Bad mark early on quadruples student dropout risk

Results of early assignments can make or break students’ determination to continue their studies, Australian research suggests

September 27, 2019
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A student’s first assignment at university can be pivotal in determining whether they stay the course, Australian research suggests.

Students who failed as few as one first-year subject proved to be about four times as likely to drop out as peers who passed all their units, the research found.

The study, published by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), supports a theory that early setbacks can prompt students to question whether they belong at university. “This is not something they just move on from,” said lead author Bernadette Walker-Gibbs, associate professor of education at Deakin University.

“They invest a lot of time and emotional effort. It impacts on [whether] they see themselves as successful.”

The researchers analysed data on more than 7,000 first-year Deakin undergraduates. Almost one in three who had failed at least one subject had left by the beginning of the following year, compared with one in 11 of the students who had passed everything.

This pattern proved consistent, irrespective of a student’s socio-economic background – contradicting assumptions that those from neighbourhoods where few people have degrees are at more risk of dropping out.

Dr Walker-Gibbs said the researchers had been surprised by the strength of the relationship between failure and withdrawal, and its influence on students from privileged as well as disadvantaged backgrounds.

Interviews revealed that many new undergraduates had been mystified by the grading systems used in higher education, with even high achievers experiencing culture shock. “For some [who] got a credit, it felt like a failure,” Dr Walker-Gibbs said.

“One student thought she was really good at writing. The feedback suggested she wasn’t. She went home and cried for two days.”

Making matters worse, many students found it difficult to discuss problems with their tutors or lecturers. Dr Walker-Gibbs said support services for struggling students often operated separately from academics, whose role was to teach students about a particular discipline but not to “help them learn how to be a student”.

“Academics…aren’t kept in the loop when support is required,” she said. “[They] don’t get an opportunity to provide the added feedback the student may need to gain perspective.”

The report says that socio-economic status – the measure normally used to gauge students’ need for extra help – might not be an “adequately sensitive category” for predicting academic attrition. Dr Walker-Gibbs said equity groupings needed to be broadened so that students who experienced early failure could receive support, regardless of their backgrounds.

Separate research by the University of Newcastle, also published by the NCSEHE, has found a strong appetite for university in many disadvantaged communities. “[This] challenges the simplistic view that young people from target equity groups have low aspirations,” said lead researcher Jenny Gore.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (4)

I'm not saying that the dissappointment of an early bad mark is not demotivating to student, and that that demotivation doesn't lead to increased risk of drop out. But we must also surely be aware that failure on an exam is also corrected with ability to gain a good degree, and that there is probably also some correlation between ability to gain a good degree and drop out. When I was at university (not that long ago), failure on a single exam meant the end of your degree, no resits, no averaging over courses. I'm not saying this was a particularly enlighted or correct policy, but the academics at the time clearly believed that an exam result had some meaning. While I don't think we should just kick out anyone makes a single miskate, or has a single bad day, there must be a position between saying that and saying that absolutely everyone should be able to get a good degree. And to the extent that it is possible that being on a degree program is not the right thing for a person at a particularly, then exam failure must be at least partially correlated with this.
Without wishing to appear rude; is the content of this report not just a little obvious with reference to the impact of early academic failure on a young person trying to overcome hurdles on a scholarly journey?? So okay, they may be devastated to learn of certain scholarly inadequacies; but surely such lessons bolster their determination?? What does it say about a student who reacts to an early setback by leaving the institution that, presumably, they worked hard to get admitted to. Such an attitude, if repeated often enough, would result in the young person being cast adrift in the workplace. That is not to say that assistance should not be forthcoming - it should. University life is, however, an eclectic mix of success and failure for all students, to a greater or lesser extent. Part of the deal concerns accepting setbacks, dealing with failure, growing in maturity and managing expectations. I can't comment on the Australian experience but many students entering University in the UK are ill prepared for University when exiting their schools/colleges, and are poorly prepared during their honeymoon period upon entry at University. Academics DO have a responsibility for informing students of their expectations when first meeting their students, and they DO have a responsibility for advising their students on how they might react to scholarly setbacks. At some point though, the students do have to accept their own responsibilities and react accordingly. Leaving the University is always an option for a student to choose.
What seems missing from this piece is a practical solution or way forward. Obviously, if a student thinks they are "really good at writing" but the feedback suggests otherwise, this might come as a bit of a blow to the ego. But, frankly, it is the _responsibility_ of the institution to tell students how well they are performing. I accept that there may be more and less effective ways to do this, but if the beginning of a student's studies is not (?) the right time to inform them that they need to make improvements, then when _is_ the right time? How long should students be allowed to operate under the assumption that they are doing well when in fact they are not doing well? And how should that news be delivered? We may be happy to accept that retaining students is a Good Thing, but if the way to do so is (?) just to feed them with good news and happy thoughts until they merrily graduate on their way, then we are wasting time providing any actual assessment and feedback -- or education -- at all.
Many students entering Australian University are not really interested in taking class and learning. They are more interested in working and making money.

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