A framework for the placement of university students in science programmes
In view of the government policy directives to broaden access, of especially students in Natural Science (hereafter referred to as Science) and to increase student throughput, a quantitative study was undertaken to identify indicators of academic success, in order to develop a framework for placement. The first-year curriculum of programmes in Natural Science, Engineering and Health Sciences all include Mathematics, Chemistry and Physics as core fundamental Science modules. Academic student achievement pertaining to these three modules, were considered to design a framework for placing students in appropriate programmes. The national shortage of Science skills and higher subsidy from government prompt universities to change current curricula. When exploring success indicators of university Mathematics, Chemistry and Physics, the schooling system comes to the fore. The shortage of qualified teachers, constantly changing school curriculum and poorly resourced schools becomes evident in the quality of knowledge and skills of first-year students entering universities. This quantitative study focuses on the academic achievement of first-year students in the three fundamental modules, based on curricula that are developed and embedded in content and skills acquired at school level. The university curriculum continues from the perceived school exit level. Very few changes were made to first-year curricula, yet the school curriculum and student profiles changed considerably. The high failure and drop-out rate strengthens the rationale for this research. The study investigated placement of first-year students in appropriate programmes, in order to enhance academic success. In a study of policy documents, literature and empirical research on academic achievement, no other reference to a framework for placement could be found. In order to design the framework the research focused on two types of sources, namely, a literature study on South African Higher Education, and general mental ability and non-cognitive influences on academic success. This highlighted the importance of specific abilities and interests that are key to Mathematics and Science. Students in the fields of Natural Science, Engineering, Health Sciences as well as teachers and lecturers in these fields, come from a very limited pool, and special care, planning and management of such students, teachers/lecturers and academic programmes are required. Universities have no choice but to adjust current curricula, practise innovative enrolment management and render time and support to ensure an increased graduation rate in these fields. An empirical study was conducted on the academic achievement of four cohorts of first-year Science students at the University of Johannesburg, in Gauteng, South Africa. The link between the background variables (gender, age, home language and ethnicity) and the influence of Grade 12 results were shown to be associated with academic achievement in Mathematics, Chemistry and Physics at first-year level. Home language, ethnicity and Grade 12 Admission Point Score (APS) contributed significantly towards predicting academic achievement. The Stellenbosch University Access Test had good predictive value, and in conjunction with the Grade 12 profile, it could be applied meaningfully to place students in appropriate programmes. The inclusion of non-cognitive instruments provided significant insight to place students, based on informed decisions. The findings of both the literature and empirical study were structured in six categories which formed the foundational principles of the conceptual framework for placement: i) Neither the influence of the South African schooling system, nor the curriculum or quality of students will change in the foreseeable future; ii) Universities should collect as much as possible knowledge of students to promote quality learning and provide them with support; iii) Structured support and institutional First- Year Experience programmes will assist students with the adjustment from school to university; iv) Higher Education should urgently consider alignment with the entry-level of students and establish generic programmes to introduce them into universities; v) Opportunities to articulate from generic programmes to specialised qualifications with additional support for acquiring English language proficiency, computer and academic literacies as well as career guidance will be of utmost importance to provide Science graduates to assist with national needs; and vi) Students will be successful if specialised lecturers and methodology are employed for first-year teaching of complex disciplines. The proposed framework was designed, based on the above foundational principles and supported by four guidelines for implementation, namely: i) the establishment of a first-year enrolment centre with one-stop service and support; ii) a well designed extended qualification with a generic entering phase; iii) time allocated (during the generic phase) to assess individual students with a compound test battery; and iv) specialised methodology, a dedicated teaching and learning strategy with dedicated first-year lecturers to promote academic achievement in Science. The study culminated in the framework for placement for Science students, after admission. The theoretical implication of the proposed framework is represented by the holistic lens through which the field of Science was researched, culminating in common Mathematics, Chemistry and Physics attributes. Its practical implication focuses on changed perceptions and practices embedded in firstyear lecturers and university managers. The conceptual framework promises to change minds, attitudes and practices on placement and includes the responsibility to inform knowledgeable university colleagues. Those embarking on future research relating to this theme can build upon this study, while placement in Science education should stimulate the development of theory and practice and can be tested in Higher Education.
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