Students: Teaching in context, part 2

Everything we discussed in the workshop kept coming back to the NMMU students. Since the context a lecturer can have an immediate impact is the classroom. If the classrooms are empty, who would you teach? Once o the presenters did mention that she’d had a professor who would give the lecture even if no one attended class that day but most people would not do that. The student body and individual students need to be considered when thinking about teaching at NMMU.
When asked about their students the lecturers were able to create a long list of attributes which make NMMU students unique in their diversity. First, multiracial/multicultural, the person who listed this attribute only said multiracial but here you always have to follow with multicultural. There are black South Africans who are Xhosa, Zulu, or one of the other distinct cultures still thriving within the boarders of this country.  There was some discussion around the language policy, which states that students have the right to receive instruction in their dominate language.  The provided the facilitator to provide resources to the lectures for how they can get support fulfilling this requirement.

Next, they talked about the life experiences students bring to the classroom.  Students come to NMMU from rural communities and urban areas.  This was one of the aspects of diversity that was talked about during our orientation.  We were cautioned against thinking that as international students we were the only ones going through culture shock.  Rather to be kind to our South African classmates because they could be going through culture shock as well.  I couldn’t help but think of SCSU when we were told about the urban/rural divide because we have students who go through culture shock coming from tiny towns but I’m not sure how the SCSU addresses it.

Another aspect to NMMU students follows the larger context of the South African university system as a whole.  When South Africa became a democracy in 1994 and the Apartheid government was officially over, suddenly the majority of students had access to the higher educational system.  The transition was overnight, not in the least bit gradual.  Universities are still coping or trying to cope with this paradigm shift.  According to the Department of Education 70% of South African university students are the first in their families to enroll in higher education.  Of the students who enroll in higher education programs 50% of them do not complete their program.  Dropout rate for first-year students is 30%, while 20% dropout within year 2 or 3 (it takes 3 years to get your bachelors and a 4th year is called honors). Only 15% of South African university students complete their program of study on-time.

The lecturers said that students come to their first-year classes unprepared to learn, not knowing how to take notes or summarize.  The facilitator encouraged the lecturers to take a few minutes and teach the students how to take notes for their class.  Alternatively, they could bring in a representative from Academic Resources to hold a workshop.  However, I did pipe up at this point and said that a lot of students don’t know how to take notes their freshman year in the States either because taking notes for high school and university is a different skill set.  The conversation took a slightly different turn because the facilitator then talked about how jarring it is for students to come from primary school into university where everything is so different.  Textbooks transition from only having facts to having theories and arguments.  She urged the lecturers to understand the difficulty of just this much of the transition for their students along with everything else their students are dealing with.

In the United States we talk about university students struggling because of their multiple commitments.  Many students are juggling work, school, and family commitments.  However, in South Africa 1/5 of all children live in orphan headed households.  This means that an older sibling is taking care of the younger siblings because their parents have died.  So, these students are not struggling to support their own children but rather their brothers and sisters.  These children lack a support network from extended family, even if they have a family member who may intermittently check on them.  They did not get support from a family structure to develop natural coping skills because they had to take on the responsibility of raising their siblings.

Listing these circumstances off and calling the classroom diverse seems to be a dramatic understatement.  The lecturers still have the pressure to research and publish like professors back in the states in order to get promotions and tenure.  In the workshop she encouraged the lecturers to set expectations for each term on the first day of class.  Structure what they expected from students and what the consequences would be if those expectations were not met.  She encouraged the lecturers to be explicit about this procedure and treat the students like adults who were entering into a contract.  She also suggested that they could help students learn by sharing their vulnerabilities.  If they admit, for example, that they are unsure on how to use a piece of technology then ask for help from the students.  She used the example of a calculator and the students were excited to show her how to use it and she was getting that all important buy-in at the same time.

Honestly, I still find it overwhelming. But they are making progress one lecturer at a time.

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