Impact of mother tongue on construction of notes and first-year academic performance

  • Shalini Dukhan School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa
  • Ann Cameron Science Teaching and Learning Centre, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa
  • Elisabeth Brenner School of Molecular and Cell Biology, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa
Keywords: university grades, language, learning, note-making, note-taking


The purpose of this study was to identify whether there are any differences in the quality of the notes constructed in English between students for whom English is a first language and those for whom it is a second language. Subsequently we assessed whether this difference, if any, affected their grades. Unsurprisingly, the first-language students produced better structured and more detailed notes; they also performed better academically than their second-language peers. However, when students were provided with training that focused on using writing as a means to promote critical thinking, there was an improvement in the personalisation of their notes. The improvement in grades was significant for second-language students. Thus the university has a pivotal role to play in preparing students for academic success by providing them with supportive measures to aid their transition into first year.

  • The work illustrates that writing can be used as a tool for students to improve their learning and their academic performance.
  • Second-language students’ grades improve when writing interventions are provided early in the year.
  • Students need to take on the responsibility for their learning; lecturers also have a responsibility in scaffolding learning.
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