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Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 29, No. 3. 1966.

causes student failure — Why do students fail university courses?

causes student failure

Why do students fail university courses?

B.A. (Hons.), Dip. Tchg.,

Teaching Fellow

Victoria University.

Editor, "The Transition from School to University," N.Z.U.S.A., 1965

(Seminar proceeding.)

Students enrol — towards what?

Students enrol — towards what?

In 1963, first-year university students drawn from the Wellington district were about as academically successful as their counterparts of previous years: "Freshers" studying full-time failed about 30 per cent of the total units they collectively enrolled for; part-time first-year students fared somewhat worse, failing 53 per cent of their units.

To place these comments in sharper perspective we could note that in 1963 about 25 per cent of all first-year, full-time students passed at the most one unit: in that same year, 50 per cent, part-time first-year students passed no units at all.1

These rather bald statistics are not presented for their shock-value; the purpose is not to scare, or coerce freshers into working harder, or burning the midnight oil.

They are presented in order to highlight the fact that students who do well at school are not necessarily as successful at university.

Why students "fail" at their university studies, and what can be done about failure, constitute incredibly complex and often poorly understood problems; in this brief article I will attempt to emphasise some contemporary ideas on these subjects.

No blueprint

There is no one blueprint of past experience or present virtue that guarantees a student academic success: the same is true for failure. A whole host of factors interact to determine success or failure at the university.

But let us suppose that an actuary was attempting to make predictions as to the success of different groups of students in their academic work. He would want to isolate those factors which are most often linked with failure (or success); he might even go further and inquire into the best ways of ensuring that students who look like failing in fact do not so fail.

Let us examine some of the conclusions on which there is a fair degree of agreement.

Many people in answer to the question "Why do students fail at the university?" would probably reply that it is a combination of inadequate preparation in the secondary schools, unsatisfactory persistence on the part of the individual student—they might add, almost as an after-thought, that inadequate teaching at the university also exercised an effect.


This would be an unsatisfactory answer for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it tells us little or nothing of the relative contribution of these facial's (are they interactive ... cumulative or what?). Secondly, in limiting the causes of failure to past academic performance, and present endeavour, non-academic factors such as the student's home life, or the immediate stresses and strains that are part of living, are neglected: finally, such a view takes no account of the fact changes in role are often productive of stress which, in turn, requires a period of time for adaption—adolescence, going into one's first job, or coming to a university are all examples of a role change which often involves considerable and unusual stresses, for which people are unprepared.

Let me try and examine, briefly, what are often understood to be the causes of student failure. Following that I will attempt to outline some of the possible ways by which failure might be minimized together with some discursive notes on the more apparent deficiencies and inadequacies as they exist in the here-and-now in New Zealand universities.

Partial guide

There is little doubt that the past academic performance of a student is a partial guide to future success: the primary New Zealand reference on this subject. "Success and Failure at the University"2 ably testifies to this. This document together with independent evidence3 also suggests that the correlation between entrance qualifications and academic success is a moderate positive one.

In short, entrance qualifications alone are not necessarily predictive of success at the university; they may with equal justification be interpreted to indicate how far along the educational road the student has travelled.

When we become more specific in our questions as to effect of past academic performance on university success, answers become more imprecise: this is probably the combined result of imprecision in the questions that are asked, together with inadequate research evidence.

Facts needed

For example, it is often asserted that students are inadequately prepared for university study. To support such a view it would at the least be necessary to document specific inadequacies, such as deficiencies in comprehension and facility in the fields of written (or spoken) English or Mathematics: it would be preferable to go further and specify the optimum academic preparation for different kinds of university work, and thus obtain an estimate of the extent to which individuals depart from such a criterion. Less specific charges of this kind include the assertion that post-primary schools turn out students who are ill-prepared to study under their own steam, but are more dependent upon the stick and the carrot. To put the problem more bluntly, many first-year students have in their post-primary school career been told what to study, when is study and how to study. At the university they will have to make many of these decisions for themselves; inevitably some fail to make the necessary adaption.

It has often been argued, often on the basis of non-existent evidence, that the counter-attractions to lectures and study that are in fundamental element in university life cause failure (such as student activities, the interest in social and community problems): e.g., the argument runs, that students pay too much attention to extra-curricular activities and too little to their studies. The argument may be reasonable, only the presentation of evidence can confirm or refute this.

I would content myself with a couple of rather trite observations: that extra-curricular activities are an integral part of a university education, and that students must work out for themselves the most judicious blend on the extra-curricular and the curricular.4 It could also be noted that the continual up-grading of university courses must eat into the time that students have available to them to participate in the "other activities": contrarily some employers place great emphasis a graduate's performance in student affairs.

Two pressures

Thus the contemporary fresher is under contradictory pressures one stressing the toughening of university courses, the other emphasising the importance of extra-curilcular activities.

It has been argued that the "disstance" between lecturer and student at the university acts against the interests of "education", in the widest sense in which that term is used. Large classes are often mentioned as "evidence" for such an assertion. There is probably much truth in such a view, but it should not be concluded that large classes inevitably mean "anonymity" for the student or that the student is seen as a statistic on a card, or a name on a class roll.


For the most part the fresher is confronted with a large class— and perhaps some by a feeling of anonymity: such a confrontation merely serves to emphasise the importance of tutorial periods where problems can and should be thrashed out, as well as the participation of staff and students in the affairs of the Union.

page 7

Any discussion on the "causes" student failure must also include mention of the "home life" [unclear: a] the student—whether he is in [unclear: ct] living at home or not. Problems of finance, study facilities, [unclear: rents] who support the student's [unclear: deuvours] all play on important [unclear: le] in success and failure. The [unclear: oad] view is often expressed that [unclear: ose] students whose parents have [unclear: tanded] university (second generation students) are at an advantage to those who are the first [unclear: presentatives] of their family [unclear: o] undertake university study first generation students). This [unclear: ew] may be of value, though I [unclear: now] of no evidence to support it [unclear: sofar] us New Zealand students [unclear: re] concerned.

But some succeed

With all these perils which I [unclear: ave] deliberately emphasised—it [unclear: eems] a wonder that we find any students graduating; the fact that [unclear: his] year we are to have two [unclear: raduation] ceremonies instead of [unclear: ne] shows that many students are succcssful. But perhaps of those who fail, a proportion need not do [unclear: o]: perhaps with the appropriate [unclear: aclities] more could be done to [unclear: ave] the "academic casualties."

I will go out on a limb and suggest a few possibilities, some practical, others perhaps not so: some expensive, and time-consuming others not so expensive, but still time-consuming.


One of the most demonstrable needs is for additional counselling services; these need not necessarily be located in the universities, [unclear: nce] the earlier that deficiencies in study habits, methods, or the [unclear: rasp] of basic skills are detected [unclear: nd] corrected the better.5 This is [unclear: ot] to say that an increase in [unclear: ounselling] facilities at the university level would not be of value [unclear: n] comparison with most other New Zealand universities, Victoria fortunate to have a fully operational group of welfare services, There is however, always room [unclear: or] improvement, and in terms of [unclear: e] need for an army of trained counsellors the need appears self-[unclear: wident]. More—much more—could [unclear: e] said on this question; however, [unclear: a] hope that the major point, the relative absence or trained personnel, has been made.


It is unrealistic to expect that an "army of counsellors can be made to appear overnight: Given this, other expedients, and that word should be emphasised, must be sought. The following few suggestions are obviously not exhaustive, but are merely indications as to possible lines of thought.

If one allows that the methods of study, techniques of instruction and the skills that the student is expected to acquire at the university differ materially from those stressed in the post-primary schools, then clearly, the need for training in university - oriented skills is necessary. Examples of the kind of basic skill I am thinking of would be in the field of note taking, speed reading and comprehension, the use of library and other technical resources. I appreciate that the students' association, with the co-operation of members of the academic staff, not to mention the library staff, are in part fulfilling this function: It dues not seem unfair to note that the services which are at present, provided are somewhat sporadic, hit-or-miss affairs.

Special courses

What is required is a series of courses, designed on the one hand to correct specific deficiencies and on the other to provide students with necessary skills: these courses to be of maximum efficiency should be systematically planned and introduced, tested for effectiveness, and revised where necessary. The present facilities while welcomed by students provide little or no feedback to the organisers of those facilities; and surely a course without an evaluative tallow-up is not capable of built-in improvement?

In terms of guidance and tutorial functions it is reasonable to observe that members of the academic staff can function in some ways like a counsellor: Many already assist in this way. It has already been observed that one of the ways in which students are most inadequately prepared by the secondary schools is in the field of basic mathematical skills.6

It can legitimately be argued that such deficiencies should be corrected before entry to the university; furthermore members of the academic staff, already under considerable pressures as a result of staff shortages, can, and do argue that while they may have the inclination they do not have the time to provide pre-university level courses.

Partial answer

A partial resolution to this dilemma might lie in the adoption of automatic teaching devices, which for the most part adopt programmed learning techniques. Such methods are particularly suitable in the area of mathematical concept-learning, but are not restricted to that field of remedial learning.

It is suggested that a number of students "flunk" because they find that their course of study is not that most suited to their abilities or changing interests. Where this is the case it is often the result of new interests which have been developed as a result of the student's first year at the university. It must be admitted that there are some difficulties in to change his course of study in mid-stream—often such difficulties are related to bursary requirements, the regulations governing "cross-crediting of subjects" and so forth.

All these points argue for a rational appraisal by the student of the academic choices that lie before him, preferably (but unfortunately) in his first year of study. The criterion by which subjects should be selected by the student I would argue, is that of interest: Interest does not always coincide with the student's "best subject at school."

Success factors

Earlier I observed that the evidence on success and failure at the university suggested that there were some factors which often seemed to be associated with university success: Briefly set out these related to the student's past academic record, his other entrance qualifications, whether he was part time or full time, his ability to adapt to the demands of a different role, and, finally, characteristics associated with the individual student.

If within broad but tolerable limits the relative, or cumulative effect of these factors on student performance can be specified what should be done with the "poor risk" student, i.e., those students with a low probability of success? It does not seem unreasonable to argue that the poor risk student is likely to fare better if he can be persuaded, or if necessary told, to accept a lighter academic load.

In this way it may well take the less capable student longer to qualify, but he may in fact do so. As of now some students undoubtedly fail because they are trying to do too much.

It may be felt by some people that the "solution" just suggested is altogether too dictatorial: In some ways I do not deny that such is the case. However, I would counter such a view by noting that the Professorial Board, rightly or not, at present has the power to prevent a student from enrolling in more than three units —some presumably the "good risk" students, being allowed to offer themselves in more subjects: In view of such a policy it does not seem unreasonable to impose limits on the load carried by poor risk students


In this short article I have attempted to outline some of the factors contributing to academic failure: By way of counterbalance. I have also attempted to suggest some of the ways in which such failure can be anticipated, and I hope avoided.


All the above figures were drawn from the V.U.W. Liaison Officer's Reports and the Professorial Board Report (PB 66/1) annex tables II. IV and V.

Parkyn G. W. Success and Failure at the University Vol 1. 1960. New Zealand Council for Educational Research.

Small J. J. Individual Behaviour and Student Performance An Integrative View. In "The Transition from School to University," Blizard P. J. (Ed.), Wellington, 1965. pp 78-102.

Always supposing that Such an artificial distinction can be made in terms of the aims of a university education.

This represents an assumption on my part—i.e that early detection means a sounder prognosis.

Some recent reports of the Professorial Board make this point quite eloquently.