Investigating the efficacy of the "Skills for a Changing World" first-year literacy course
Drennan, Laura Maria
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The academic performance of students entering higher education in South Africa has been high on the agenda of universities, organisations working in this sector, the Department of Education, and the media. The reason for this is that many students do not meet the admission requirements for higher education institutions. The low level of academic language proficiency of first-year students in particular is evidenced by entry-level proficiency testing. In response to this problem, new English literacy materials were generated at the University of the Free State to target such students and provide a potential access route to higher education institutions. The investigation of the efficacy of the Skills for a Changing World English literacy course employed a two-part study. The first, a pilot study, encompassed a non-equivalent quasi-experimental research approach which focussed on the performance of a non-equivalent control and experimental group in two different English literacy programmes. The results showed that the new English literacy course neither significantly improved the reading scores nor the academic performance of the students. Further qualitative research was required to investigate issues such as student motivation, students’ perceptions of learning, and facilitators’ perceptions of teaching. These are addressed in the current Master’s study, which adopts a mixed-method approach, where both qualitative and quantitative data was collected simultaneously in the form of pre- and post-test scores, facilitator journal entries, student focus groups, transcriptions of facilitator meetings, and a student questionnaire. The research methodology encompassed an ethnographic study, which involved working with students and facilitators who had been exposed to the Skills for a Changing World English literacy materials for one academic year. The goal of the Master’s study is to determine whether the course changed students’ performance on the National Benchmark Tests (NBT); what students’ perceptions were of their learning on the course; how facilitators experienced teaching the course materials; and whether students enjoyed the course content. The results unfortunately showed a drop in student performance on the NBT post-test, which could possibly be explained by lack of motivation to perform in a test that does not count for marks. Furthermore, the qualitative data seemed to indicate that some students failed to see the value of the course, and that some of the materials were irrelevant and uninteresting. It is postulated that this could have impacted on student motivation, and thus their performance on the course. The lack of facilitator training in English Second Language (ESL) composition also became apparent in the assessment of students’ work. Content-based instruction (CBI) is discussed as a potential solution to these issues, with a particular focus on formative assessment as an integral part thereof.