College of Human Sciences

Interrogating the factors that affect student success

Dr Fortunate Silinda, Chair of the Department of Psychology and research psychologist, Unisa

For Dr Fortunate Silinda, Chair of Department and research psychologist at Unisa's Department of Psychology, academic departments play a crucial role in making students feel a sense of belonging in institutions of higher learning. She states: "It is because the first point of access for students is academic departments. We need to be empathetic to students that send administrative related enquiries and assist accordingly."

Silinda conducted research that looks into understanding how social and psychological factors influence students’ desires to finish their higher education qualifications. She explains: "For my master’s degree, I conducted research among master’s and PhD students to understand the stress they experience when they write their dissertations and theses, as much research conducted only focuses on the stress that students experience that leads them to abandon their studies."

She says that she was keen to understand the experiences of postgraduate students that lead them to encounter stress, so that Unisa can implement interventions that lessen their anxiety to complete their studies. As a result, her department implemented interventions to track student supervision, a process that enabled them to intervene when they identified red flags in an attempt for students to have a meaningful supervision experience. Silinda and her team also had initiatives with Unisa Radio, which were influenced by her master’s dissertation results.

She says: "For my PhD, I conducted research among undergraduate students to understand the psychosocial and social identity factors that influence their intentions to complete their studies. Research that addresses these factors and their roles towards explaining students’ intentions to complete their studies at institutions of higher learning was limited in the South African context."

Bringing solutions to issues that affect student success

Silinda remarks that racial groups, parents’ level of education, socio-economic status and lack of preparedness for higher learning are some of the social factors that affect students’ abilities to complete their studies. "Some of the psychological factors that affect or influence students’ success include motivation, perceived stress, perceived academic overload, help-seeking attitudes and a sense of belonging," she says.

She believes that the learning environment may contribute to the success of students. "In a pandemic, students who prefer to study in the library or work in groups need to consider other study methods to cater for their needs to improve their motivation," she says.

Silinda says:"“Assessments and their procedures can also affect students’ motivation and their ability to succeed in institutions of higher learning, particularly students with disabilities. The online environment can be anxiety-provoking for such students as most of their needs are not catered for."

Some scholars emphasise the need for academic self-efficacy, parental support and psychological well-being. "To achieve excellent academic results, students need to put more effort into increasing their competency and capability to understand the subject and skills to accomplish school homework and projects. In addition, parents’ and teachers’ supports may boost students’ level of confidence in pursuing and achieving their academic goals and gain better results," (Ah Gang et al 2019).

Silinda emphasises the need for a strong student support system that involves academic and support departments carrying out their student support mandate as essential for students to succeed academically. Her PhD research results demonstrated that students who strongly identified with their academic departments were able to adjust to the institution's academic demands, were highly motivated and had high intentions to finish their studies.

She says: "For an institution as big as Unisa, a possible solution would be for academic departments to be capacitated with designated personnel from support departments who can assist students with all administrative related matters, as it is difficult for people to take accountability in a centralised system."

For her, this would involve academic and support staff in academic departments to focus more on compiling relevant and current study material that makes students feel that they belong to the academic department and university. She concludes: "Providing content-related and administrative-related support to students in time on platforms such as myUnisa would be of great assistance."

* By Nancy Legodi, Acting Journalist, Department of Institutional Advancement

Publish date: 2021/04/12

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