risk is a consequence of ‘discordant child environmental interactions’.

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  • Resiliency theory

  • Werner and Smith (1992; 2001) suggested that each individual has the ‘inborn capacity for self-righting’ and like other researchers who studied resiliency theory agrees that resilience is not a ‘genetic trait’ that only a few possess. All children are born with an intrinsic capacity for resilience and its presence can be recognized and enriched externally. The ability for resilience is to ‘develop social competence, problem-solving skills, a critical consciousness, autonomy, and a sense of purpose’ (Bernard, 1995).

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  • It is valuable to consider each of these characteristics of a resilient human being separately so that non-resilience can be identified. Social competence include a responsiveness and ‘ability to elicit positive responses from others’, flexibility even from inter-culturally, empathy, communication skills and a sense of humor, problem solving skills incorporate the ability to plan, be resourceful, help seeking behavior and the capacity for critical , creative and reflective thinking. A resilient student has a sense of purpose and a belief in their future which makes them goal-directed, motivated to achieve and have educational aspirations, persistent, hopeful, optimistic, and spiritually connected (Waxman, et al., 2004).

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  • It is through this theory that we attempted to better understand the issue of psycho-social challenges in students insofar as they impeded on their academic performance.

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  • To ensure success of all students, the process requires a phasing in of strategies that are directed at departmental, institutional, instructional and curricula transformation. In such a situation, particular attention is paid to achieving objectives through a realistic and effective implementation process that moves towards the development of a system that accommodates and respects diversity.

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  • Research questions

  • 1. What challenges do students experience that affect their academic performance?

  • 2. Why do the students have these challenges?

  • 3. How does the university endeavor to address these issues to enhance academic success?

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  • Instrumentation

  • In this study students 150 students colour coded as ‘At-risk’ of academic failure and are part of the ‘STAR’ programme were interviewed so that the students could be given a chance to give personal stories hindering their performances. They also completed a qualitative questionnaire which required them to give reasons for their academic failure, and give strategies they perceived to be important for resolving their failure. These students were also observed and field notes were taken. The students updated the researchers of their challenges both formally and informally. Sometimes they just came because they needed somebody to talk to and ended up saying more than they had said in the formal interview, this information was documented for research purposes too. Qualitative open ended questions were used as the instrument for this study.

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  • Methodology

  • Research design

  • This research used qualitative approach, which helps the researcher to understand and explain the meaning of social phenomena with as little disruption of the natural setting as possible (Berg, 2003). Qualitative research can further be explained as a multi-perspective approach to social interaction that is aimed at describing, making sense of, interpreting, or reconstructing interactions in terms of the meaning that the participants attach to it (Bogdan and Bicklen, 1998: 22; Berg, 2003).

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  • Qualitative research states that it is important for qualitative researchers to interact and speak to participants about their perceptions in order for them to understand the nature of their constructed realities (Creswell, 2003: 29). This process made data collections bring the reality of the situation and the truth of the matter ‘visible’.

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  • Analysis

  • The code list was created based on what students said and some students had multiple factors that lead to unsatisfactory performance. The themes were identified as follows:

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Emerging themes

  • Family issues

  • Poverty in the family

  • Computer illiterate

  • Personal problems

  • Laziness

  • Accommodating diversity in teaching methods

  • Language barrier

  • Lack of responsibility

  • Disabilities

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Family issues

  • One of the students stated that: ‘the problem I have in two previous years, I was supporting at home with funds, and there was no one working, and there was a lot of stress to deal with’.

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Poverty in the family

  • One student stated that: ‘I did not have money to come and write supplementary examinations’

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Computer illiterate

  • One student stated that “I can’t use computer , I am seeing the computer for the first time”

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Personal problems

  • A number of students stated that: ‘after being raped I discovered that I was pregnant and I was not sure whether to keep the baby or to think about adoption. I failed all my modules’

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  • One of students stated that: “I always promise myself that I will study but if it is time to study I just get tired or sometimes I’m lazy it’s just that I like to sleep”

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Accommodating diversity in teaching methods

  • “My problem was adapting to university style of teaching and learning. I find it difficult to engage to this type of learning as I was used to be taught everything at school”.

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Language barrier

  • Another student stated that“I failed because I do not understand English. I rely on the dictionary when I study which is a problem when I am the lectures because I have follow the lecture in English”

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Lack of responsibility

  • Another student stated that “I failed because I registered Prof 110 in both semesters instead of Prof 120”

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  • One student stated “the hearing problem is one of my challenges that I have and being not financially supported is a problem”.

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Intervention strategies

  • Mentorship programme

  • Academic counselling

  • Academic consultation

  • Workshops: life skills, time management, study skills, empowerment, examination preparation, motivation and resilience

  • Referrals to other Faculty support sectors

  • Counselled into another degree of study

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  • Conclusions

  • Universities are not the only avenue for students after matric. The students may start work or go to other institutions that will focus on equipping them with skills that will make them productive citizens. Not everybody can cope with university curriculum. Access to the university means the beginning of hard work to acquire a degree. Support is available within the scope of acceptable disabilities and personal challenges that students may encounter. Counseling and disability facilities are available for students who are responsible enough to accept that the disability does not go away. Poor performance of students is caused by multi-faceted and complex issues. Establishment and operationalization of well funded and coordinated academic intervention programs to assist students to cope with challenges that affect their studies leading to failure, withdrawal and/or exclusion is the key to academic success at UKZN Edgewood Campus.

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