13 August 2018 Photo Anja Aucamp
Data analytics as key to student success
Knowing who our students are and what their needs are is crucial information that forms the foundation of how institutions could help students succeed to cross the hurdles of student life.

Knowing how to help students succeed through higher education is one of the most pressing challenges currently confronting the system. Despite a significant change in the student population over the past few decades, we are only now beginning to understand who our students are and what their needs are. This crucial information forms the foundation of how institutions could help students succeed. Through two national-level projects funded by the Kresge Foundation, the University of the Free State (UFS) is contributing to the understanding of students and the development of data analytics. 

Siyaphumelela
  

The first project’s goal is to improve the institutional capacity of five higher education institutions to develop institutional research, with a specific focus on data analytics. The UFS was selected to be part of the Siyaphumelela Programme (meaning ‘we succeed’ in isiXhosa) that is sponsored by the Kresge Foundation, and supported by the NGO, the South African Institute for Distance Education (Saide). The project has enabled the UFS to strengthen capacity, collaboration, and to promote a culture of evidence. 

The project has also enabled the UFS to move from data reporting to a more analytical approach. This approach has enabled it to assess the impact of larger student success efforts and continuously improve the quality of these efforts. A focus on data analytics has helped the institution to reflect on its infrastructure and data management procedures. The development of dashboards has also allowed information to be shared with faculties. The UFS therefore sees a data analytical focus as critical to improving its effectiveness and efficiency.

The UFS is also playing a leading role nationally to develop academic advising that helps students align their studies, career, and life goals. Academic advising at the UFS includes the first-year experience module UFS101, online advising portals, and individual consulting sessions for students which focus on curriculum planning and success coaching. We have also proved a significant relationship between academic advice, student engagement and success.(Read Creating pathways for student success and Understanding students: A key to systemic success).


Student engagement

The second national project is focused on student engagement and has been run 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 also plays an important role in supporting the Siyaphumelela project goals. 

Engagement data has helped us to better align teaching and learning, and design environments that put student success and quality at the centre of institutional thinking. 

The culmination of 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 various international and national experts in the higher education environment. This is the first comprehensive publication contextualising student engagement findings in the South African context for the benefit of advancing student success.

Both these projects are contributing to significant developments in the field of higher education and arguably more importantly, to help students succeed.  


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