Research projects

Research plans of the  SOTL @ UJ: Towards a socially just pedagogy team members


The impact of the programme design for nursing first year nursing students at UJ on their cognitive and behavioural adjustment

Erna Bruwer and Saramarie Eagleton Department of Human Anatomy and Physiology; Faculty of Health Sciences; University of Johannesburg.

First year students registered for the BCur degree at UJ have different demographic backgrounds which leads to different levels of preparedness for their programme. As part of their programme they have to work in hospitals while also having to attend lectures and practicals at university. This requires problem based coping skills to manage cognitive requirements and emotional focused ways of coping to manage behavioural demands. The students’ response to the stressors they are exposed to could vary from procrastination to denial and avoidance.

Using “False Hope Syndrome” as a lens we want to investigate the role of physical (environmental), psychological (social adjustment) and psychosocial (interpersonal) stressors on the ability of the first year nursing students to cope with the stressors they are exposed to 

Dr Maria Frahm-Arp

Judaism 101: Rethinking Teaching Approaches and Content

The way of teaching Judaism at the undergraduate level in departments of religion studies has been shaped largely around a historical focus on the development of the religion, its festivals, rituals and theology.  This project seeks to reshape the teaching content and focus on teaching Judaism to focus on ethical and social justice.  The research will examine how changes in the content and way of teaching, which will highlight ethics and social justice, are taken up by students and change students’ understanding of and personal development in ethical and social justice thinking.  The project will run over 3 years tracking the how the teaching is reshaped.  The research project will asked students at the beginning of the semester what their understanding of social justice is.  They will then go through the teaching module.  At the end of the module students will be asked to fill in the questionnaire again and we will then evaluate how effective this teaching has been. 


Roshini Pillay, Social Work, Wits University

PhD supervisors: Professors Vivienne Bozalek and Denise Wood

Name of PhD Project: Crafting a meso practice course for undergraduate social work students: A mixed Methods Study

Although there have been significant changes in teaching and learning practices over the last ten years, social work education in South Africa continues to be characterised by a transmission mode of instruction. The gap in knowledge that the study addresses is that there have been few examples of the use of innovative teaching and learning approaches designed to prepare social work graduates for professional practice generally, and more specifically in meso practice. This study addresses this gap through mixed methods research and aims to explore alternatives in the facilitation of meso intervention for the development of praxis with South African social work undergraduate students. The need for this study is particularly important, as meso practice is a core social work intervention that considers how groups of people address common socio-emotional needs. The strategic aim of this research project is to develop guidelines for course design and to develop facilitation skills in social work education with specific reference to the meso level of intervention to prepare students for the profession. Therefore, the experiences of field instruction supervisors and teachers will be sought to identify problem areas in meso practice education. The problems and suggestions of the practitioners will be considered when developing an authentic environment and task for meso practice to investigate whether it can lead to improved qualitative learning outcomes in this course and to investigate the potential of technology enhanced learning (TEL) approaches designed to facilitate authentic learning experiences for students. A four phased mixed methods research approach will be used: Phase 1 will consist of an analysis of practical problems by the researcher, teachers and field instruction (FI) supervisors and a review of the literature in order to generate relevant questions; Phase 2 will consist of the development of an intervention to address the research questions generated in phase 1; literature will be consulted to develop theoretically informed design principles for the intervention. Phase 3 will include iterative cycles of testing, evaluation and refinement of the interventions. Phase 4 will be a reflection on the entire process to produce design principles which may inform future developments. Purposively selected participants will include social work teachers of meso practice; students registered for the second-year meso practice course at the University of the Witwatersrand and field instruction (FI) social work supervisors. Social constructivism and authentic e-learning principles will provide the theoretical underpinnings for the study. Both qualitative and quantitative data collection methods such as focus groups, interviews and a survey will be used. The data will be analysed using thematic analysis, factor analysis and descriptive statistics. Guidelines for course design, teaching and assessment will emanate from the study.


Marlene de Beer, Social Work

Social Cohesion: Conceptual Development & Models Emerging

The research aims to:
clarify the conceptual meanings of social cohesion (trace the concept and trajectory of social cohesion – its origins and development and the different meanings associated with it)
identify philosophical and theoretical underpinnings of the concept social cohesion  (economic, political, sociological)
identify and present emerging models around social cohesion
develop a more integrated conceptual framework for social cohesion 
indicate/analyse the relation of social cohesion to education 
relate issues of social cohesion to higher education (policy and transformation)  
present possible alternative futures for social cohesion conceptual and model development applicable for (higher) education (policy and transformation).


Brenden Gray, FADA
“The Sandton City of UJ” or “The Art of Accomplishment”: Exploring the relationship between social class, taste and student achievement at FADA. 

Many studies have indicated that strong relationships exist between cultural capital and student achievement in the general sphere of consumption and specifically in formal and informal arts and design education. The art and design disciplines, given their emphasis on individual, practical ‘making’ place a high premium on the stylistic decisions that students make in producing cutting edge cultural commodities for the market.  This means that what is often at stake in the assessment of the student’s work is not so much the demonstration of competence - the application of technical or procedural knowledge, or the reflexive grasp of conventionalized knowledge structures - but the unconscious expression of appreciative repertoires (taste structures internalized through ongoing exposure to various genres, subjects, etc) and through it their dispositional orientations to legitimate culture exemplified by the tastes of their lecturers.  Given that the dispositional and appreciative are closely linked to social class, social origin, position (and thus arguably access to the ‘right’ cultural assets) this may mean that students who succeed are those whose class habitus/ethos are most ‘naturally’ aligned to the dictates of legitimate culture. The implication here is that students without a “feel for the game” of dominant culture may come to be subtly excluded in the educational process.

The study ascertains whether a relationship indeed exists between student achievement in and social class in the art and design fields. This is done by seeing if there is strong or weak correlation between the third year student’s parent’s occupation/school address (reductive indexes of social class) and results they achieve in design subjects  (indexes of achievement) at the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture. The study conducts interviews with students with varying social origins (drawing on multiple models of class analysis) about their experiences of studio peer critiques and private consultations with lecturers in order to expose the classificatory struggles at work in these situations. Analysis of interview data and survey data is compared see what relationship exists between class habitus and student achievement.   


Laura Arnold, Postgraduate Centre

Widening access: The role of postgraduate literacies tutorials in an Honours programme

The educational transition between high school and university has been extensively researched (Fergie, Beeke, McKenna, and Creme, 2011). Thus far, the transition between undergraduate and postgraduate level remains under-researched (Tobbell, O’Donnell and Zammit, 2010). In South Africa postgraduate studies is a particularly fraught area with the numbers of Honours students showing a marked decrease in 2005, and a longer completion time for Master’s students, three years on average, compared to students in developed countries (Council on Higher Education, 2009). While the explicit teaching of academic literacies is seen as a means to help students complete high-quality research in a shorter time period, academic literacies have been defined as a graduate outcome by SAQA since 1997 (Leibowitz, 2011).  Since academic literacies are linked to a graduate outcome it is increasingly common for academics and support staff to be seen as jointly responsible for the teaching of academic literacies as part of the curriculum (Leibowitz, 2011). Both academic and support staff co-teach a B.Com Honours module aimed at preparing students to submit their research report. During the tutorials for this module students are explicitly taught academic literacies (required at postgraduate level) that are linked to a series of mini-assignments that form the basis for their research report. This research project will explore how literacies tutorials in a B. Com Honours module have shaped students´ approaches to thinking, reading and writing in an academic context. Students will participate in threaded discussions as part of their tutorial requirements, and will be invited to two focus groups that will take place mid-way through the module, and at the end of the module.


Vanessa -Jean (Ness) Merckel, PASD

Contemplating the heart of social justice in a Teacher Education Service Learning (TESL) module: A case study for using "troubling dialogues" to teach social justice

Problem: In the preparation of teachers for practice, teacher educators in Higher education  must engage intentionally with how best to teach social justice justly and ethically: by disrupting student knowledge without perpetuating violence, silencing and marginalisation. As HE teachers, and carriers of troubled knowledge, we must also be willing to subject our own dogmas to scrutiny, just as we expect of our students to do. We must also continually explore new ways of theorizing our practice to advance a social justice agenda through critical classroom dialogues.

I taught a Teacher Education Service Learning (TESL) module for in- and pre-service teachers, which was aimed at cultivating critically responsive activist teachers. The specific pedagogy that I used in the module to was work with dialogue about injustice and for a more socially just world and was aimed at exploring our own perceptions about ourselves in relation to others. Through utilising a pedagogy of discomfort and notions of disrupting our “troubled knowledge” I wanted to encourage students to go beyond just knowing about social justice but to also embody socially just practices in their classrooms.  During the 5 years that I taught the module there were many challenges associated with teaching the module, especially when engaging with painfully stories around social justice. These included fostering dialogue about student’s perceptions about their own identity in relation to those they consider  ‘others’; the ethics of how to disrupt students’ “troubled knowledge” without causing unnecessary harm; the generally unacknowledged embodied experience of learning about issues of justice and how the sharing of painful stories could potentially be educative. 

As part of my doctoral study, I wish to present an account of how students engaged with social justice through the use of troubling dialogues and thereby provide insights for teaching practice and contribute to literature about teaching social justice. I hope to do so providing a scholarly account for the specific approach used to teach social justice in the TESL module. I will trace students’ developing understandings of social justice through
    • Examining their assignments and retrospective accounts of the module
    • Establishing a systematic means for analysing student’s understanding of social justice and transformation
And finally I will also examine the role of the teacher in the process of teaching social justice via personal reflections and insights. 

The focus of my doctoral study is on how students experienced learning about social justice in a TESL module when engaging in troubling dialogues, underpinned by an epistemology of love, which is associated with coming to know another, characterised by aspects such as gentleness, participation, vulnerability and respect and supported by contemplative tools. Contemplative scholarship is a relatively underutilised and potentially complimentary way of practising anti oppressive education and deserves further study.

I will conduct an empirical inquiry into the Teacher Education Service Learning (TESL) module as a single case study to address the central research question: “How does a cohort of students experience learning about social justice during and after engaging in troubling dialogues in a Teacher Education Service Learning (TESL) module?”  I aim to develop some theories of general utility, which in this instance is to investigate how students learn about social justice through troubling dialogues when supported by an epistemology of love and contemplative tools.  My study will be have an auto ethnographic component because I will also make reference to personal reflexive insights and reflections I made during the time I taught the module. Primary data will be gathered from the discursive contributions (utterances and artefacts) of the larger sample group of students (n=173) to ascertain the extent to which as a group, the students’ perceptions about social justice changed. In-depth interviews will be conducted with a smaller sample of the group (n=10-12) and a focus group interview will serve as a member check.  Data will be analysed using content analysis derived from intuitive experience and literature to search for recurring themes and patterns.  Content analysis using Transana as a technical transcription tool to support video and image analysis will also be used to analyse video clippings of students’ tasks.
I plan to collect data over the first half of 2015, and complete the study by the end of 2016.


Mthuthuzeli Mvongo, Transformation Office

Exploring the Experiences of First-Generation, Rural Students (PhD)

Students from historically disadvantaged and under-resources backgrounds schools generally face many challenges and difficulties in their social and academic work at university. Although the doors of learning have been opened widely for anyone who qualifies, participation and throughput rates are still unsatisfactory. As Cloete (2009) states that the inequality problem now is about success rates rather than access. There is a great need for epistemological access (better access to the knowledge provided by higher education. 

 The study intends to give an account of the experiences, perceptions, triumphs and challenges of black African, first year, first-generation students in Faculty of Humanities of the University of Johannesburg. . Using both Margaret Archers’ structure, culture and agency and Nancy Walker’s theory of Participatory Parity as lenses to study their experiences the goal is to understand how social structures operate in denying social justice to some.

The study will be a longitudinal and qualitative, making use of reflective diaries, digital stories/photo-voice and semi -structured individual interviews.


Brenda Leibowitz (Faculty of Education) and Pia Lamberti (Postgraduate Centre)

Postgraduate Study in Unchartered Territory

In the context of rising global academicisation in higher education, academic staff are under increasing pressure to obtain doctoral degrees. Pursuing postgraduate qualifications in contexts where there is not a strong tradition of research presents opportunities as well as material, disciplinary and affective challenges for university staff that are not fully understood. The experiences of lecturers at UJ in professional or technically-oriented areas who are registered for Master’s or doctoral degrees is the focus of research that is aimed at deepening understanding of the implications of the new emphasis on credentialisation. It is anticipated that the findings will contribute to the growing literature on postgraduate study but also make a practical contribution by informing university management of what may be seen as reasonable expectations of performance and optimal conditions for success. The study will draw on data from an online survey, as well as on semi-formal interviews with academics and their supervisors. The data will be analysed with reference to the literature on academic identities, communities of practice, and knowledge structure, and the concepts of structure, culture and agency. The researchers, Brenda Leibowitz and Pia Lamberti (UJ), are also collaborating with Gina Wisker and colleagues (Brighton University, UK) in order to explore the similarities and differences between the experiences of South African and British academics who are pursuing higher degrees   


Kibbie Naidoo, PASD, Brenda Leibowitz, Faculty of Education, Razia Mayet, ADC

Exploring Scholarship of Teaching and Learning @ UJ

The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at UJ Project emphasises the need for a socially just pedagogy which address inequities in the higher education system. The project seeks to ‘develop a pedagogy of possibility and critical hope’ and this necessitates practitioners and researchers who embody criticality and critique. It requires academics to explore their own assumptions and change these should the need arise. To this end the SoTL @UJ project has an explicit transformative goal. The research that is proposed here aims to examine the extent to which the SoTL @ UJ project
achieves this goal.
The research will involve a case study of the project. The main question that drives the project is:
To what extent does the SoTL @UJ project facilitate transformation amongst participants?
A sub-question would be: what are the philosophical and pedagogical principles that inform a community of inquiry based on a social justice approach?The aim of the project will be to examine shifts in thinking about SoTL for social justice amongst participants. This will involve exploring their experiences of the project, the ways in which their involvement influences their practice as well as their reflections on this.   The project is designed to facilitate a shift from purely theoretical to exploring the connections between theory and practice. The research will explore the extent to which this will help participants become  more critical/reflexive  about theory and practice in relation to  social justice and more confident about implementing change-oriented interventions.  In addition to this the research will examine the project in relation to its influence, dissemination and reach.
This is a qualitative, participatory research  project that proposes SoTL as a way of doing research. The main source of data is the one on one interview. Additional data sources will be blog entries, and seminar discussions. The research will be conducted in 2 phases. In the first phase interviews will be conducted in pairs. The second phase will occur 6 months later. Participants will be asked to reflect on their initial responses (on paper/orally /in a seminar).


Puleng Motshoane, CAT

Institutional support for emerging supervisors

I am looking at institutional support for emerging supervisors. My research question is ‘What are the enablements and constraints in doctoral supervision support in SA HE? I intend to look at three differentiated institutions to account for the claim that over 80% of doctoral graduates are from the traditional universities. The use of Archer’s social realism will allow me to look for structural, cultural and agential constraints and enablements while the notion of social justice will enable me to address the political ethics of care in supervision development.


Pia Lamberti (Postgraduate Centre) and Delia Layton (English Department)

Academic literacies transitions: senior undergraduate to postgraduate

The study will focus on developments in students' academic writing as they make the
transition from third year to honours and, for some, to Master’s level study. The research will take place over a two-year period (beginning in the 2nd semester, 2015) and track the academic literacy development of students from selected Humanities, Social Sciences and Creative Arts departments as they transition from undergraduate to postgraduate studies. Student essays, research reports and dissertations will be collected as data to be used for linguistic/discourse analysis. Semi-structured interviews may be also conducted. The analytical focus will be academic argumentation (Andrews 2007, 2010) and, specifically, the development of authorial voice (Swain 2007; Tang 2009; Hyland and Sancho Guinda 2012; Lamberti and Wentzel 2014), as students encounter the challenges of moving from the reproduction of knowledge to the critical and creative engagement with it that is a prerequisite for the construction of claims to new knowledge (Kamler and Thomson 2006; Aitchison, Kamler and Lee 2010; Hood 2010). It is envisaged that the research will provide empirical evidence of the development of advanced academic literacies (Schleppergrell and Colombi 2002).  It will contribute to social justice pedagogy in that the findings can be used in teaching that addresses student needs by facilitating the development of the discursive resources necessary for successful postgraduate study.


Bongani Mashaba (PASD)

Curriculum Restructuring in Higher Education South Africa: Is it socially just?
In 2013 the CHE released a discussion document with proposal to restructure the South African higher education curriculum. The restructuring calls for all qualifications to be extended by a year. Three years qualifications will become four years while the four years will be five years without adding additional contents. Amongst many reasons, the CHE (2013: 108) notes that the additional year is to create extra curriculum space in order “to make provision for additional formal curriculum time to allow for foundational and supportive provision in various forms and at the different levels for all students who need it” 
This move follows an observation by a panel of experts that many of the students entering higher education are not adequately prepared for a university study. The articulation gap between high schools and HE is cited as one of the main reason. Therefore, the restructuring attempts address this gap subsequently to increase the sluggish graduation output.
The problem
So far, many universities equally agree that the restructuring can indeed assist to address the articulation gap. On the hand, Ball (1990); Inglis (1978) have long argued that policies have a tendency to just mention the obvious while what they actually mean or aim is not mentioned. Inglis (1978) in particular, argues that they (policies) are embedded in the value assumptions of system builders. What they advocate for as texts could be different from what they are actually offering in practice (Ball, 1990). Thus, to really get a grasp of the actual intention of a particular policy, Ball (1990) suggests that policies should be carefully investigated at three levels; economic, political and ideological. An investigation of this kind is likely to bring about clarity as to whose interests; politically, economically and ideologically had been catered for.
Aim of the study
The aim of this project is to investigate the tabled proposal to ascertain whether there are silences that need to be exposed before the proposal is considered or implemented
The study is socially just as it seeks to understand whose interest the restructuring will be serving. The finding will then give a clear indication of whether the restructuring will be serving the interests of students as it is continuously suggested in the document.

The document will be analysed against the background of current ideas about academic literacy, epistemological access and social justice.

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