From school to university: Pupils face critical challenges

The #FeesMustFall campaign and disputes about language policy have placed South African universities at centre stage. The annual dissection of national senior certificate results has also provided an opportunity for schooling and higher education to reflect on their relationship.

Against this background, Teachers Upfront’s first seminar of 2016 focused on the transition from school to university. This was explored from a number of perspectives. How can assessment of academic readiness support transition? What roles can teachers play in preparing learners for higher education? And what are the barriers to an easy transition from school to university?

Seminar chair Dr Geeta Motilal of the school of education at the University of the Witwatersrand outlined how “the [national benchmark tests] assess students’ ability to combine aspects of prior learning in competency areas – academic literacy, quantitative literacy [numeracy] and mathematics – that directly impact on the success of first-year university students”.

Dr Laura Dison of the Wits school of education stressed that the academic literacy and quantitative literacy combined tests are used for diagnostic purposes rather than admission. The results of the 2015 first-year intake placed only 18.5% of the group at the proficient level where no support is required.

Most students need help with the higher-level reading skills demanded by academic texts (such as extrapolation and tracking of argument) and in producing well-structured writing in their assignments.


Wits has addressed the implications of these findings in its own curricula by “designing more learning-orientated courses, and integrating support into core education programmes,” Dison said.

In addition, peer tutors work with students on language in their own assignments, which, Dison said, “allows students to hear their own voices through their own writing”.

Dr Melanie Jacobs of the science faculty of the University of Johannesburg noted that there is frequently a mismatch between a learner’s national senior certificate maths result and the national benchmark tests results from both quantitative literacy and mathematics.

Many test items use language to contextualise mathematical problem-solving, as happens in academic curricula and workplace situations. Understanding the English text is often difficult for students.

The implication for schools, said Jacobs, is that “teachers need to help prepare learners to understand the nuances of language in maths, chemistry and physics, and to explain their conceptual reasoning”.

The teacher’s role was highlighted through an exploration of the relationship between the demands of academic literacy and the national curriculum statement of the national senior certificate.

“Language is key because it is the vehicle through which learners access knowledge,” said Florence Modiba, curriculum policy specialist at the department of basic education. “Every teacher should be a language teacher within their own subject; with this responsibility, teaching is the mother of all professions.”

Universities make ‘assumptions’ about their students
The 2015 national senior certificate diagnostic report identified poor reading skills, an inability to interpret exam questions correctly, and problems with expressing content as major factors affecting national senior certificate results.

The policy is clear on the integration of language skills in subjects and English across the curriculum receives attention as the language in which the national senior certificate is written. The question is, however, whether teachers can implement this. Modiba said universities must consider their responsibilities in relation to the teacher graduates that they produce. The school and university interface is a two-way street.

A teacher’s perspective on preparing learners was given by Mike Christensen from Parktown Boys’ High School. He suggested that failure at university is not only to do with academic competence. The pressure to think of university as the only worthwhile option often results in students entering higher education with no clear goals, he said. The best preparation in school is to teach pupils to understand their own abilities and interests and to give them the tools with which to explore future options.

Dr Thabisile Nkambule of Wits’s school of education said universities make assumptions about their students and overlook some major transition difficulties.

Rural learners in particular face huge barriers, ranging from an unfamiliar institutional culture, new contexts and the challenge of lecturers speaking in a second language in a variety of accents and paces.

“While teachers can play a role in preparing students for independence,” said Nkambule, “we cannot expect them to tackle all these issues. There is a need for a closer relationship between schools and universities, with universities showing a willingness to interrogate the way they do things.”

The major talking point at the seminar, however, was the role of the medium of instruction in both schooling and higher education. One participant said that the failure is in the system, not in the students: “English is not their language. Teachers are expected to be constant translators without any support.” Others noted that issues about when and how to teach English as a subject, and when and how to introduce it as a medium of instruction, need urgent debate.

Clearly, language competence is also a key concern for universities: there is a vital intersect between schools as a pipeline to higher education, and higher education as the conduit for teachers into schools.

Melissa King is a knowledge manager at Bridge. The Teachers Upfront seminars are hosted by Bridge, the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre, the Mail & Guardian, the Wits school of education and the University of Johannesburg’s faculty of education.

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