November 22, 2022

Catalyst Awards Blog Series: TASTE the UP Way with Three-Course Orientation at the University of Pretoria (UP)

The Catalyst Awards program recognizes innovation and excellence in our global community of practice. In this blog series, a selection of 2022 award-winning institutions from across the globe share their success stories and best practices.

This post was guest authored by Hestie Byles, manager of academic advising at the University of Pretoria, South Africa. 

The University of Pretoria is a 2022 Catalyst Award winner in the “Optimizing the Student Experience” category. 

At the University of Pretoria (UP), the orientation of first-year students is considered a critical success factor in increasing access, throughput, and success rates.

The University of Pretoria is one of the largest residential universities in South Africa, with its administration offices located on the Hatfield Campus in Pretoria. This 114-year-old institution is also the largest producer of research in South Africa.

Spread over seven campuses, it has nine faculties (colleges) and a business school, the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS). It is the only university in the country with a Faculty (College) of Veterinary Science, which is ranked top in Africa. UP has 120 academic departments and 92 centers and institutes, accommodating more than 56,000 students and offering approximately 1,100 study programs. UP is one of the top five universities in South Africa, according to the 2019-2020 rankings by the Center for World University Rankings.

The first-year orientation specifically speaks to strengthening initiatives aimed at preparing our students to thrive and succeed in the evolving complex landscape. The Academic Orientation Program for first-year students is an academic program that falls under the DVC Academic and is organized by the Department for Education Innovation. To enhance the impact of the academic orientation week, each of the university’s colleges collaborate closely during the planning stages of the program. The orientation week focuses on the incoming cohort of students’ minimum time to completion and on Transitions; Advice and academic support; Support information that students will need; practical sessions using Technology and information on the Expectations of UP. Collectively this gives first year students a TASTE of UP.


Using the first-year orientation to address anticipated and real challenges


An appetizer before the main course: pre-orientation

As with many other institutions, we are aware that we will enroll students from disadvantaged backgrounds with no access to technological tools and who may not have used computers before. This was amplified during the pandemic when first-year orientation had to be presented online. As a result, the pre-orientation module was developed for all provisionally accepted students. The aim of this module is to provide all learners who may become UP students the opportunity to receive a glimpse into what they may expect from academic life at UP, while at the same time having the opportunity to practice working in the online Blackboard® Learn environment.

Part one of the pre-orientation module is an introductory computer course that is offered on three levels: students who are not comfortable with computers; students who are moderately comfortable with computers; and students who feel comfortable using a computer.

The second unit of pre-orientation is called “Skills” to support your academics. This unit consists of three parts:

Part One: Academic reading

Part Two: Academic writing

Part Three: Grammar

The final unit looks at aspects related to being a financially savvy citizen and understanding currency. Topics dealt with in this unit include saving, budgeting, percentages, earnings, taxes, and more.

The main course: the academic orientation week

After students have the opportunity to engage in the online environment or the Blackboard Learn Learning Management System (LMS), the academic orientation week commences. Participating in the orientation program is compulsory for all first-year students as this supports and prepares them for the year ahead.

The aim of the academic orientation week is to:

● Make students feel welcome at UP

● Help students adapt to the university environment

● Prepare students for the academic year

● Ensure that students cope with the academic demands of being at the university

● Ensure that students know where to find help at UP

Then for dessert: seven-week online extended orientation program

All students are required to complete a seven-week online extended orientation program, University of Pretoria online extended Orientation (UPO), presented in the LMS. The UPO modules are monitored constantly and students are motivated to engage with and complete the module through regular (weekly) nudges. Assessments in UPO, that encourage student engagement in the module, are concluded within a few weeks of delivering the seven-week content. The resources and tools contained in UPO, however, remain available to students throughout the academic year. This provides the first-year students with access to academic support and consultation with Faculty Student Advisors (FSAs), who are the facilitators of UPO. FSAs are available to address academic challenges throughout the year.

The results

5,645 students completed the pre-orientation.

5,459 of these students are now registered UP students.

561 self-reported that they are not comfortable using a computer

3,814 self-reported that they are very moderately comfortable using a computer

3,451 self-reported that they are very comfortable using a computer

Overall, a total of 82.5% of students registered during the orientation period, attended the academic orientation week, and reported that they feel welcome, they know where to find support, and they are ready for the academic demands of university life.

Lessons learned and recommendations

● Students prefer an on-campus orientation.

● The pre-orientation should remain available to assist underprepared students.

● Sessions where module/ subject choices or other important administrative issues are discussed, when presented online, should be done with careful moderation of the chat function. When students are allowed to write chat messages, they tend to ask the same questions while not listening to the responses given as the chats become a distraction.

● If a program has to be presented online, first-year students prefer collaborative sessions to pre-recorded videos.

● Sending a clear message to students that they are welcome and that support is available is important and well-received by students.

For more information on the program, visit Catalyst Awards. Learn more about our 2022 Catalyst Award winners and their stories.