Universities need to take note of the gap between expectations and experience

Student expectations are influenced by their school experience, family background and communities. Jasminko Ibrakovic/Shutterstock

The student population at South African universities have changed dramatically in the last two decades. It’s now much more diverse in terms of age, race, culture, backgrounds, educational experience and academic potential.

This transformation has brought with it a wide variety of student expectations – largely influenced by their school experience, family background and home communities – about what a university education can deliver.

In my study, I examined the gap between first year students’ expectations with their actual experience at a University in the Western Cape. The criteria I focused on were; social engagement, academic engagement and academic support.

The study revealed that there’s a significant gap between incoming students’ expectation of what university would be like, and their actual experience. This can lead to students feeling disconnected from the institution and could eventually result in them failing or dropping out.

To avoid this, universities must be well-prepared and properly engage with students before they leave high school and during their first year. This will help manage the diverse expectations and experiences that students have.

The surveys

For this research, I conducted two surveys. A first-year “expectation” survey was conducted with students before they entered university. An “experience” survey was then held towards the end of the academic year.

The sample size was 95 first-year students of which 77% were female and 23% male. The majority of the participants (53%) were under 20 years old and were attending university directly from school. 40% of the participants were between 21 and 29 years old.

Most of the participants (53%) indicated English as their home language, while 23% indicated isiXhosa and 21.5% indicated Afrikaans. A large number of the participants (83%) indicated they were first-generation students, meaning they were the first member in their immediate family to attend university.

Only 6% of the participants were able to fund their own studies, while 53% sought outside funding in the form of bursaries and loans. 41% of the participants indicated that their parents funded their university studies.

In both surveys, students had to rate their university expectations and experiences. The scale ranged from 4 being “strongly agree” to 1 being “strongly disagree”. The mean scores from the surveys was used to find the gap score for each statement.

A negative “expectation-experience ga” score meant the expectation score exceeded the experience score. This means the participants’ expectations were not been met. A positive gap score implies participants experience exceeded their expectations.

Social engagement

From the social engagement indicators – which included joining social clubs, attending social functions, and making new and diverse friendships – the findings revealed a negative gap score. Students’ expectations were not met by their actual university experience. Many first-year students expected to be involved in social activities and engagements at university. But once at university, many of these expectations weren’t fulfilled.

Their lack of connectedness was influenced by a number of factors. These include; commitment to part-time jobs, family obligations, public transport challenges, financial constraints and a lack of awareness of social activities and clubs on campus.

Academic engagement

The academic engagement score also revealed a negative gap. The academic indicators included: time spent preparing for lectures, time spent at the library, social media contact with lecturers, conversations with lecturers outside of class time, and receiving regular feedback from lecturers.

These findings agree with other studies which indicate that incoming students have unrealistic expectations when it comes to academic preparedness. These expectations could be attributed to the students’ prior schooling experience and/or lack of knowledge of university academic demands.

Recognising the gap

It is vital that the university expectation-experience gap be recognised. This would reduce students’ level of stress, enhance their social relations and sense of belonging, and improve academic performance.

An awareness of student expectations is the first step for university management and academics to create interventions that ensure students have a smoother university transition.

The following are some ideas that could be implemented to address this issue:

Partnerships should be formed between schools and universities to highlight the different skills and practices needed at university such as: academic literacy skills, managing university workload, time management, budgeting, socialising and dealing with diversity.

Universities need to be proactive to ensure that their incoming students feel a sense of belonging and connected to the culture of their institution as early as possible. This should start prior to orientation week which could help reduce the stress and anxiety that students feel during the first week at university.

These measures could help address the gap between students’ expectations and experiences, which will assist university transition and encourage students to succeed.