UP professor wins prestigious Research Medal of the Education Association of South Africa

Posted on January 22, 2024

UP’s Professor Marien Graham of the Department of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education at the Faculty of Education was recently awarded the coveted Research Medal of the Education Association of South Africa (EASA). In addition, her doctoral student, Dr Mathelela Steyn Mokgwathi, who she supervised (with Professor Rian de Villiers as co-supervisor), shared the EASA 2023 doctoral award with another PhD student.


 Dr Mathelela Steyn Mokgwathi (left), who shared the EASA 2023 doctoral award with another PhD student, and Professor Marien Graham (right), who was honoured with the Research Medal of the Education Association of South Africa.

EASA is an association that strives to promote excellence in education research and practice in southern Africa. Extraordinary contributions in the field of education are recognised through awards, presented at an annual conference. The EASA 2024 Conference was held from 14-17 January at the Mount Grace Hotel & Spa, Magaliesberg.

Prof Graham, whose research journey spans numerous sole-authored publications and collaborative endeavours with esteemed international and South African scholars, has shed light on critical issues within South Africa’s educational landscape. From the start of her career, her research has focused on developing new statistical techniques, specifically in the research area of statistical quality/process control (SPC/SQC). In the last few years, she has deepened her focus on generating a more detailed understanding on how learning and assessment opportunities for students, at all levels of the formal education system, and their overall mental health and wellbeing, can be improved.

A key aspect of Prof Graham’s work involves leveraging international large-scale assessments (ILSAs) to construct intricate statistical models, therefore providing deeper insights. For example, in the well-known ILSA Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), some highlights of her research outcomes include delving into the association between bullying and Grade 9 mathematics achievement in South African schools using TIMSS 2019 data. Through a multi-level analysis, she identified various forms of bullying, such as learners refusing to communicate with other learners, insulting learners’ families, engaging in online harassment, physical harm, making learners do things they didn’t want to do, stealing from them, and physical injury, as significant predictors of mathematics achievement. Another focal point of her research is the examination of the impact of overcrowded classrooms on mathematics achievement, with the quantitative results from a mixed-methods study revealing a substantial association between larger class sizes and poorer achievement. By uncovering these insights, Prof Graham is able to provide recommendations to relevant stakeholders, contributing to the ongoing efforts to improve the overall educational experience for learners in South Africa.

“I am so proud to have been awarded the EASA 2023 Research Medal, and, on top of that, for my doctoral student, Dr Steyn Mokgwathi, to have received the EASA 2023 doctoral award. Receiving these prestigious awards is a validation of the dedication, effort, and passion that we have invested in our research endeavours,” said Prof Graham. “It reminds us of the positive impact that our work has, and, on an institutional level, contributes to UP’s standing within the academic community.”

Dr Mokgwathi, whose research focused on investigating learner achievement in unsafe school environments, said: “As researchers, we need this kind of inspiration to continue with our work producing knowledge, solving problems, and seeking answers to global crises. Thank you to EASA and UP, and thank you Prof Graham ­– please keep guiding students in the same way as you did with me, and continue with your wonderful work.”

Prof Graham has published an average of 7.7 articles per year over the past 15 years, an outstanding achievement in her field. She says that a pivotal factor contributing to her sustained research productivity is the allocation of dedicated time for research. “This is only possible if organisational leadership recognises and fosters an environment conducive to research initiatives, such as providing academic staff with dedicated time for research,” she says. “Secondly, engaging in collaborative research with both international and national scholars has been instrumental. Collaboration provides diverse perspectives, shared expertise, and increased research output through joint efforts.”

Prof Graham has published with esteemed international scholars such as Professor Vinaya Manchaiah (University of Colorado Hospital, USA), Professor David Moore (University of Cincinnati, USA), Professor Michael Khoo (Universiti Sains Malaysia, Malaysia), Professor Athanasios Rakitzis (University of Aegean, Greece), Professor Subhabrata Chakraborti, University of Alabama, USA) and Professor Amitava Mukherjee (XLRI - Xavier School of Management, India). Locally, she said a highlight has been the research conducted with accomplished South African academics, such as Professor Irma Eloff and Professor Liesel Ebersöhn. “In collaboration with Prof Eloff, our most recent publication in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in 2022 compared the mental health, well-being, and flourishing among undergraduate students before and during the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said.

As to some research goals going forward, Prof Graham commented on the crucial role that early childhood education (ECE), widely recognised as the cornerstone of education, plays in shaping the academic, social, and emotional development of young learners. “Given that much of the existing ECE research is qualitative, my future endeavours involve forging closer collaborations with the ECE department at UP. I aim to explore opportunities where my specialised statistical skills can be effectively leveraged to contribute valuable insights in a quantitative format. By employing quantitative methodologies in ECE, I aspire to explore the factors that influence the developmental trajectories of young minds,” she concluded.

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