Male students most hurt by 'sophomore slump'

Large-scale quantitative analysis of university grades confirms the existence of slump in second-year marks first observed in the 1950s

September 19, 2016
Men slumped at table
Source: Getty
Sophomore slump: men are more likely to see their scores slip back after their first year, which has been blamed on factors including more time spent socialising

Male undergraduates are far more likely to suffer a second-year dip in their marks than female students, says a major study on the so-called sophomore slump.

Analysing the attainment of almost 6,000 students at a single UK university over a five-year period, researchers at Cardiff University found that men were more likely to see their scores slip back after their first year before rebounding in their final year.

Overall, some 44 per cent of students saw their attainment level fall in their second year, according to the study, which confirms the existence of the “sophomore slump” first identified in the US 50 years ago.

The fall-off in grades has previously been blamed on a number of factors, including the disruption caused by moving out of student halls in the second year, more time spent socialising, decreased motivation to study and a heightened concern about paying tuition fees.

However, while many students are able to pull their marks up after a mid-degree blip, it is generally associated with lower academic achievement overall, according to the new study, whose results were presented at the British Educational Research Association’s annual conference, which took place in Leeds on 13 to 15 September.

“Students do not recover enough to rescue their academic achievement,” one of the study’s authors, Andrew Shore, a lecturer in biochemistry, told Times Higher Education.

Male undergraduates tend to have a “more extreme pattern of marks” than female students, either improving steadily or deteriorating sharply over the course of a degree, rather than maintaining a steady level of attainment, Dr Shore added.

“Women are more likely to show a more consistent profile of results,” he said, adding that this pattern of attainment helped to explain why women scored higher on average than men.

The study, which was undertaken with Cardiff bioscience staff Emma Yhnell, Perry Smith and Stephen Rutherford, reveals that students with disabilities are also more likely to experience a sophomore slump, while previous studies have shown that international students and those from a black or minority ethnic background are more prone to it than other students.

“Universities should be aware that particular groups of students are more at risk of decline in marks during their studies,” said Dr Shore, who argued that the study could help identify the points at which certain student groups are most likely to struggle.

“Using this awareness of their own demographics, universities should focus their finite resources on where they have the most impact,” he added.

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