First-Year Experience (FYE) was established to help students negotiate the transition from school to university, and make use of the many resources available to achieve their full potential. FYE works alongside faculties and service structures to improve student learning.

FYE has identified four main objectives:

  1. strengthening pre-admissions support and first-year careers’ advice;
  2. providing a welcoming and supportive university-environment for prospective and new students in all faculties;
  3. promoting a renewed focus on first-year teaching;
  4. promoting an integrated approach to student development, linking initiatives that respond to students’ academic, affective, social and material needs.

While still in its pilot phase the work of FYE has resulted in improvements in key areas and in the following pilot projects in faculties:

Pilot projects

  • Early Assessment
  • FYE VULA sites
  • Extended Orientation / FYE Talks
  • Digital literacy


  • Pre-admissions’ support
  • Orientation
  • Mentoring
  • Tutoring

While a great deal can be done centrally, because the faculties have individual needs based on disciplinary differences and faculty cultures, FYE will take a different form in each faculty. However, the aim is to ensure that the work is informed by institution-wide policies and structures so that all students have excellent support structures and access to resources.

Early Assessment

The aim of the Early Assessment is to identify students who are struggling at an early stage and to engage in proactive referral and intervention. The tool also has the potential to help departments review their assessment practices in the light of student performance, and to help faculties look at patterns of performance across departments/programmes. The Early Assessment exercise has already generated much discussion about the relationship between teaching and assessment, and about appropriate forms of assessment. It has strengthened the student advice system by providing explicit guidelines, and has also facilitated early identification of a range of individual academic and psycho-social problems which act as stumbling blocks to students achieving their full potential.  

FYE VULA sites

In collaboration with FYE, all faculties are using the FYE VULA sites as online student support hubs. These sites act as the first port of call for essential information. The sites are jointly managed by faculties and FYE, and include the following kinds of information:

  • The network of academic and psycho-social resources
  • Information on FYE talks (see Extended Orientation below)
  • A guide to Early Assessment
  • Student advisor details
  • Relevant admin forms
  • Interactive, monitored forums
  • Campus maps

The sites promote the notion of students being pro-active, asking for help and taking responsibility for their learning. This communication/message has been repeated in separate pamphlets developed for students and parents/guardians. Students are introduced to the sites during orientation VULA training and reminded about them through posters and VULA advertisements.

Extended Orientation / FYE Talks

Some faculties run an extended orientation programme. The purpose is to provide pro-active support for students in key academic skills areas (such as writing and information literacy), as well as curriculum and career planning and the management of stress, time, finances etc. They are also intended to provide support (after the Early Assessment results) and to refer students appropriately. Faculties are increasingly integrating the notion of extended orientation into their courses, or else timetabling the sessions in ‘free’ lecture slots. We have also developed online VULA screencasts to cover some of the crucial areas such as stress management, preparing for examinations etc. This is an area where faculties are engaged in ongoing review.

Digital literacy

As a result of the collaboration between faculties, FYE and CILT (Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching), UCT has moved from the notion of computer literacy to digital literacy. Digital literacy is an umbrella framework for a number of complex and integrated sub-disciplines – comprised of skill, knowledge, ethics and creative output in the digital network environment. It includes the notion that students have to become proficient in a range of literacies (computer, information, media, and communication, visual and technology skills) that are integral to disciplinary ways of knowing and reading and writing.  
Students complete a guided self-assessment to help them determine what digital literacy training and experience they need for the courses. CILT conducts digital literacy training for tutors, orientation leaders and residence mentors, and supports faculties to run extended opt-in programmes covering a range of digital literacy skills. In addition to developing virtual resources to assist students, CILT is also working with specific courses to assist in the integration of digital literacy into course curricula.

Improvement of Pre-Admissions’ support and first-year counselling

UCT Careers Service has developed a specific programme to improve pre-admissions’ support and first-year counselling.  A full-time Pre-Admissions’ Careers Advisor post has been established. A “train the trainer’s” model is being used to work with teachers and service-providers and these workshops are highly subscribed. Careers Service is also actively working with faculties to integrate faculty-specific careers programmes.


FYE, in collaboration with the Careers Service and the Student Advocacy and Orientation Service, initiated a help desk and ‘tech buddy’ programme during Orientation and the first few weeks of the academic term. The help desks (located across UCT’s campuses) are staffed by senior students who refer and direct first-year students. Tech buddies offer first-year students assistance in the computer laboratories or during their computer training sessions. The following are other improvements that have been made to Orientation:

  • greater emphasis on interactive small-group/home-room facilitation/role play/project-based work
  • where appropriate, more space for curriculum choice sessions
  • greater use of digital resources such as videos
  • a residence academic orientation programme has been introduced in all first-tier residences
  • more involvement of mainstream academics in some faculties


All faculties now have some form of mentoring programme – where senior offer guidance to first-years, helping with the stress and anxiety of their transition. We are working towards the goal of offering all first-year students a mentor by 2016.


A report on the experiences of first-year tutors was produced by FYE. The report is based on an online VULA survey and 6 focus group discussions.  The aim was to try to develop a system-wide picture of tutors’ understanding of their role, their experiences of training and support, their classroom experiences and their perceptions of their conditions of service.

About Dr Fontaine-Rainen (FYE Director):

Dr Fontaine’s has served as the Assistant Director of the Center for Teaching & Scholarly Excellence at Suffolk University, in Boston Massachusetts, where she provided professional development and support to faculty. Prior to this, she served as Adjunct Professor in Clark University’s Graduate School of Geography. Dr Fontaine has also served as the Program Coordinator in Clark University’s Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. In addition to the professional experience Dr Fontaine brings to her role, she has completed her Honours and undergraduate degrees in Science at the University of Cape Town, enhancing her understanding of the local, student experience.