The Influence of Differences in Social and Cultural Capital on Students’ Expectations of Achievement, on their Performance, and on their Learning Practices in the First Year at University

By Shalini Dukhan, Ann Cameron and Elisabeth A. Brenner.

Published by The Learner Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Even in post-Apartheid South Africa a legacy of inequality persists, since members of the wealthier sector, who generally have parents with a University education, are able to attend well resourced schools, while the majority of the population is forced (through economic circumstances) to attend under-resourced schools. Since access to tertiary education has increased, many individuals, who have attended under-resourced schools, are now able to attend University as “first generation” students whose parents have had no University experience. First and second generation students thus enter University having different expectations, learning practices and experiences which have been influenced, to a large extent, by their high school experiences. In addition, first generation students lack social and cultural capital which also influences their learning practices.
This study compares the learning practices and academic performance of first and second generation students in a first year Biology course at Wits University. The influence of social and cultural capital on student academic performance is investigated. Students’ expectations and experiences of their academic performance become more realistic as they go through first year but they experience great difficulty in trying to adjust their study methods to meet the expectations of the academic environment. As much as first generation students who have sibling experience of University have access to social capital, and therefore more realistic views on the academic requirements at University, they still do not perform any better than first generation students who have no sibling experience of University.
In order for educational redress within South African democracy to be effective, it is important to understand the supportive measures that students may require in order to succeed at University. Furthermore, first generation students who have siblings that attended University have access to social capital, unlike those without this experience. This study examines the importance of social capital and cultural capital in the context of a Biology course at Wits University.

Keywords: First-year University, First and Second Generation Student, Student Expectation at University, Student University Experience, Academic Performance

The International Journal of Learning, Volume 18, Issue 7, pp.337-352. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 815.548KB).

Shalini Dukhan

Lecturer, School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa

I have a natural sciences background. The post that I am currently employed in requires that I focus on first-year students and staff involved with Biological Sciences. I have set up communities of practice of staff so that we can discuss and address any academic issues that affect our first year students. I identify and monitor ‘at-risk’ students in an attempt to provide strategies that could increase student performance. I have had lecturing experience, and still continue with some lecturing now. My interest lies in finding ways to increase the student’s active engagement in their learning process. My PhD focuses on an aspect of this. I believe that the notes students take in lecture sessions act as an interface between the lecturer and the student. Students’ notes are the primary source of information for study purposes for tests and examinations. For my PhD, I would therefore like to determine whether any relationship exists between note-taking and student performance.

Dr. Ann Cameron

Science Academic Advisor, Science, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa

Ann is an Academic Developer in the Science Teaching and Learning Centre in the Faculty of Science at the University of the Witwatersrand. She lectured in the School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies prior to completing a PhD in Science Education. She now specializes in the professional development of academic staff in the ten schools making up the Faculty of Science. Her focus is developing intentional reflection on teaching and learning to facilitate epistemological shifts in conceptions of teaching and learning. Her research interests include the impact of the socio-cultural context on learning in science, with specific reference to Indigenous Knowledge Systems. She also teaches in the Masters in Science Education programme in the Marang Centre for Mathematics and Science Education.

Dr. Elisabeth A. Brenner

Principal Tutor, School of Molecular and Cell biology, University of the Witwatersrand, Wits, Gauteng, South Africa

Elisabeth (Liz) Brenner, a Biochemist, who also has a Master of Education degree, has been lecturing in the Science Faculty of the University of the Witwatersrand since 1983. During this period she has taught many courses to undergraduate students at levels from first year to final year (Honours) and has been involved in curriculum design for new courses implemented in the School of Molecular and Cell Biology. She has also designed and taught courses in an outreach programme for grades 10 to 12 high school learners. She was the winner of the Science Faculty’s most distinguished teaching award in 2003, the Vice-Chancellor’s most distinguished teaching award in 2010, and the South African National award for excellence in teaching and learning in 2010. Particular teaching interests lie in exploring pedagogies which promote critical engagement, like the use of interactive classroom technology and using writing to learn in and outside contact periods, and the use of formative assessment for learning.


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