Understanding and improving the student experience is of critical importance if South African higher education is going to produce the number and quality of graduates and citizens needed in the 21stcentury. This report argues that if higher education is going to improve the complex phenomenon of student success, it needs a focused and research driven approach such as student engagement. More than a decade of higher education research indicates that the three best predictors of student success are academic preparation, motivation and student engagement (Kuh et al., 2005). Unfortunately, an exclusive focus on academic preparation and motivation limits the pathways towards improving student success to increasing selection criteria. This approach inevitably undermines the important imperative of increasing access. A focus on student engagement offers institutions the opportunity to enhance the prospects for a diverse range of students, especially underprepared students, to survive and thrive in higher education. Data obtained using the South African Survey of Student Engagement (SASSE) has the potential to help identify those conditions and drivers of success over which institutions have control, these can be used to improve the positive outcomes of higher education, such as improved throughput and success rates. This report:
- introduces student engagement as a field of research and illustrates its importance for improving the quality and outcomes of the student experience;
- shares results from the 2009 national CHE-UFS student engagement research pilot project; and
- reflects on the possible implications and application of student engagement for: the design and implementation of a four-year undergraduate degree; assessing the effectiveness of higher education (throughput and success rates); improving the quality of teaching and learning; and addressing social cohesion.
Student engagement can be defined by two key components: first, what students do (the time and energy they devote to educationally purposive activities), and second, what institutions do (the extent to which institutions employ effective educational practices to induce students to do the right things). The SASSE is based on the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) developed in the USA. The NSSE has been used by over 1300 North American colleges and universities (USA and Canada), has been adapted and used in 35 universities in Australia and New Zealand and is being piloted in 23 Chinese higher education institutions. The SASSE instrument measures five benchmarks for effective educational practice, namely: Level of Academic Challenge, Active and Collaborative Learning, Student-Staff Interaction, Enriching Educational Experiences and Supportive Campus Environment.
The 2009 CHE-UFS student engagement research project piloted the SASSE in seven higher education institutions across South Africa. The seven were carefully selected to ensure representation of rural and metropolitan institutions, as well as different institutional types (universities, universities of technology and comprehensive universities). The final sample included 13 636 respondents. The results presented show the key differences between specific sub-groups in relation to the benchmarks of effective educational practice. These subgroups are: year of study (first-year vs. senior student experiences), institutional types, self-reported race groups and gender.
In reflecting on the implication and applications of student engagement within South African higher education, the report supports the development of a four-year degree. However, this report stresses the importance of thinking in innovative ways about how such a four-year degree could be designed to promote participation in effective educational activities by students, as well as the implementation of effective educational practices within higher education institutions. If South African higher education is going to improve the positive outcomes (such as 21st century graduate attributes, as well as improved throughput and success) and design of the student experience, it is going to have to become more intentional and even include requiring students to participate in activities that will contribute to their improved chances of success. Furthermore, the national pilot study confirmed the value of student engagement data in improving the quality of teaching and learning by providing institutions with an additional source of data for quality assurance processes. Finally, because the SASSE data allows institutions to analyse the experience of different subgroups of students within an institution, a more nuanced understanding of institutional cultures can be gained and effectively utilised to further social cohesion at an institutional and systemic level.