This post was originally published by the Association of Commonwealth Universities on 22nd April 2015 (link).

‘Even a spoonful of narrative is worth more than oceans of opinion’ – Cynthia Kurtz (2014)

This blog post will discuss how a Participatory Narrative Inquiry (PNI) approach was used in the evaluation of the Sasol Inzalo Foundation’s bursary programme in South Africa. As part of the evaluation process, students were encouraged to record their experiences using self-quantified narratives, with the aim of using the insights to inform the design of student support during the bursary programme.

Sasol Inzalo Foundation Bursary Programme

Since 2010, the Sasol Inzalo Foundation (SaIF) has awarded bursaries to students in South Africa for engineering and science degrees. With the aim of contributing to social redress in the context of South Africa’s history of apartheid (and how that disadvantaged students of colour), SaIF’s selection criteria are geared towards providing university access to mainstream programmes for academically-high performing, but previously disadvantaged students, with a bias towards rural learners. There is a set target to achieve a 60:40 female-male ratio.

The SaIF approach differs from typical company bursary schemes, which often select what they consider to be low risk students who are viewed as future employable talent and typically provide limited support outside of what is offered by the universities. In contrast, SaIF selects higher risk students from impoverished contexts who are then supported through an adaptive support programme aimed at addressing vulnerabilities that put their retention and academic achievement at risk.

Supporting students and tracking stories

Over the course of five years The Narrative Lab (TNL) and StudyTrust gathered in excess of 3,000 stories from beneficiaries of the SaIF programme. The support programme (managed by StudyTrust) consisted of contact sessions and remote assistance – this evolved over time, informed by the developmental research, as lessons were learned about how best to support students. The resulting support model was built around three strands:

  1. Personal attention and interest
  2. Belonging to a community
  3. Life skills-building

In addition to academic and psychosocial support, an important role of the support programme was to ‘hold the students’ through periods of self-doubt and support their sense of self-efficacy so they could continue with their studies

The SaIF bursary programme tested and incorporated support initiatives to overcome specific hurdles as and when they were identified, thus minimising the risks of vulnerabilities (academic, personal or social). Including the voice of the students in the design and implementation of their support was a crucial step in the development of the programme. To do so, we employed a Participatory Narrative Inquiry (PNI) approach.

Participatory Narrative Inquiry

Stories are artefacts that represent experiences, but are also processes that create meaning. In some cases, a story is a representation of an event, a retelling of an experience where there is an actor, characters, context and movement of some sorts. Story as a verb refers to the process of telling stories, but also of how we make sense of the world around us.

Participatory Narrative Inquiry (PNI) – based heavily on the work of Cynthia Kurtz – blends participatory action research and narrative inquiry. By emphasising raw stories of personal experience and the interpretation of stories by the authors themselves, it invites its participants to work with their own stories.

Participatory Narrative Inquiry recipe

Source: Working with Stories

PNI also advocates an oft-neglected phase of research – the return of the data and insights to those who contributed the stories in the first place. In the return phase of PNI, what has been gathered and produced through elicitation and analysis of stories is returned to the community and enters into collective discourse.

Kurtz points out that asking questions about stories is not anything new or unnatural; it’s only what people have always done. Including questions about the story in a survey – our ‘storynaire’ – mimics this natural process. The resulting data in PNI are therefore very rich, highlighting attitudes, perspectives and values, in addition to more outcome-based measures, and allowing relationships that were of practical value to be unearthed.

Incorporating the student voice

Student’s shared their stories through an online storynaire and the stories related to the experiences and challenges they faced in their academic journey, as well as their responses to support interventions. In addition to the stories, students completed survey questions based on key theoretical factors in student adaptation, performance and persistence.

The story and survey data were also combined with quantitative and qualitative data from other sources for analysis. This approach, unique in South Africa, is highly relevant because of its participatory nature and is ideally suited to work in complex, unknown contexts, such as supporting students from impoverished, rural contexts.

The responses to survey questions were visualised in an interactive dashboard, where the visualisations were used for analysis by the research team, as well as during participatory sessions with SaIF, StudyTrust and the beneficiaries themselves. The insights that emerged from these collections were used to inform improvements to the support programme, while also relying on the stories in real time to adapt targeted support activities in a responsive manner e.g. psycho-social support in a time of need.

Working with student stories, as we did within the SaIF-StudyTrust-TNL partnership, provided a platform for the students’ voices to be heard and influence the design of the support programme. In addition to this, the very act of students reflecting on their experiences and writing these experiences as stories promoted a re-authoring dynamic where students ‘edited’ their own stories of adaptation. In turn, this influenced how individuals accessed and used the resources at their disposal to support their performance.

The approach represented a scalable way of working with large amounts of narrative material compared to the small scale of typical qualitative methods. Visualising the stories and metadata in an interactive dashboard opened up possibilities for the bursary funder, manager and the bursary holders themselves to interact with the data. In addition, patterns within adaptation and integration factors were able to be monitored easily and periodically, thus allowing appropriate interventions to be provided to the students.

About The Narrative Lab
Aiden Choles is a qualified narrative therapist who runs The Narrative Lab (TNL), based in South Africa. Established in 2007, TNL is an organisational development and applied research firm that blends narrative approaches, complexity thinking and facilitation techniques. TNL employs a team of psychologists, consulting researchers and operational staff.

About StudyTrust
Dr Murray Hofmeyr is the National Director of the South African bursary organisation StudyTrust, which was founded in 1974 to address societal inequality by connecting those with academic potential to educational opportunities. StudyTrust administers bursaries on behalf of trusts, foundations and private and corporate donors, to selected students at public colleges, universities and universities of technology. A Response to Intervention framework is used to ensure that beneficiaries who struggle make use of available support resources. You can read more on the StudyTrust website

‘Measuring success?’ – This blog series draws from the ACU’s experience in scholarship design, administration, and analysis, and our connections in the sector, to explore the outcomes of international scholarship schemes for higher education. New posts are published every three to four weeks, authored by experts from all around the world.