Jessica Versfeld, University of Pretoria
Reginald Kanyane, University of Pretoria
Branden Versfeld, University of Pretoria
Academic support workshops provide valuable knowledge and skills that can improve lifelong learning and student success. They help develop important skills such as time management, critical thinking, and communication, with research indicating higher retention and graduation rates for participating students (de Klerk, 2021; Senko et al., 2011; Tiroyabone & Strydom, 2021). However, student reluctance to attend such workshops can limit their effectiveness in achieving these outcomes (Brunello & Conti, 2002; Singh & Zintzaras, 2019). This article will explore the various incentives and perks that can be used to encourage students to attend academic support workshops, and the evidence that suggests these incentives and perks are effective in increasing student attendance.
While many studies have been conducted on best practice for academic advising in developed countries, there are relatively few studies on academic advising in developing countries like South Africa (de Klerk, 2021; Naidoo, 2021). The unique socio-economic and political context of South Africa may create different challenges and opportunities for academic advising in comparison to developed countries (de Klerk, 2021; Tiroyabone & Strydom, 2021). Therefore, more research is needed in developing countries like South Africa to understand the specific challenges and opportunities for academic advising in this context and to develop strategies that are effective for these contexts.
South Africa is a country with a high level of inequality; despite being considered an upper-middle-income country by the World Bank, economic growth has been stagnant and unemployment rates have been rising (Strydom & Loots, 2020; Sulla & Zikhali, 2018). Education is widely recognized as a crucial tool for promoting economic and social progress in South Africa and other post-colonial countries (Francis & Webster, 2019; Sulla & Zikhali, 2018). However, South Africa's higher education system is widely acknowledged to be inadequate in meeting the country's needs for skilled graduates and individual educational aspirations due to difficulties in managing high enrolment rates and retaining and graduating students, particularly for first-year students, first-generation students, and those from low socio-economic backgrounds (de Klerk, 2021; Mouton et al., 2013; Naidoo, 2021; Strydom & Loots, 2020). Despite funding initiatives aimed at increasing university access for lower- and middle-class families, graduation rates remain low, with only 29% of students who registered for an undergraduate degree in 2011 graduating within the required time frame (Statistics South Africa, 2019).
There is a need for additional student support at the university level in South Africa and internationally, and universities need to constantly reassess their teaching and support structures to address the low rate of successful transition for some students (Bangeni, & Kapp, 2017; de Klerk, 2021). Academic advising is a key practice in the South African higher education sector that connects faculty and student support services at universities (de Klerk et al., 2017; Kilfoil et al., 2021; Strydom & Loots, 2020). The duties of academic advisors include reaching out to students, offering workshops and counselling, monitoring student progress, supporting self-referred students, and assisting with program changes (de Klerk, 2021). This may include evaluating the effectiveness of current interventions and considering new approaches to support student success.
Despite the availability of several interventions to support students, these resources are significantly underutilized. Researchers such as Mason (2017) and Bornschlegl et al. (2020) suggest that low levels of help-seeking behaviour and effective use of university resources may be attributed to students' limited awareness of the benefits of these resources. Encouraging students to attend workshops; seek out tutors, mentors, and academic advisors; or consider therapy requires a positive attitude, self-discipline, motivation, and self-direction (Bornschlegl et al., 2020).
Studies have found that the presence of incentives and rewards has the potential to increase the appeal of activities and participation rates (Brunello & Conti, 2002; Singh & Zintzaras, 2019). For example, a study by Singh and Zintzaras (2019) found that non-monetary incentives, such as recognition and awards, helped increase student attendance in educational activities by an average of 20%. Similarly, a study by Brunello and Conti (2002) revealed that rewards, such as credit points and awards, were the major drivers for increased student participation. These encouraging results suggest that incentives and perks are effective in stimulating and encouraging student attendance at academic support workshops. However, it's important to note that material incentives may not be effective in the long term, and it's crucial to find ways to make the workshops or support services appealing and engaging to students to ensure they continue to seek help and utilise the resources (Bangeni & Kapp, 2017; Bornschlegl, et al., 2020).
Implementation of the Incentivising Intervention
The EBIT (Engineering, Built Environment and IT) faculty provide academic advising to students through individual consultations and workshops on topics related to mental health, time management, and study methods. The academic advisors send weekly emails to students reminding them of their services and encouraging them to schedule individual consultations via a Google calendar link. Information about workshop times, topics, and venues is also communicated to students. Despite sending approximately 7,000 emails to all registered EBIT students, workshop attendance is alarmingly low. In the first semester of 2022, only 40–50 students attended the workshops, and this figure declined by 0.46% to 10–15 students attending workshops in the second semester. However, the academic advising statistics indicate an average of 700 individual academic advisor consultations per month. Therefore, 10% of all registered EBIT students make use of individual consultations with academic advisors, compared to only 0.64% of students attending first semester workshops and only 0.18% of students attending second semester workshops.
Due to low attendance at exam preparation workshops by engineering students, academic advisors requested funding for exam packs from the Dean of Teaching and Learning. In November 2022, four exam preparation workshops were advertised to students, but only eight and five students attended the workshops, respectively. To increase attendance, the workshops were subsequently advertised with the added incentive of free exam packs. These included translucent pencil cases, notebooks, highlighters, pens, and lanyards. As a result, the final two workshops were attended by 123 and 166 students, respectively.
A one-tailed z-test with a significance level of 0.05 to test this hypothesis was conducted. With a sample size of 7000, the calculated z-value was 24.35, which is much greater than the critical value of 1.645 at a significance level of 0.05 with a one-tailed test. Therefore, the researchers rejected the null hypothesis and concluded that the increase in attendance rate with incentives was statistically significant. Based on this analysis, the incentive provided to students was effective in increasing attendance rates at the exam preparation workshops.
Budgets for material incentives for workshops are typically not worked into university budgets within a Global South context (Department of Higher Education and Training, 2018). However, research that supports the benefits of offering such incentives for workshops may help motivate universities to make material incentives part of their budgets. By providing evidence of the positive impact of material incentives on workshop attendance and student engagement, universities may be more willing to allocate funds for such programs. Additionally, alternative ways to offer incentives, such as through partnerships with local businesses or crowdfunding, could be explored to minimize the financial burden on the university.
It's also important to consider the long-term effectiveness of material incentives, as they may not sustain engagement in the long run. In terms of reward mechanisms, monetary incentives and rewards should be used sparingly and judiciously as monetary rewards can have a limited and short-term influence on motivation and engagement (Senko et al., 2011). Therefore, it's important to note that material incentives are not a one-size-fits-all solution, and universities should also consider other strategies to increase student engagement, such as creating more interactive and engaging workshops, personalizing support, and addressing the underlying causes of low help-seeking behaviour (Moutonet al., 2013; de Klerk, 2021).
Despite the potential effectiveness of incentives and rewards, the type of incentives should be carefully chosen to maximize the efficiency of academic support workshop initiatives designing a program, educational institutions need to identify and prioritize the target group and identify desired outcomes (Singh & Zintzaras, 2019). Material incentives may be necessary, particularly towards the end of the year, to encourage students to attend workshops. These incentives may help to overcome factors such as fatigue, burnout, or a general decline in university attendance as the year progresses (de Klerk, 2021; Tiroyabone & Strydom, 2021).
The article specifically reviews the need for and effectiveness of incentives and perks to motivate students to attend academic support workshops within a Global South context. This means that the study focuses on educational institutions and students from countries that are classified as Global South, which often include low-income and developing countries. The article discussed different strategies and approaches that educational institutions, specifically in Global South contexts, can use to optimize the effectiveness of their incentives and rewards programs. The findings from the research suggest that incentives and rewards can be used to increase student participation and engagement in academic support workshops, and that a properly executed program has the potential to achieve positive results. Given the potential benefits of providing material incentives for student success workshops, it may be worthwhile for universities in a Global South context to consider increasing their budgets for these types of incentives, as it could have a positive impact on student success in these contexts.
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