Do tutors matter? Assessing the impact of tutors on firstyear academic performance at a South African university

  • Tracey Morton McKay


The number of students enrolled in higher education outside their countries of originincreased from 0.8 million in 1975, to 2.1 million in 2000, and to 3.7 million in 2009(Ryan, 2012). This growing trend of student mobility leads to increased universitycompetition for students around the globe. However, little is known about the experiencesof international students in Africa. This lack of understanding could leave the continentat a disadvantage for attracting and retaining international students, while other partsof the world continue to benefit. To begin to address this gap, I conducted a qualitativephenomenological study at one private university in East Africa that attracts about 20% ofits population as international students.As International Student Coordinator at this university, I interviewed 13 graduatestudents from various countries and conducted participant observations on campus forthree years. I aimed to understand students’ perceptions of their learning experiences.This article focuses on students’ non-academic learning. Students’ positive and negativeexperiences highlighted the difference that student affairs and administrative staff can makein the quality of students’ educational experiences. A needs model shed light on students’non-academic experiences. Student affairs and administrative staff were essential in1) providing pre-arrival information, 2) meeting students’ initial basic needs, 3) connectingthem with others, keeping immigration documents current, and 5) understanding the newacademic system. Ecologically, students were required to make a variety of connections intheir adjustment process on campus and beyond.If the university could adequately addressinternational students’ non-academic issues, then students would be better able to focuson their main purpose: their academics. It is recommended that the university revisit itsprocedures and develop more holistic international-student-friendly policies. Then, it couldbetter support the learning of its present students and attract more international students,thereby more greatly impacting the world.This research sought to determine if a teaching intervention using tutors in a South African university could promote epistemological access to university for first-year students. Although hiring, developing and managing tutors takes money, time and energy, the effectiveness of tutors in the South African context is underreported. The first-year class under study was diverse in terms of gender, race, ethnicity and geographical origin. The tutors were all postgraduate students, and similarly diverse. In terms of research design, student test results were compared from one test to another. The students also rated the tutors. Students who attended the majority of the assigned tutorials improved their marks by an average of 20%. Even students whose tutorial attendance was haphazard fared better academically than those who did not attend at all. Students who skipped all the tutorials saw a dramatic decline in their marks, suggesting that tutorial attendance should be obligatory. Individual tutors matter, however. It seems that some tutors can explain, facilitate understanding and engage their students better than others. Students assigned to such tutors achieved the greatest academic gains. Thus, recruitment strategies and tutor training are crucial. Tutor popularity (based on student ratings) did not correlate with positive academic improvements. Thus, student ratings should not by themselves strongly influence hiring decisions. In conclusion, resources allocated to tutors were worthwhile and the tutors enabled epistemological access for many.