Thursday, 28 September 2017

How to ensure that First Year @ University is a success

Logic of Failure - Metaphysics of Success

Many universities are concerned about failure rates. It is not uncommon for 25% of students to fail to complete their first year successfully. 

Academics are mildy irritated that they are constantly under pressure from the management to improve success rates. Rather cruel responses might run like this:

" I'm sorry, it is really beyond my control if you break up with your girlfriend in week 3 and stop attending classes."

[But depression is a REAL problem for some students. Check out this article: Yes, you can crawl out of your first-year depression at university  | Nell Frizzell ]

"Am I responsible if you lose the power of motion because you've been living on nothing but porridge oats for the last term before the exams, having spent your parents' money on beer."

"I can recommend counselling services. Remember ... you are now deemed to be an adult; you will be expected to take responsibility for your life. Time for a reality check?"

"Is it my problem if your only relationship effort went into your Xbox/ Nintendo / ipad/ SKY-tv ?"

On a more serious note, the most common reasons for dropping out or failing your first year are

- inability to adjust to life away from the safety, ease and security of homelife

- lack of independent revision skills

- acquisition of a drink or drug habit
- homesickness

- a disastrous and traumatic first year relationship

- pregnancy or serious illness

- lack of motivated study, planning and work skills

- failure to adapt to the new level of work expected in academia

- lethargy, indolence, incompetence

- doing a job full time rather than working on your degree

- having made the wrong choice of location, or university

- loneliness, depression, mental breakdown

- starvation or malnutrition; inability to cook

- failure to attend classes and exams

- poverty, poor financial planning and bankruptcy

- family bereavement or other crisis

- not understanding the requirements of the degree syllabus

- over-indulgence in leisure activities, especially solo

Play is a reward - not a replacement - for academic work achieved

Clearly there are both academic and socio-psychological-personal reasons for failure.

Students seldom drop out or fail because they are judged not to be brainy enough! Most hard-working students will have a very successful and enjoyable first year. So keep a sense of balance and maintain a sense of proportion. If you start to feel excessively pressured or anxious seek help early from tutors or from student services.

Generally the bar is set quite low in all but the most elite universities and in all but the most competitive subjects. In fact, you would be surprised how poor some of the academic work is that gains a pass. In my opinion some of it is GCSE standard. Having said that, will you be employable with a third class degree (=40%) ? By taking your first year seriously you establish strong skills that will be a firm foundation for your future progress.

The answer is probably yes if you have excelled in your extra-curricular activities and in your networking. I'm told that sport, volunteering and drama are recommended for character-building, confidence and leadership.

The good news, however, is that the pass rates for second and third year are typically 95%.

But there are also some other issues that require further explanation. 

For instance, across the US, the drop-out rate averages 25%, but you are twice as like to drop out if you are Hispanic, Black, or American Indian, compared to being a White student, research suggests. Why does this happen? 


Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(2013) and 
11+ English  (2015). Also available on Kindle, or to download.



    skills planning work failure lack degree inability lethargy pregnancy indolence study life starvation level poor adjust security family relationship time poverty acquisition independent malnutrition cook illness ease job syllabus financial crisis academia year traumatic wrong dropping new drug drink habit bereavement location failing expected full homelife revision motivated depression disastrous safety homesickness understanding exams attend choice classes breakdown university loneliness working requirements adapt mental incompetence

  2. So ... these aren't statistically verified in any way, then? I've seen many of these myself (in around 10 years, rather than your quarter-century), and it's a really important subject, but I'm not sure of the benefit to listing things you've recalled and/or assumed, rather than checking the research.

  3. Richard, this was never intended as a statistical summary, and the methodology is not quantitative. My aim was the pick out some of the more manifest qualitative narratives. In small degree cohorts the statistics often end up being quite absurd anyway. A new course with 20 students in which 7 drop out may look like a disaster academically, but that could be very far from the truth behind the individual personal narratives. Governments are very keen on data but very poor on the identification of the story behind them. And what students say just before, and after leaving, on a written form, may be quite different from the reasons that they give, with more reflection, several years later!

  4. What story do these statistics tell us?

    More than one-in-five undergraduates are failing to compete the first year of their degree at the worst-performing universities, it emerged, prompting fears that millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is being wasted on unwanted courses.

    At some universities, an estimated four-in-10 students will fail to finish the course they started after either dropping out, switching to another institution or graduating with a lesser qualification.

    In England, the University of Bolton had the worst drop-out rate with 21.4 per cent of students quitting higher education after just a year. An estimated 45 per cent of undergraduates will fail to complete their full degree course, it emerged.

    Drop-out rates were as high as a third at the University of the Highlands and Islands in Scotland and hit almost a quarter at the University of West Scotland.

    Across Britain, the number of students dropping out increased from 28,210 to 31,755 last year – a rise of almost 13 per cent.

  5. "Cambridge and St Andrews had the lowest drop out rates last year with just 1.4 per cent of students quitting, following by Oxford at 1.4 per cent." Is this because they have the wealthiest or the brightest students, or just the climate?!

  6. "Results found that the extent to which an individual is socially and academically
    integrated into the university plays an important role in drop out decisions; as does the academic confidence that the individual harbours. No definite conclusions can be
    made concerning the role of personality within drop out from the data collected, or
    indeed whether homesickness accounts for a significant proportion of drop out
    decisions." A 77-page research study based on FIFTEEN students! Availabe here:

  7. From the study mentioned above:

    To date, however, none of the traditional research in this area has attempted to
    assess or capture qualitative or quantitative data from the actual population of people
    who have dropped out of higher education. The trend in this area has been to employ a
    longitudinal design that captures data from a large sample of students, typically in
    their first year of higher education, at a series of points of time, and then to addressthis obtained sample at the beginning of their second year. The data obtained from
    those who are no longer on their courses (i.e. have dropped out) by this point in time
    is then analysed and subjectively interpreted, with the experimenter particularly
    looking to find differences between those who persist in higher education and those
    who drop out. However, the problem with this line of experimental design is that the
    population that the experimenter is studying is never actually directly studied.

  8. "The "Pathways to Prosperity" study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2011 shows that just 56 percent of college students complete four-year degrees within six years. Only 29 percent of those who start two-year degrees finish them within three years.

    The Harvard study's assertions are supported by data collected by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development for its report "Education at a Glance 2010." Among 18 countries tracked by the OECD, the United States finished last (46 percent) for the percentage of students who completed college once they started it. That puts the United States behind Japan (89 percent), and former Soviet-bloc states such as Slovakia (63 percent) and Poland (61 percent).

    The failure to complete a college education in the United States is especially marked at four-year private for-profit schools, where 78 percent of attendees fail to get a diploma after six years, according to a 2011 report from the National Center for Education Statistics.

    That compares with 35 percent of students in nonprofit private schools and 45 percent of students in public colleges who failed to graduate after six years.

    [...] Reasons for dropping out included: not being prepared for the rigors of academic work; inability to cope with the competing demands of study, family and jobs; and cost, the Harvard report says."

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  10. Sorry for the necroposting, but I think you and your commenters have not mentioned the major reason many students drop out of their first years... they were too young! I think many 18 year olds are simply too young to go to university and be separated from the support network they have relied upon. This is the reason that many of them become disabled through homesickness, reliant on drink or drugs to see them through, and unable to budget effectively. If we had a culture that expected everyone at 18 to work for three years and then to go to University, I think the drop out rate would be substantially lower. My son is in his first year at the age of 24, and admits that he simply wasn't ready for univesity at 18, and would probably have found it too difficult to continue. It may be significant that you are more likely to have taken a year out before going to certain universities, and I'd like to see a correlation of the stats on dropouts and their chronological age.

    1. You raise some very important and relevant points, Fee. I hope that the researchers take up your challenge on this matter. Ian