Student Retention & Success

The Sophomore Slump: Fact or Fiction?

By April 15, 2015 July 17th, 2023 No Comments

The term “sophomore slump”, the idea that a second effort is somehow less than the first effort, is often used in reference to second-year college students. As part of the sophomore slump, students describe a lack of excitement, feelings of being lost, and struggles to adjust to academics. Is the sophomore slump real and is it actually related to the sophomore year?

Some researchers have framed the sophomore slump as a drop in academic performance during a student’s second year in college. Courses get more difficult and students run into difficulties related to learning styles. From a theoretical angle, the “newness” of colleges, which can drive motivation in the first year, has worn off. Sophomore students often begin to question their place and purpose in the world after seeing a different perspective on life in their first year of college. All of this takes place at the same time as students face a drop-off in institutional focus due to their significant focus on first-year experience program and student transition to college1. Despite the research and discussion the data hasn’t consistently confirmed either version of a sophomore slump.

So what do we know about sophomore slump and the issues typically associated with it? Data from the Mapworks survey does not confirm the existence of such a slump. Looking at a variety of factors, sophomores are not less likely than other class levels to respond highly to survey questions related to academic behaviors, peer connections, and institutional satisfaction. In other words, a similar number of sophomores were satisfied with their institution as first-year students. Furthermore, sophomores were more likely than first-year students to be academically and socially integrated. We just don’t see evidence of a slump.

Mapworks Factor Scores by Cohort

Mapworks Factor Scores by Cohort

 Figure 1: Mapworks Factor Scores by Cohort, Fall 2013. Source: 2013-2014 Mapworks Fall Transition Survey, n=168,842


A New Narrative for the Second-Year Experience

Rather than thinking about just the concept of a slump or a simple comparison between sophomores and other students, a better approach might be to understand this cohort and their challenges. Specifically, by the end of the sophomore year (and sometimes before), these students must choose an academic major and make progress if they hope to complete a 4-year degree on time. Researchers have emphasized the importance of academic connections and experiences for sophomores, specifically positive faculty connections, receiving timely feedback, advisor approachability, and registration2. So, if academic connections and experience play a critical role in sophomore development, are students who have these connections more satisfied with their collegiate experience?

Again, using Mapworks data for sophomores, we looked at the relationships between academic connections and satisfaction with the institution. In short, sophomore students who have built strong connections with faculty, are committed to a major, and have selected a career path are far more likely to be satisfied with their institution than their peers who have not done these things.

Institutional Satisfaction by Academic Connections, Fall 2013

Institutional Satisfaction by Academic Connections, Fall 2013

Figure 2: Sophomores: Institutional Satisfaction by Academic Connections, Fall 2013. Source: 2013-2014 Mapworks Fall Transition Survey, Sophomore Cohort, n=17,144

A quick look at national data counters the concept of a “sophomore slump,” but it confirms findings from other studies underlining the importance of major commitment, career path selection, and faculty connections to the institutional satisfaction of sophomore students. As with many topics related to college students, sometimes our stories are just stories. But when we think more deeply about what is important for students and student progress, our focus on academic issues may be hitting the mark.

For more information about sophomores, dig into our research note on the relationship between selecting a career path and the second-year experience.

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1. Schaller, M. A. (2010). Understanding the impact of the second year of college. In M. S. Hunter, B. F. Tobolowsky, J. N. Gardner, S. E. Evenbeck, J. A. Pattengale, M. A. Schaller, & L. A. Schreiner (Eds.), Helping sophomores succeed: Understanding and improving the second-year experience (pp. 13-29). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

2. Juillerat, S. L. (2000). Assessing the expectations and satisfaction of sophomores. In L. A. Schreiner & J. A. Pattengale (Eds.), Visible solutions for invisible students: Helping sophomores succeed (Monograph No. 31, pp. 19-30). Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.