Despite South Africa’s student population changing significantly over the past few decades, we are only now beginning to understand who they are and what their needs are.
Knowing how to help students succeed in higher education is one of the most pressing current challenges.
Through two national-level projects funded by the Kresge Foundation, the University of the Free State (UFS) is developing data analytics to better understand students and help them navigate their studies.
The UFS has hosted the South African Surveys of Student Engagement for more than a decade and has weaved engagement data into teaching and learning, as well as other institutional endeavours targeting student success, such as academic advising.
Sharing information with other institutions to highlight practices that help students advance will help them better align with those practices.
The UFS was selected to be part of the Siyaphumelela programme (meaning “we succeed” in Xhosa), which is sponsored by the Kresge Foundation and supported by the South African Institute for Distance Education (Saide).
This project aims to improve the capacity of five higher-education providers to develop institutional research with a focus on data analytics.
By moving from data reporting to a more analytical approach to assess and improve larger student efforts, the UFS has strengthened its capacity in these areas and its ability to collaborate, and now promotes a culture of evidence-based planning.
By developing dashboards after reflecting on its infrastructure and data-management procedures, the institution is able to share information with faculties.
The UFS therefore sees a data-analytical focus as critical to improving its effectiveness and efficiency. It is playing a leading role nationally to develop academic advising that helps students match their studies with their career and life goals.
The second national project is focused on student engagement and has been managed by the Centre for Teaching and Learning at the UFS for 10 years. To date, 20 universities have participated in at least one survey and the project supports the Siyaphumelela programme goals.
Engagement data has helped the university coordinate teaching and learning, and design environments have put student advancement and quality at the centre of institutional thinking.
The findings from student engagement data in 2017 led to the publication of the book Engaging Students: Using Evidence to Promote Student Success, edited by Prof Francois Strydom, George Kuh and Dr Sonja Loots, with contributions from international and national experts in the higher-education environment.
It is the first comprehensive publication contextualising student engagement findings in the South African context for the benefit of advancing students.
Both these projects are contributing to significant developments in the field of higher education to help students thrive.
This article was paid for by the University of the Free State.