THE IMPACT OF THE ACADEMIC SKILLS PROGRAMME ON PASS RATES IN THE INTRODUCTION TO SOUTH AFRICAN LAW MODULE AT THE SCHOOL OF LAW (PIETERMARITZBURG CAMPUS) OF THE UNIVERSITY OF KWAZULU-NATAL
Keywords:academic skills development programmes
In the last two decades, the legal profession has frequently criticized the quality of South African law graduates; in particular many have suggested that students are leaving university without the skills necessary to be successful lawyers. This has placed pressure on law schools to respond in a variety of ways; including through introducing academic skills development programmes. The University of KwaZulu-Natal’s School of Law, Pietermaritzburg, is one such institution which introduced an academic skills programme in 2006. Many reasons have been put forward for the under-preparedness of young law graduates including; firstly, universities are unceasingly having to admit students who are underprepared for academic study. Secondly, the Baccalaureus Legum (LLB) was transformed from being a two-year post-graduate qualification to the current four-year undergraduate degree. In other words, law students must now complete their legal studies in four rather than five years at university. Thirdly, universities are under enormous financial pressure and it is costly to provide sufficient support to students during their studies to compensate for this lack of preparedness. The unintended consequences of all of these changes has been that less well-prepared students must both graduate and acquire the requisite skills to be good lawyers in a shorter period of time thus placing great pressure on them and law teachers.
Universities and tertiary institutions worldwide run academic skills development programmes. These programmes range from narrowly focusing on writing and oral presentation skills to focusing on broader generic study skills that are needed for law students. The University of KwaZulu-Natal’s School of Law, Pietermaritzburg, focused its response to academic skills development around the introduction of a new position, that of Academic Development Co-ordinator (ADC). The first ADC was appointed in 2006. They began by adopting a five-strand approach which aimed at providing: generic skills tutorials, mandatory counselling sessions for at-risk and probation students, embedded writing development interventions in various courses, staff development and special writing tutorials.
In 2010, an academic skills programme was formally integrated into the curriculum of Introduction to South African Law, a first-year module for LLB students. Currently, the programme is still running and consists of a weekly session with the ADC. These are held in lecture-style sessions dealing with: time management, making the most of lectures, learning styles, test preparation, academic/legal reading, summarizing, answering legal problem-type questions, essay writing, case reading, reading legal and journal articles. All the lecture material is contained in a manual which is distributed to students at the start of the semester. Although there is no formal assessment for the course, students have to hand in set tasks. Lecture attendance is compulsory and a register is taken at every lecture. Students who do not attend lose their Duly Performed certificate (DP) and are prohibited from writing the exam.
Six years after formally integrating the academic skills programme into Introduction to South African Law it needs to be asked: “Has it had a positive impact on student success?” This is obviously a complex question which depends on how one would measure success. This note is an exploratory one which reports on a small quantitative and qualitative study undertaken by the School of Law (Pietermaritzburg campus) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal during 2015. The study used pass rates in the Introduction to SA Law module as a proxy maker for student success. It also obtained student perceptions of the course to review its relevance and effectiveness and finally, it reviewed its content against a scale of factors which could predict the ability of a student to succeed which had been developed elsewhere.
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