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Everyday hinderances may force overwhelmed uni students to give up

New Australian research shows accumulating everyday issues such as juggling work and study are as likely as a major event such as a death in the family to “tip the balance” for overwhelmed university students and may lead them to withdraw.

Dr Louise Ainscough, a teaching-focused lecturer in the University of Queensland’s School of Biomedical Sciences, said difficulties in balancing work and study and related impacts on preparation, family relationships and health can reach a point that a student might feel unable to continue - in the same way that a sudden, traumatic event may overwhelm a student.

She said universities looking to lower first-year attrition rates should provide students with more ways to recognise the “learning hindrances” they face and help them develop learning strategies to become successful, independent learners.

“Transition from secondary to tertiary education is challenging as students negotiate different learning environments, expectations, time management issues and academic demands,” Dr Ainscough said. “At the same time, many are experiencing the transition from adolescence to adulthood.

As mounting research explores the impact of social and cultural factors such as low economic status and family environments on attrition, Dr Ainscough said she wanted to understand what students feel are hindering their learning at university, and to understand the strategies they use to try and overcome those hindrances.

In a paper published in the Studies in Higher Education journal, Dr Ainscough examined the differences between the hindrances reported by students who failed a first-year physiology course at the University of Queensland and then were successful during second year, and those who failed physiology courses in both years.

The students were asked what, if anything, had hindered them in the early weeks of the course, and how they could reduce the impact of that hindrance.

She found that answers to the “what” fell into five categories: academic commitments (such as an overwhelming course load or conflicting assessment tasks), non-academic commitments (paid work or family tasks), difficulty understanding lecture materials, difficulty concentrating in lectures, and lack of motivation.

More than half reported feeling hindered by academic, work, social or unspecified commitments, with “academic commitments” being the most frequently reported. 

Key findings

  • accumulating “daily tasks” could be as problematic as a major event such as a divorce or death of a family member in the capacity of a student to succeed at university
  • the students who succeeded in second year after failing in first year were more likely to have reported a lack of understanding of the subject matter as the major obstacle to academic success
  • the students who failed in both first and second year were least likely to offer a lack of understanding as the reason and more likely to report “non-academic commitments” as the reason
  • among those students who reported using “self-regulated strategies” to support their learning, the most frequently reported strategies included “planning”, “time management” and “environmental structuring”.

“Students who improved academically pinpointed their lack of understanding, and then planned to use methods to increase their understanding – such as asking someone for help, investigating online resources, or spending more time reading and revising their textbooks,” she said.

Dr Ainscough said strategies such as including assessment tasks that prompted students to consider what, if any, problems they were having with their studies were “invaluable” in increasing student self-awareness and educators’ understanding of their students’ issues.

Research references

Dr Louise Ainscough, Ms Ellen Stewart, Dr Kay Colthorpe and Dr Kirsten Zimbardi, “Learning hindrances and self-regulated learning strategies reported by undergraduate students: identifying characteristics of resilient students”, Studies in Higher Education (http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2017.1315085) April 2017.


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