Student Retention & Success

The Anatomy of First-Term Student Academic Struggles: Five Key Take-Aways

By September 22, 2015 July 17th, 2023 No Comments

From the beginning of their education, doctors know they must have a strong understanding of the human anatomy. They also come to know what people need to do to stay healthy and what early symptoms can signal potential issues. In many ways, higher education professionals take a similar approach to new college students. They have cultivated a strong understanding of college student development, so they know what students need to do to be successful and are keenly aware of early signs that may flag issues.

So, what happens if we take this approach and combine it with data about first-year students? What do we learn about first-year students and their academic experiences? Using survey data from the 2014 Mapworks Fall Transition survey (typically given 3-5 weeks into the fall semester), we can take what our students are telling us and spot the symptoms of early struggles. Below we highlight five key take-aways from looking at early data from students:

1. Students have high expectations.
First-year students enter our institutions confident and optimistic. Two-thirds are attending their first-choice institution, 90% intend to graduate with a degree, and three-quarters intend to complete a degree at their current institution. Likewise, students have confidence in their abilities to do well in courses. 88% of students say they expect to earn a GPA of 3.0 or above.

Anatomy of First-Term Course Struggles2. Early behaviors do not match expectations.
Despite entering college with high expectations, students are reporting behaviors and habits that may not lead to success. More than one-third have already missed at least one class and 33% plan to study five hours or less per week. Similarly, 76% of students say they take good notes in class, 48% work on large projects well in advance of the due date, and only 36% study on a regular schedule. These are not high-level behaviors, so not engaging in these is likely an early symptom of issues to come. Students recognize early problems.

3. Early in their first term, students already tell us that they are struggling in courses.
35% of first-year students are struggling in one course and one out of four students is struggling in two or more courses. Students, even early on, are recognizing symptoms related to academic issues. But with nine out of ten also expecting to earn a 3.0 GPA or higher, they are not connecting those struggles to their potential outcomes.

4. Performance does not always meet expectation.
While 88% of students expected high grades, only 53% end up earning them. Furthermore, 16% of students earned grades that likely have them on academic probation (less than a 2.00) – an outcome none expected. So, despite spotting course struggles early, students are having difficulty handling their struggles successfully.

5. Poor performance does not alter future expectations.
Despite lower than expected GPAs, expectations for the next semester do not change. Specifically, 85% of students still expect to earn high grades (3.00+) in their second semester. So, students are entering their next term with high hopes and similarly optimistic expectations about grades.

Ultimately, taking an anatomy perspective with the data on our first-year students speaks volumes about new student academic struggles. And, more importantly, the data matches the stories we see every day on our campuses. While students come in with high expectations about their academic performance, the academic behaviors do not necessarily match expectations and are not the behaviors that lead to long-term academic success.

Just like a doctor identifies symptoms and works with patients to prescribe behaviors and changes, we need to spot issues and work with our students to adopt behaviors that will help them succeed. And we need to do that early enough for changes to make a difference in student outcomes.

Interested in learning more about first-year students? View the recording of our recent webinar, “Anatomy of a New College Student,” or check out some of our research notes on first-year students on our website.