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Friday, 26 April 2013

Common book, one book one campus: does it have relevancy in South African first year university orientation?

By: Faith Nomusa Bhengu

What is a common book?
The common book concept is an initiative practised by international universities endorsed by faculty, libraries and university communities. Students are encouraged to read a common book, nominated by the university and then come together to discuss it. The purpose is to bridge the gap between high school and tertiary education. Its objective is to introduce first year students to critical thinking, by engaging them in reading, writing essays and in the theoretical underpinnings of being scholars.  It is an international practice aimed at bringing together students from different cultural backgrounds across all disciplines. The following universities are among the many that involve undergraduate students in the programme: Johns Hopkins University, University of Washington, University of Kansas and University of California Los Angeles. “KU Common Book will promote community and academic engagement through discussions of a common reading experience among faculty, staff, and students” (University of Kansas 2013).

Program Goals

Students will have an opportunity to:

  •          Share and understand diverse perspectives in a respectful way.
  •          Build a community of intellectually-engaged learners.
  •          Explore their role in creating a just society.
  •      Consider critical action steps that can be taken in response to           their Common Book experience   (University of California                 Los Angeles, 2013).

     The big question is, can UKZN first year orientation benefit from the programme?

    South Africa is a multicultural society, the “rainbow nation” as it is known. South African students face many challenges when they come to university. Some of the challenges are inherent to the society in which they live. Some of these challenges emanate from the South African education system and unequal distribution of resources. According to studies that were done, South African students lag behind when compared to students from other African countries (van der Berg and Louw, 2007). UKZN has taken various initiatives in bridging the gap by introducing alternative programmes to address the problems of students who pass matric with less than the minimum credits required for university entrance. David Loertscher, (2008:42), describes the reading patterns of the Google generation as using “‘bouncing behaviours’, they scan across information…. may not read anything in depth”. Our students would benefit from the Common book programme, because it encourages collaborative learning and discussion among first year students regardless of discipline.


    Group discussions

    Students are placed in groups that are led by mentors, and they have discussions and debates on the selected book during lecture periods. This may also occur in informal settings such as in the library or cafeterias. It is mandatory for all first year students to participate in common book reading. In some instances parents also get involved, by reading the same book. In some cases, (for example at Auburn University) students are encouraged to enter common book writing contests. Essays are written from themes resulting from the common book discussions. In South Africa, one can imagine the impact this might have if university students read about topical issues affecting young people such as rape, drugs and HIV. By participating in the program, students will enhance the skills and abilities that are central to academic learning. It also enables them to challenge other viewpoints and create an understanding of the society in which they live.


    1. University of Kansas.  KU Common Book – Connecting New Jayhawks | First-Year 25 February 2013 (http://firstyear.ku.edu/commonbook/2013)
    2. University of California, Los Angeles. The Common Book at UCLA. 25 February 2013 (https://www.orl.ucla.edu/commonbook/)
    3. University of Auburn.  Fall 2012. Common Book Writing Contest. 25 February 2013 (https://fp.auburn.edu/writing/commonBook.aspx)
    4. University of Washington. UW Common Book. 25 February 2013 (http://commonbook.uw.edu/2012/about/uw-common-book/)
    5. Van der Berg, 2006. Lessons learnt from SACMEQII: South African student performance. In : Investment choices for education in Africa, Johannesburg, 19-21 September 2006.

    6. Alam, D, Ardington, C, and Leibbrandt, M. 2011. Schooling as a lottery: Racial differences in school advancement in urban South Africa. Journal of Development Economics 95(2) pp.121–136

    7. Loertscher, D. 2008. What works with the Google generation? Teacher Librarian 35(4), pp.42.