Students ill-equipped by schools for university study

School-leaving results were poor indicators of first-year university performance and improving the performance of students required South Africa’s Department of Basic Education to equip scholars with competencies outlined in its policy documents – competencies currently not possessed by many students entering higher education.

Releasing a study into whether or not Grade 12 life science results indicated competence at first-year knowledge and skills levels, the University of KwaZulu-Natal's Michèle Stears and Angela James concluded that poor performance among first-year university students was not a new phenomenon.

However, currently scholars had competency levels – in this case biology – that were substantially lower than cited in the policy document.

The study was released during the 7th Annual Teaching and Learning Higher Education Conference held in Durban recently.

According to Stears, failure was having a debilitating effect on students as they lost confidence. They arrived at tertiary institutions with high expectations only to find they did not have the necessary competencies – and added to this was that they found themselves in new and often strange environments, Stears said.

Raising first-year performance should be a two-pronged approach, with schools ensuring that learners had the necessary competencies and higher education institutions creating an environment that allowed a smoother transition between school and university.

James said the study considered the degree of transformation achieved in the South African education system since the demise of apartheid. School-leaving examination results were one way of showing the degree to which the education system had improved.

The 2010 matriculants were the first products of Curriculum 2005 – one of many iterations of post-apartheid school curriculum reforms – and there had been uncertainty relating to the competencies the learners had acquired in an outcomes-based education orientated system.

The study compared the results achieved by first-year life sciences students registering in 2011 with those who had registered in 2009 and 2010.

Stears and James said that learners achieving 80% to 100% in their biology school-leaving examination had the skills to suggest specific changes to experimental design and provide conclusions showing awareness of data uncertainty, and could analyse problems and provide solutions as well as evaluate the relevance of biotechnological applications to life sciences.

They could also critically evaluate the application of scientific and indigenous knowledge in South Africa and globally, develop justifiable and responsible positions on the influences of different beliefs, attitudes and values in various communities, and evaluate and give recommendations on the impact of scientific and technological processes and products on different communities.

Students achieving 60% to 79% could analyse, reflect on and evaluate findings of an investigation and identify and allow for irregular observations when displaying data, debate and show how concepts, principles, laws, theories and models influenced one's behaviour, analyse the application of scientific and indigenous knowledge in the South African context and debate the influence of beliefs, attitudes and values among communities.

Among the life sciences students enrolled during 2008, 36.6% had achieved more than 70% in their biology matriculation examination. In 2009 this figure was 43.9% and in 2010 it was 52.9%.

When the 2011 first-year students were taken outside for their inaugural biology lesson, only 21.7% of them linked biology to the environment. Asked to observe the environment, only 17.2% observed the green plant, 61% could not observe the object biologically and 54% saw no link between what they were observing and the course relevance.

Stears and James said of the 2008 school-leavers, 10% of them failed the biology module. This dropped dramatically to 4.9% for the 2009 matriculants, but rose to 11.8% for those finishing school in 2010 – adding fuel to the argument that pass marks for that year had been boosted.