Know your students and where they come from. This, in my opinion – and research confirms it – is one of the key ingredients for an enabling teaching and learning environment. The life experiences hiding behind the faces one sees every day in the lecture room are equally as important as what happens in the lecture room itself.
It is for this reason that, since 2011, I have dedicated part of my first lecture with my new first year students to compiling a detailed set of questions. These include questions about their financial situation – do they have a bursary, a study loan or an alternative means of support?
I also ask about their reasons for studying, why they’ve chosen a particular degree and whether they’re the first person in their family to attend university. Other questions revolve around food – do they have enough money to eat, and eat regularly?
I also ask whether English is a student’s first, second or third language and about their living conditions: are they in residence, in a flat, a commune or staying at home with family?
Some of these are indeed very personal questions. But a student’s personal life obviously fits into the bigger picture of their academic success – and these questions are extremely relevant in South Africa.
Understanding the context
University education was just one element of society that opened up after 1994 when formal apartheid ended. Enrolments have doubled in the past 22 years and university demographics have shifted radically. This is largely along race lines – more than 80% of today’s students are black South Africans.
For many, English – the language of tuition at most public universities – is a second or third language. There has also been an economic shift. Universities aren’t just the domain of middle or upper class young South Africans whose families can easily afford tuition fees or qualify for bank loans.
Many of the country’s students rely on the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, or NSFAS, to fund their degrees. But this funding doesn’t always cover more than their tuition, leaving students vulnerable to hunger, homelessness and a lack of basic resources like textbooks.
Research about first-year students done at my institution has shown that it is not just a person’s schooling background that positively or negatively affects their performance as a university student.
There are other issues at play: financial distress, language and literacy skills, lack of role models in the family and even the environment one lives in. As an example, students living in a commune perform generally worse than students living in a residence or with their families.
Information empowers lecturers
My students’ answers help me, as a lecturer, to identify academic risk situations at an early stage. They also enable me, as a mentor, to refer them to relevant support activities in place at the institution such as food programs for hungry students or language skills development initiatives.
You might expect students to shy away from sharing such personal information with a lecturer. On the contrary. When I explain why these questions are being asked and how they might be used to help students, they are very willing to elaborate on their answers. They do not refrain from sharing their hopes, dreams and fears, giving me a glimpse of what lies in their past and what has brought them here.
Some of the answers I received at the beginning of the 2016 academic year include:
It is a great honour for me to be at university, since both my parents never did well in high school and never had a chance to attend university. I feel I am the one to begin the generational wealth in my family. I am concerned about not to disappoint the people who look up at me and are expecting greatness from me.
Often I do not have money for food, as my parents can only send me money once a month, and it is not a lot of money as they still have to look after my siblings.
I feel proud of myself for having made it this far. It feels great to be here, as I get to know a whole lot of things and empower myself with knowledge.
Stories for all to hear
The class of 2016’s life stories are not different from those I’ve heard in previous years. But the beginning of this academic year feels quite different to me. The students’ protests across South Africa have made me profoundly aware that what I am reading is not just confined to my classroom.
The words of this post-#FeesMustFall generation resonate with me and assume a wider dimension. They are iconic and touching stories of the struggle of the post-1994 youth to find a space for itself in the current South African higher education landscape and society.
It is time that such stories, which have too often been hidden and even ignored, be made public for all to hear.