Proposal for an integrated First Year Experience (FYE) at CPUT
Background and rationale
Alongside the rapid expansion of student enrolments in Higher Education institutions (HEI) we have also seen high attrition rates, particularly of first year students – both nationally and internationally (Gill, Ramjan, Koch, Dlugon, Andrew & Salamonson, 2011; Krause &Coates, 2008; CHE/Scott 2013). University staff are thus under pressure to retain their first year students as the first year of university has come to be regarded as the most critical for the retention of students into subsequent years of study. First year students, many of whom are underprepared for higher education, need to adapt to new learning environments, unfamiliar pedagogies and new and challenging assessment requirements.
The adjustment from school to university is difficult; a third of first year students withdraw – and even more consider withdrawing – during their first year at university. Many of these students do not return to higher education and their potential contribution to South Africa’s development is lost. In addition, many have to bear the burden of costs incurred during their time at university and the loss of their confidence and self-esteem is considerable. There are numerous, complex reasons why students fail or withdraw from their studies, including financial difficulties, poor accommodation, health issues, a lack of clearly defined goals or a mismatch between the student and the course or the university culture – with resultant feelings of isolation (Tinto, 1995). Tinto (1987, 139-140) identifies six principles that enhance first year student access and progression at university:
- Students need opportunities to acquire the skills needed for academic success (if they do not enter universities with these skills).
- Students need personal networks that extend beyond the university.
- Students respond to systematic retention actions.
- Students respond best to early interventions that address their needs.
- Students respond well to retention programmes that are student-centred.
These principles should guide CPUT FYE interventions and enable an integrated approach to students’ academic and social well-being. FYE programmes should ensure that all students acquire the skills for effective learning at university (Tinto, 1987, 1993, 1995).
Understanding the FYE is critical in managing the transition from school to university, in retaining students, and in putting into place systems for academic success (Krause & Coates, 2008). High student attrition and unmotivated first years waste institutional resources and can damage the reputation of the institution (Hillman, 2005). Most universities have set up systems to support their first year students – but the more successful FYE programmes tend to be guided by Tinto’s principles*.
This proposal is for CPUT to undertake a university-wide project focusing on the FYE in order to improve student retention and success. In so doing the steps outlined below will be taken.
1. Establishing a FYE reference group and team (FYET)
Between February – March 2014 a FYE reference group and a FYET will be established. The reference group will consist of representatives from faculties who work at first year level (e.g., faculty ECP coordinators and academic staff with a strong interest in first year success), representatives from the Strategic Units (Student Affairs, Fundani CHED, Library Services, E-learning). This group will be consulted on all matters related to proposed development of the FYE. As part of the FYE reference group, it is proposed to appoint ‘Retention officers’ (also known as ‘Student Experience Officers’ or ‘First Year Advisors’ whose responsibilities will be to follow up on early warning systems (where they exist in faculties) or to use other means to identify students who are potentially ‘at risk’ of failing or withdrawing. Through the Teaching Development Grant each faculty will receive funds to appoint retention officers, who are likely to be senior (preferably post-graduate) students. It would also be important to include the student voice via the SRC, the student participants in pilot interventions, and student feedback on first year subjects (particularly the ‘at risk’ subjects). The FYET will be a smaller working group, who will take responsibility for gathering data, conducting research and evaluation activities and for reporting. The aim is to provide ‘an integrated, coordinated and intentional’ (Kift, 2008: 1) approach to our first year support.
2. Duties of the FYE reference group and FYET
In broad terms, the FYET will conduct the activities, and the reference group will provide guidance, input and feedback.
- The FYET will collect data on support programmes at the university (what is being done, where and by whom?)
- The FYET will pilot and evaluate limited FYE interventions.
- The FYET will facilitate the orientation of first year students;
- The FYET will assist students to settle into the first year of study at university;
- The FYET will support students to take ownership of their studies and career;
- The FYET will engage in the scholarship of learning and teaching, focusing on first year experience (e.g., by hosting a FYE conference and/or bringing out a special edition of a scholarly journal).
More specifically, the FYET will undertake the following:
2.1 A ‘snapshot’ of the problem at CPUT
The FYET will overview the student throughput data, in order to develop a strong evidence-base understanding of student success and failure at CPUT. This evidence-base will be used as a ‘reality-check’ for the proposed audit, benchmarking study and interventions. This will be completed by the end of Term 1 (28 March 2014) and reported on at the next Senate Teaching and Learning Committee.
2.2 An audit of CPUT first year interventions
The FYE will conduct an audit on the first year intervention strategies that staff members are employing in the faculties and departments, and that Student Affairs divisions and the strategic units are employing, in order to highlight examples of successful strategies that already in place at the university, and which could be enhanced or built-on. The deadline for the audit report is the end of Term 1 (28 March 2014). The audit report will be presented at the next Senate Teaching and Learning Committee.
2.3 Benchmarking good practice in the FYE
The FYET will benchmark FYEs nationally (universities in SA) and internationally (Australia, UK, US) for the purpose of highlighting best practices. This will take the form of a literature review and might include study visits or attendance at a FYE conference. The deadline for the benchmarking report is the end of Term 2 (27 June 2014). This report will be tabled at the third Senate Teaching and Learning Committee.
3. Implementation Plan for the CPUT FYE 2015
In the second half of 2014, it is proposed that the reference group and the FYET develop an implementation plan for the FYE 2015.
3.1 Extended orientation for first years
Building on the reports above, the FYET will, in close consultation with the FYE reference group and using student input, develop an implementation plan for an extended orientation programme in 2015.
3.2 Faculty-based early warning systems
The FYET will develop/adapt/consolidate systems for early identification of student disengagement (e.g. monitoring class attendance, assignment submission, assessment results) and the early identification of academic issues to track and monitor student progress.
3.3 Integrated skills support teams
The FYET will develop and build capacity for an integrated support team which includes: faculty-based staff (e.g., retention officers, advisors) as well as appropriate support staff and facilities (e.g., the Writing Centres, Library facilities, First year Tutors, Mentors, Student Counselling, the Clinic, the Disability Unit, social media and E-Learning resources) as part of an integrated response to student needs.
The items above will result in a detailed implementation plan with dedicated Teaching Development Grant funding for the CPUT FYE. It is proposed that a draft implementation plan be prepared by the end of Term 3 (5 September 2015) and presented at the final Senate Teaching and Learning Committee for feedback, before the final implementation plan is prepared, and arrangements are made for the implementation and evaluation of the CPUT FYE 2015.
Dr Nosisana Mkonto
Head of Department: Student Learning
*It was for this reason that Tinto was invited by the CHE to address universities at the launch of the CHE’s Quality Enhancement Project.