Acquiring academic literacy : a case of first-year extended degree programme students at Stellenbosch University

Van Schalkwyk, Susan C.
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Stellenbosch : Stellenbosch University
In this study the experiences of a group of first-year Extended Degree Programme (EDP) students were explored in order to obtain insight into their acquisition of academic literacy. The study was undertaken against the backdrop of a higher education sector that is facing an increasing influx of first-year students on the one hand, and poor retention rates on the other. In South Africa, where the opening up of access to higher education for all citizens has become a political imperative, the need to address the undesirable dropout rate is self-evident. Students’ poor performance at university is often linked to their under-preparedness for higher education studies, and an important aspect of such under-preparedness is their academic literacy. In this context academic literacy is seen as knowing how to speak and act within a particular discourse, and the reading and writing that occur within the discipline as tools through which to facilitate learning. While some students acquire academic literacy by virtue of their participation in the discourse community of the relevant discipline, this is not always so for students who are less prepared for higher education studies. In response to the disconcerting retention rates, higher education institutions have implemented academic support programmes to address the needs of students who enter university with poor school results. One such intervention at Stellenbosch University is the Extended Degree Programme in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, which makes provision for students to extend their first academic year over two years. Since 2006 EDP students have also been required to register for an academic literacy module and it is this group that comprises the focus of this study. Using a case study design, this qualitative, interpretive inquiry was characterized by multiple data collection methods. In this way qualitative data that pointed to the perceptions of the students and some of the lecturers who taught the EDP classes were generated via semi-structured interviews, focus group interviews, observation and content analysis. In addition, descriptive quantitative data was collected and this further contributed to generating the rich, in-depth data that characterize case study research. The analysis of the data was undertaken according to a three-tiered approach, in which the results of the empirical inquiry were first analysed per data source and then themes and trends across all the data sources were identified. Ultimately, these findings were interpreted according to an explanatory framework. The study highlights a number of important issues, key of which is that providing an academic literacy module for under-prepared students can facilitate the acquisition of academic literacy, particularly when such provision seeks to support the different discipline-based mainstream modules. Another important finding of the study emphasizes the extent to which institutional factors, such as increased student numbers, have placed pressure on university infrastructure and human resources. The impact of this situation filters down to the first-year classroom and negatively influences student learning. Finally, the results of the study question prevailing notions about under-prepared students as all of the students in the study, irrespective of their backgrounds and levels of sophistication, attested to the significant challenges that entry into the academic community posed for them. The findings of this study, while specific to the context in which it was undertaken, contribute to the growing body of knowledge in the field of academic development within higher education and the role of academic literacy in student learning.
Thesis (PhD (Curriculum Studies))--Stellenbosch University, 2008.
Academic literacy, First-year students, Extended degree, Academic support, Dissertations -- Curriculum studies, Theses -- Curriculum studies, College dropouts -- South Africa -- Stellenbosch -- Prevention, Motivation in education, Universities and colleges -- South Africa -- Stellenbosch, Education, Higher -- South Africa -- Stellenbosch, Theses -- Education, Dissertations -- Education