Adult students within higher education institutions: The portfolio development course as a preparatory mechanism for academic success

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Higher education institutions have to adapt increasingly to diverse, non-traditional student communities, including older adult students. Recognition of prior learning (RPL) is one of the ways in which these students can be accommodated. RPL enables the older adult student who has a limited formal education and who does not meet the required academic entry requirements to access higher education. RPL can also be used to gain credit for learning achieved outside a formal education facility. RPL is, furthermore, a mechanism of redress for previously disadvantaged groups who did not have equal access under the previous government dispensation. RPL is thus an inclusive approach to education, which is especially important given marginalised and disadvantaged groups that persist in the South African higher education sector. South African higher education institutions differ in terms of how RPL is spelled out in policy and implemented in practice, as it can be used for access and/or credit within earmarked formal higher education programmes. Despite these differences, RPL does provide a flexible manner of providing access to diverse student populations, particularly older adult students, as was the case in this study.

The way in which older adult students document their prior learning can influence their further academic success and possibilities. But such students are not necessarily well prepared for such a documentation process, particularly as they might not ever have been part of the dominant formal higher education discourses ever, or not been a part of it for a long time. Therefore the RPL process needs to include support and guidance activities such as academic writing support, mentoring, counselling, administrative services, alternative access programmes, as well as preparation for formative and summative feedback and assessment. Such a comprehensive process requires a specialised pedagogical approach in order to help these students convert their informal learning gains into recognisable formal requirements through reflection on their prior learning The students also need to provide proof that they are able to function in an academic environment, even though they may initially lack the necessary self-confidence and skills. They therefore require a structured process, such as a portfolio development programme. Portfolio development programmes are successful only if they include relevant reflection activities, relate to the students’ real-life worlds and are linked to the skills required by the higher education institution. This is no easy task, as academic knowledge construction does not happen by itself. The question therefore arises: How does a portfolio development course prepare an older adult student to be successful in a higher education institution?

Previous studies on RPL (particularly in the South African context) focused on policy analyses and guidelines, theoretical conceptualisations, and/or institutional approaches. These contributions were valuable in conceptualising RPL within a South African context, and in critiquing existing policy and practice, but did not directly address student perceptions and experiences of the RPL process within higher education institutions. This article therefore set out to document a student perspective on RPL practices at one South African higher education institution with specific reference to the portfolio development programme for older adult students seeking access to the institution through alternative means.

The investigation on which this article is based determined how the recognition of prior learning (RPL) process at one higher education institution prepares the adult student to be successful. These adults’ knowledge, skills and attitudes that were gained through an alternative way of learning (their prior learning) are explored by means of reflection through a portfolio development process. Prior learning is identified and documented according to the specifications of the institution. Students’ cognitive skills are stimulated; they come into contact with the formal educational discourse, and improve their academic language skills.

The study itself employed a self-administered questionnaire, semi-structured individual interviews, as well as an analysis of the textual data in the portfolios of the adult students who took part in the study as sources of data to investigate the potential contribution of this process to the adults’ academic success. The respondents to this study all had adult responsibilities such as family and work commitments. The decision to study further was, therefore not easy, but they were motivated by their family background, early departure from formal schooling, previous and current work experiences, current circumstances, and potential career possibilities.

The findings indicate that these students’ motivation for accessing formal education is complex and multiple. The respondents reported that time planning was a major factor they needed to master in order to find a balance between academic demands and everyday life. The portfolio development process exposed students to the schedule of university life, the workload and tempo that would be expected of them. The students furthermore found constructive feedback on their portfolio development tasks useful in monitoring their own performance, and it helped them to (re)define their academic goals, which is important for achieving academic success and for managing their personal and occupational circumstances.

The findings of the study furthermore indicate that the holistic approach involves all role players that could improve adult students’ changes of academic success. Support systems and mentoring programmes that may promote adult students’ academic progress are also available. The students’ own motivation is promoted in this manner, which in turn contributes to their academic success. The RPL process and the provision of adult-centred learning activities in the portfolio development programme studied were in accordance with current national legislation. The involvement of all institutional role players in constructing a coherent RPL system helps to position the portfolio development programme as core support mechanism in ensuring older adult students’ academic success. The availability of mentors and age-appropriate tutors ensured that students felt comfortable to ask for help and establish their own support networks. In this way the students encouraged one another to improve their academic performance, which led to personal growth and development, and easier adjustment to the university environment. They could monitor their own academic success with the help of these support mechanisms in order to achieve their full potential. Active academic monitoring of RPL students furthermore contributed to continuous improvement of the existing system and the improvement of the academic success of the students in it.

This article provides an older adult student perspective on the portfolio development component of the RPL process at one South African higher education institution. As such, it contributes to our understanding of both adult learning within a formal learning setting, as well as to understanding how such learning can be made accessible and possible through a process such as the recognition of prior learning. The article highlights the importance of a student-centred approach from the onset of prospective adult students’ interaction with formal higher education learning environments. It also emphasises the role that support structures, peer learning and structured approaches play in older adult students’ entry into higher education programmes and their eventual academic success. The findings indicate that the portfolio development process at the particular institution is well structured to ensure that the older adult students show progression towards academic success.

There are some aspects that may require further deliberation and consideration. Academic writing is a difficult process to master. Therefore mentoring and peer learning should take place in the older adult students’ home languages, and that is not currently the case. Social networks (such as WhatsApp) can be used as a platform for giving academic guidance regarding the completion of assignments, in building communication networks, as well as providing moral support and building motivation among participants during the portfolio development process. Peer tutors should include first-year students who themselves went through the RPL and portfolio development process in gaining access to the institution. Such peer tutors can provide feedback to prospective older adult students on their own experiences of university life, and on which strategies they found useful in negotiating access and academic success.

The limitations of the study on which this article reports caution us against generalising the findings beyond the institution included in the study. We also acknowledge the individual nature of adult learning and circumstances. The study does, however, create the scope for further research. Currently English is used as the language of instruction within the institution, which has a diverse student population. We still do not know how home language instruction can address older adult students’ language barriers to academic success. The question arises how mentoring programmes that take home language preferences into account can facilitate the development of older adult students’ academic writing skills. We would, furthermore, like to find out how social media could be used as a support mechanism to prepare the older adult student during the RPL process for eventual academic success within the particular higher education institution. It would also be interesting to compare older adult students’ experiences of RPL processes within a variety of higher education institutions, both nationally and internationally. In this way we may not only better understand the learning needs of older adult students, but also envisage how we may make RPL processes truly meaningful and transformational.

Keywords: adult students; higher education; recognition of prior learning (RPL)


Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Volwasse studente in hoëronderwysinstellings: Die portefeulje-ontwikkelingskursus as ’n voorbereidingsmeganisme vir akademiese sukses

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