At South African universities nationally, the average drop-out rate for first-year students enrolled for tertiary studies for the first time is between 20% and 30%. At the NWU, the average drop-out rate for first years is 15% and the overall undergraduate pass rate is just above 85%.
EVEN SO, THE UNIVERSITY is stepping up efforts to equip students with the academic literacy skills required to succeed in their studies. The changes being introduced are solidly grounded in multi-faceted research that is underpinned by a broader view of academic literacy than the traditional focus on language development. Although still firmly rooted in applied linguistics, academic literacy is increasingly focusing on integrating students into the NWU?s academic culture and assisting them to engage with academic discourse. Looking at a broad set of skills Engaging in academic discourse calls for a broad set of skills, of which an understanding of academic language and reading and writing ability are only a part, says Prof Tobie van Dyk, leader of an academic literacy research project and head of the Centre for Academic and Professional Language Practice in the Faculty of Arts on the Potchef stroom Campus. Other critical skills for academic engagement are reading speed, comprehension and retention, argumentation, logical thinking, metadiscourse strategies, seminar skills, study skills, computer skills and information literacy (such as for navigating library databases). The two academic literacy modules that the NWU offers to first-year students reflect this expanded view, as does the academic literacy test (with the exception of computer and information literacy skills) that is compulsory for all firstyear students when they arrive at the university. The most reliable tests available Known as TALL (which stands for Test of Academic Literacy Levels), this test determines whether students have the broad academic literacy skills to complete their studies successfully. ?TALL and its Afrikaans counterpart, Toets van Akademiese Geletterdheidsvlakke (TAG) are the most reliable tests of academic literacy available in South Africa and their validity has been proven,? says Prof Van Dyk. The tests were designed by the Inter-institutional Centre for Language Development and Assessment (ICELDA), a consortium consisting of four multilingual universities, namely the NWU, University of the Free State, University of Pretoria and Stellenbosch University. Regardless of their test results, all first-year students at the NWU must enrol for a compulsory academic literacy module (AGLA/E 121). Those whose test results show they are unlikely to complete their studies successfully must follow an additional semester module in academic literacy (AGLA/E 111). No quick fix However, it is not only first-year students who could benefit from exposure to academic literacy programmes. ?There is scope for expansion,? says Prof Van Dyk. In focus group interviews with lecturers and faculty leaders, many staff members have voiced concern that students still lack the necessary academic literacy skills in their second and third years. Consequently, some asserted that academic literacy interventions should be extended to second- and third-year students. ?What we need to keep in mind, however, is that gaps in academic literacy are not going to be fixed overnight,? he says. ?Many lecturers have certain expectations once students have completed the first-year modules in academic literacy. The reality is that two academic literacy lectures a week in the first year are not going to fix everything. This is why both vertical and horizontal integration is so important. Lecturers also need to bring academic literacy into their classes and continually reinforce it.? From students? perspective Apart from tapping into the views of lecturers, Prof Van Dyk?s team is also investigating academic literacy from the perspective of students. In 2013, approximately 1 100 undergraduate students on the Potchefstroom Campus completed an electronic questionnaire on academic literacy, and the exercise will be repeated in 2014 and 2015 in order to collect longitudinal data. Similar questionnaires are planned for the Mafikeng and Vaal Triangle campuses. 108 RESEARCH DYNAMICS | EDUCATING FOR THE FUTURE