‘You can’t always get what you want’: Factors influencing student success

With every new intake of Pathway students, we are presented with a classroom full of relatively unknown quantities. Even when students have met minimum entry requirements, some struggle more than others in their new and unfamiliar educational environment, particularly during their first semester. Demographics like gender, age and regional background can indicate that similar needs exist for certain groups, but using these as explanatory factors leads us to situate the deficit in the student and place the onus for change on them. A typical institutional response might then be to provide remedial support for the symptoms of ‘poor performance’, focussing on general academic skills and English language proficiency. But why do some students continue to perform poorly, when others with similar educational backgrounds are relatively more successful? What makes these students tick?

Play Again: You can watch the full recording of Richard sharing the findings from his PhD research on factors known to affect academic achievement here. Keep reading for a summary of the ideas covered…

‘You can’t always get what you want’ is a pop reference for some of us (ancient history for others!) but it summarises the findings from quantitative research into linguistic and personal factors that affect academic achievement for university pathway students. Specifically, these factors are:

  1. Epistemological beliefs
  2. Self-efficacy
  3. Learning anxiety (particularly for those having to learn in a different language)
  4. Learning approach (surface learners versus deep application of knowledge)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the type of student that is most ready to succeed in their learning has low learning anxiety, a deep learning approach, high self-efficacy and relative epistemology. Three analogies help to pull out some key points from the data, and explore how it links to practical applications:

1. Lecturers, clean the windows!

Academic units fall into two categories, broadly speaking: those that are ‘language intensive’ and use ‘domain-specific (ill-structured)’ language like legal studies, management and marketing, and those that are ‘non-language intensive’ or ‘domain-specific (well-structured) language’ that are more factual, project and process-oriented, like accounting, economics, finance or business statistics.

Students in either type of unit need a set of general skills that apply to literacy in any academic discipline, as well as specific knowledge encapsulated within their domain. However, what is being asked of students is to understand knowledge that is transmitted in a highly codified way – potentially an impenetrable one, at least in some subjects.

John Cleese brilliantly captures the experience for students of being shown the murkiest of windows to the knowledge they need:

There are a number of possible interventions that can help students see through murky windows to the knowledge they need to master. A lecturer’s or teacher’s language needs to be appropriate to the audience and we need to make sure the student has enough language capability to be ready to hear us. The specific strategies used will depend on the discipline, but they should extend beyond the usual cycles of content development and focus on making the window the learner looks through crystal clear.

There’s an increasing pressure to accommodate a wider variety of student entry pathways, so wider levels of skill and ability (or readiness to learn) are likely to exist in our classrooms. We need to develop their academic and language learning skills and provide support, but how?

2. Bake a cake.

Here comes the second analogy, where the successful outcome looks something like baking a beautiful cake. If you have the right ingredients in your students (sugar, flour, eggs, etc.) you will end up with some kind of cake. None of the cakes will look exactly like your prototype, but they’ll still be good cakes!

But what if you’re starting with ingredients that need a bit more work before the cake can be baked? What if one has sugar, wheat and a hen? You can only expect the student to succeed when they have the right ingredients, in approximately the right measures. And now instead of refining wheat into flour, we are talking about other ingredients for real learning, like reducing the student’s anxiety or scaffolding them from a more surface approach to a deeper approach to learning.

Informed intervention is taking what we know about the differences in student profiles and preparing the students through classroom or external support to get all students closer to success – closer to baking the cake as it should be.

Even as we clean the windows and bake the cake, we have to accept that something’s gotta give. We must be aware of the readiness levels of students and choose to balance new content and new language, and the breadth and depth of each. For example, we may choose to deliver less content with more depth, new language skills with familiar content, or familiar language with new content.

The process of developing knowledge mastery also needs to be made explicit. The recipe needs to be clear and reliable. Scaffolding to help students through the process isn’t a new idea, but it is worth noting the evidence behind this principle is extensive and this PhD research supports the need for scaffolding once again.

3. Final thought: Check the smoke alarm.

The challenge for many teachers is to reconcile the ‘massification’ of higher education with individual student needs. We need to help them as individuals but we have limited time and resources. Indeed, many of our courses do tailor support to needs through mainstream curriculum design (that embeds academic and language learning skills) and academic support, but this can always be taken further.

The final message from this PhD research is that we also need earlier identification of learning process issues and earlier intervention. In other words, a working smoke alarm. If this is in place, we stand a better chance of being able to plan support for different student needs and give our teaching staff the tools to work with students and curriculum for more satisfying outcomes. The Rolling Stones had a song about that one, too…


Richard has been working in the higher education sector for 25 years and has been with PIBT since 1997. In that time has worked predominantly with international students making the transition into undergraduate study. His professional research focuses on linguistic and personal factors that affect the academic achievement of university pathway students. You can contact Richard via email Richard.Hewison@navitas.com or connect with him on Yammer.