Early success is critical for university student engagement: Deakin study

Media release

24 September 2019

A student's first assessment at university can be an important indicator of their future success, new Deakin research has shown.

The study, led by Associate Professor Bernadette Walker-Gibbs from Deakin University's School of Education, found that early results have a significant bearing on whether or not a student feels they 'belong' in higher education.

Associate Professor Walker-Gibbs said the study, funded by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), suggested first year retention rates would improve if students were given more help to maintain perspective and respond positively to feedback.

"An early sense of failure can perpetuate feelings of not belonging in higher education," Associate Professor Walker-Gibbs said.

"Students have very high expectations of themselves. They often believe that effort equals achievement but, at university levels, that is not always the case.

"How students interpret assessment outcomes and respond to academic feedback often depends on their background and experience at secondary school.

"We found this led to disproportionately high levels of first-year dropout among low socioeconomic status (SES) students who questioned their capacity to succeed in higher education depending on their initial results."

The research showed that SES can restrict schooling options and low SES students may feel ill-prepared for the expectations of university study, in contrast to their more-privileged peers.

It also found that support structures and networks were critical factors in how a student responds to success.

"Family and friends, lecturers and tutors, Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP) initiatives and peer support programs can all play an important role," Associate Professor Walker-Gibbs said.

"We found that relationships with academics are critical. Current student support models often operate separately to academics which means we aren't kept in the loop when support is required and don’t get an opportunity to provide the added feedback the student may need to gain perspective."

Building "feedback literacy" into early assessment experiences, and engaging students with clear assessment expectations, standards and criteria were noted as practical actions that could be taken by universities.

The researchers recommended more interconnected support programs with students, academic and professional staff to encourage constructive self-reflection and normalise help-seeking.

NCSEHE Director Professor Sue Trinidad said the first year at university was often a defining period for students, particularly for those who may lack cultural and social capital to draw upon from prior schooling.

"We must understand that students are entering university from vastly different standpoints—with diverse educational and social backgrounds—all of whom will measure their relative success or failure in different ways," Professor Trinidad said.

"Targeted intervention and support strategies can help students move forward constructively from their initial assessments to realise their full potential, without being discouraged at the first hurdle."

Success and failure in higher education on uneven playing fields, by Associate Professor Bernadette Walker-Gibbs, Associate Professor Rola Ajjawi, Dr Emma Rowe, Dr Andrew Skourdoumbis, Dr Matthew Krehl Edward Thomas, Dr Brandi Fox and Mr Peter Alsen from Deakin University and Professor Sarah O’Shea and Dr Sue Bennett from the University of Wollongong is available here.

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